The Scientific Activist

This is kind of silly, but it’s always interesting to see what the right-wing attack machine comes up with when it gets desperate. Now it appears that they’re going after President Obama’s rather innocuous science advisor, John Holdren. Specifically, a recent article in The Washington Times–that bastion of rational commentary–claimed that Holdren “has toyed with extreme measures of population control, even suggesting in one book how to make it more publicly acceptable for the government to spike drinking water in order to sterilize people.”

Does that sound just a bit too absurd to be true? That’s because it is. Chris Mooney explains just how misinformed this claim is in a post at Science Progress:

In 1977, more than thirty years ago, Holdren was the third author (with Paul and Anne Ehrlich) of a textbook entitled Ecoscience: Population, Resources, and Environment. It was a gigantic tome, fully 1,051 pages in length. In one vast 66 page chapter devoted to “Population Policies,” the authors surveyed a gamut of measures that had been undertaken or considered to control human population growth–including the most extreme. Those included coercive or “involuntary fertility control” measures, such as forced abortions and sterilizations.

However, to describe these measures is different from advocating them. And in fact, the Ehrlichs and Holdren concluded by arguing that noncoercive measures were what they suppported: “A far better choice, in our view, is to expand the use of milder methods of influencing family size preferences”–such as birth control and access to abortions. In fairness, their text does read as dated today, ripe for quote mining. They were writing in very different times thirty years ago; but even if they were defending these positions then (and they weren’t), that hardly means that they do today.

Jessica Palmer has an even more in-depth discussion about this at Bioephemera.

The Washington Times story apparently piggybacked on a recent post from a conservative blog, but this is an old story that has already been debunked–particularly when Holdren disavowed these ideas attributed to him at his Senate confirmation hearing. Fortunately, The Washington Times did see fit to include the Administration’s response to this nonsense:

When asked whether Mr. Holdren’s thoughts on population control have changed over the years, his staff gave The Washington Times a statement that said, “This material is from a three-decade-old, three-author college textbook. Dr. Holdren addressed this issue during his confirmation when he said he does not believe that determining optimal population is a proper role of government. Dr. Holdren is not and never has been an advocate for policies of forced sterilization.”

The White House also passed along a statement from the Ehrlichs that said, in part, “anybody who actually wants to know what we and/or Professor Holdren believe and recommend about these matters would presumably read some of the dozens of publications that we and he separately have produced in more recent times, rather than going back a third of a century to find some formulations in an encyclopedic textbook where description can be misrepresented as endorsement.”

Basically, it all comes down to this: if you really claim that discussing a concept is equivalent to advocating it, you are either (1) an idiot or (2) a cynical person launching a partisan attack with utter disregard for fact or logic… or both.

Comments

  1. #1 Gerard Harbison
    July 16, 2009

    Check out Ehrlich, Ehrlich and Holdren’s 1973 book ‘Human Ecology: Problems and solutions’, and then we can discuss whether Holdren was ‘discussing’ or ‘advocating’.

  2. #2 GiveMeABreak
    July 16, 2009

    This has already been covered in other ScienceBlogs and the assertion that reports on Holdren’s book Ecology has been “counterfactual” have been show to be baseless. The reports link to scans and online versions of the entire book for anybody to read and come to their own conclusions so stop bending the facts and claiming this is some kind of biased attack against precious Obama and his science tzar.

    We’ve already covered and retreaded this ground – here are the original blog entries on this topic:

    http://scienceblogs.com/bioephemera/2009/07/description_misrepresented_as.php?utm_source=mostactive&utm_medium=link

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2009/07/15/hold-off-attacking-holdren-again/

  3. #3 megan
    July 16, 2009

    Well unfortunately humans (mainly heteros) refuse to control their procreation no different than over populating deer or lemmings. Only distributed wealth societies where the female population has full rights to control the frequency of their pregnancies and there is economic stability, does the local human population level off or decline in balance with the surrounding resources. China is the only country to see it’s survival will only come about by doing the practical. Excessive breeding isn’t rewarded with tax breaks and you can’t just educate away the genetic imperative/drive, fund a full array of preventative measures/methods.

    Doesn’t matter if Holdren advocated or discussed the topic it’s a reality for any logical sentient being, balance of population vs environment-resources. Only the self deluded theocratic fanatics care more about babies unborn and endless breeding as gawd’s will for humans to cover the earth like mold versus ACTUALLY feeding and caring for said progeny already here or properly planning.

  4. #4 Nick Anthis
    July 17, 2009

    I’d encourage people to actually check out the full text. You should be able to find it in your library or you can read it here. I think you’ll find that the content of this post stands.

  5. #5 Fair Trade
    July 17, 2009

    When you say ‘right wing attack machine’ there’s a word for it – Republicans.
    I know it’s a word that prompts revulsion but better to be brave and use it rather than just allude to it!

  6. #6 Tom Fool
    July 17, 2009

    Hey Nick,
    What if a book co-written by Dick Cheney turned up that had a chapter on forced interrogation in which cutting off fingers, rape, and other harsh tactics were discussed, but in conclusion the authors said, “A far better choice, in our view, is to expand the use of milder methods” (sleep deprivation, water boarding, etc.)? Would that settle matters for you? I seriously doubt it. This is so typical of liberal elites, casually discussing forced sterilization as a method of population control, then stating the obvious that “milder methods” are preferable WITHOUT condemning the former. Just admit it: You’re an Obama hack. No matter what he and his administration do or say, it’s okay by you.

  7. #7 Nick Anthis
    July 17, 2009

    What if? Well, your situation is only partly hypothetical, as Dick Cheney did actually carry out a campaign of the “milder” torture methods you mention. Holdren never has performed any sort of “population control” himself; therefore, your example is pretty irrelevant. Also, just to engage with your example a bit, it would depend on whether the book was written in an academic context, like Holdren’s, or in a government/military/practical context. There’s a difference there, which the Holdren critics seem to be totally oblivious to.

  8. #8 Tom Fool
    July 17, 2009

    I’m not interested in defending Cheney… the Right vs. Left, tit for tat, is boring to me. But you dodged my point: Cheney has admitted to “milder” interrogation techniques, not harsher methods, but if he had CO-AUTHORED a book that discussed the possibility of harsher techniques, academic or not, of course it would be relevant and you know it! If you don’t know that, then you, sir, are the “idiot.”

  9. #9 Nick Anthis
    July 17, 2009

    I think the logic here is escaping you.

  10. #10 Tom Fool
    July 17, 2009

    The logic is escaping me? You’re blinded by your own partisanship, either that or maybe you agree with Holdren that forced sterilization isn’t so bad some times? Like Megan up there who compares human reproduction to wild animals mating in the forest… it’s subtle eugenics that is prevalent in academia and evidently you’re so steeped in it yourself you don’t even recognize it. Holdren DID NOT condemn the more extreme methods of population control, he simply said the “milder” methods were preferable.

  11. #11 bioephemera
    July 17, 2009

    Nick, if you look at the comments on my post I think you’ll find that the logic escapes quite a few people. But the author of the original blog post, zombie, has had an interesting discussion with me over there.

  12. #12 Tom Fool
    July 17, 2009

    Bioephemera says: “The authors calmly and dispassionately discuss population control policies – just as one would expect from academics describing hypothetical situations.”
    Again I ask, if Dick Cheney were to be discovered to have co-written a book on “torture policies” that included a “dispassionate” discussion on techniques such as cutting fingers off, burning with cigarettes, etc. would that give you no insight whatsoever in how he might view such techniques? Would you be reassured by a benign statement like, “A far better choice, in our view, is to expand the use of milder torture methods”? Would you be as equally interested in defending his “academic” treatise? Or is “logic” again supposedly escaping me, a mere layperson?

  13. #13 Nick Anthis
    July 18, 2009

    Look, “Tom Fool”, I really have no interest in engaging in a shouting match here. I think you need to admit that the Dick Cheney-based example that you keep repeating here is a poor one, that is largely irrelevant. Otherwise, I really have nothing else to say about that that I haven’t already. The key problems with your example are that the “milder” methods that Cheney has resorted to are still morally repugnant. On the other hand, access to birth control and abortion–while disagreeable to some–is still widely accepted by the mainstream population. But, as I mention before, this is a particularly irrelevant example because Dick Cheney did in fact carry out his campaign of “milder” forms of torture, whereas Holdren hasn’t been involved in any “population control”. So, despite this example being poorly formed and largely irrelevant, if all you want is an answer to your question, then the answer of course is that no, it such a discussion would not settle matters for me. But that’s not for the reason that you want it to be. It’s because the “milder” methods are still incompatible with basic human values. If you can’t see the difference here, then I see no basis for further discussion. Either way, that’s the last I’m going to say about this inapt example.

  14. #14 Tom Fool
    July 18, 2009

    I never cease to be amazed at how testy you “progressive” academics can get when confronted with a legitimate argument you can’t answer. To many, it is “morally repugnant” to abort an unborn child, more so than water boarding a known terrorist. But as I stated earlier, I have no interest in defending Cheney. If he had co-authored the hypothetical book I mentioned, I think it would be highly relevant to the inside workings of his mind regarding enhanced interrogation techniques. Holdren’s views on population control methods, 30 years old or not, are equally relevant when considering what sort of policy recommendations he will be making as “Science Tsar.” He didn’t condemn the harsher methods, he simply advocated employing the milder ones. That simple fact is noteworthy. It is simply disingenuous of you to reduce criticism of Holdren to “typical right wing smear” tactics.

  15. #15 Anarchisto
    July 18, 2009

    Whether Holdren advocated eugenics or not, the fact of the matter is our water is filled with chemicals, our food is genetically modified and the great American past times like smoking and drinking alcohol kill everyday.
    Throw in a war or two and a killer flu which may require forced vaccinations and you’ve got a depopulation program that is steadily filling coffins.

  16. #16 Tom Fool
    July 18, 2009

    Anarchisto: Yep, in the meantime guys like Nick, here, and other “activist scientists” want to keep playing the Right vs. Left game. Government abuse, be it “Right” or “Left” is still ABUSE. But the Obamaites still have the Kool-Aid coursing through their veins… it’ll take more time for it to metabolize before some of them will sober up.

  17. #17 Mark Bahner
    July 22, 2009

    “In today’s world, however, the number of children in a family is a matter of profound public concern. The law regulates other highly personal matters. For example, no one may lawfully have more than one spouse at a time. Why should the law not be able to prevent a person from having more than two children?”

    To ask a question in a rhetorical form is not advocacy?

  18. #18 American Conservative Movement Czar
    July 23, 2009

    Frankly I don’t trust any of the Obamanation faculty. We all know that global warming is another attempt at population control and this stupid marxist health scare program will do the same thing under the “end of life” care. If this thing passes and I get some disease and get turned down for treatment, somebody is going to get severely tortured and beaten for that shit. Payback will be hell. People die everyday in the UK and Canada becuase they are not “cost effective” to treat. Fuck the government that can control such a thing. May they burn in hell – the rat bastard communist fascists. I’ll be glad to see a great asteroid coming soon.

  19. #19 Nullifidian
    July 26, 2009

    And how many people die every day in the U.S. because their HMOs deem it not “cost-effective” to treat them?

    Or does that not matter as long as somebody’s turning a profit?

  20. #20 rap
    July 31, 2009

    Thanks for this post. My friend living near the Eiffel Tower may need to look into this. However, I am skeptical at drug companies and their promises. I wonder if this will be another one of those “lifetime treatments” or cures

  21. #21 Neil Craig
    August 5, 2009

    The defence here which, while genuine, cannot be explicit is that this was a long time ago before political correctness came along.

    My opinion is that anybody who co-authored a laundry list with Ehrlich, whose record of wrong catastrophe predictions must be unmatched in human history, shouldn’t let be in the same room where serious decisionmaking is going on

  22. #22 Concerned Citizen
    August 25, 2009

    Holdren admitted in 2007, when addressing the AAAS, that his “preoccupation” with apocalyptic matters such as “the rates at which people breed” was a lifelong obsession spurred by Harrison Brown’s work.

    Who is Harrison Brown? He was a “distinguished member” of the International Eugenics Society whom Holdren later worked with on a book about world population and fertility

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