The eco-science community was rocked last week by the revelation of a scientific paper published in 1972 by presidential science advisor John Holdren. The paper, published in Eco-Science Proceedings, correctly predicted atmospheric CO2 levels for the month of March 1972.
It’s been called “The Veracity Incident,” and it has scandalized the eco-science community. There have been several calls for Holdren’s resignation, and organizations such as the Ecological Defense Fund and the Sierra Team have demanded an explanation from the embattled Presidential Science Advisor.
The outrage was summed up by Eugene Birkenstock, of the Sierra Team Malaria Memorial Calendar Project, which is an eco-charity that sends beautiful Sierra Team Memorial Calendars to the families of the 1.5 million children in the Third World who die of malaria each year since DDT was banned in 1970.
For decades, the eco-science community has scrupulously avoided veracity in its scientific predictions. Our forbearers have set the standards in the 1960’s and 70’s: Rachel Carson, Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Nigel Calder, George Wald, and John Holdren. Scientific accuracy on the part of an investigator calls into question the investigator’s commitment to eco-science. We have standards.
Birkenstock notes that the standards set by the pioneers are high. He handed this commentator an honor roll of scientific eco-predictions:
“65 million Americans” will die of starvation between 1980 and 1989, and by 1999 the U.S. population would have declined to “22.6 million”. Paul Ehrlich, 1968
“The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines . . . [AND] hundreds of millions of people [including Americans] are going to starve to death.” Paul Ehrlich (Holdren’s co-author and mentor) 1968
“Smog disasters” in 1973 might kill 200,000 people in New York and Los Angeles. Paul Ehrlich 1969
“I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.” Paul Ehrlich 1969
“Before 1985, mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity . . . in which the accessible supplies of many key minerals will be facing depletion.” Paul Ehrlich 1976
“The threat of a new ice age must now stand alongside nuclear war as a likely source of wholesale death and misery for mankind.” Environmentalist Nigel Calder at the first Earth Day celebration.
“The cooling since 1940 has been large enough and consistent enough that it will not soon be reversed.” Eco-scientist C.C. Wallen of the World Meteorological Organization, 1969
“…civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind,” biologist George Wald, Harvard University, April 19, 1970.
“By 1995…somewhere between 75 and 85 percent of all the species of living animals will be extinct.” Sen. Gaylord Nelson, quoting Dr. S. Dillon Ripley, Look magazine, April 1970.
“Because of increased dust, cloud cover and water vapor…the planet will cool, the water vapor will fall and freeze, and a new Ice Age will be born,” Newsweek magazine, January 26, 1970.
“We are in an environmental crisis which threatens the survival of this nation, and of the world as a suitable place of human habitation,” biologist Barry Commoner, University of Washington, writing in the journal Environment, April 1970.
“By 1985, air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half…” Life magazine, January 1970.
“Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make,” Paul Ehrlich, interview in Mademoiselle magazine, April 1970.
“200,000 Americans will die from air pollution, and by 1980 the life expectancy of Americans will be 42 years.” Paul Ehrlich, 1973
“It is already too late to avoid mass starvation,” Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes, The Living Wilderness, Spring 1970.
The world will be “…eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age,” Eco-scientist Kenneth Watt, speaking at Swarthmore University, April 19, 1970.
“A billion people could die from global warming by 2020,” John Holdren 1986, reiterated in Senate testimony, 2009.
The eco-science community has a long scientific tradition and adheres to very public standards, and Holdren’s single accurate prediction raised quite a few eyebrows.
Many eco-scientists have been reluctant to publicly criticize Holdren, who is the nation’s top science administrator. But privately, the ecological community is deeply hurt by Holdren’s episode of veracity.
One eco-scientist who was willing to go on the record was Sky Wetherspoon, a colleague of Holdren’s eco-mentor and co-author Paul Ehrlich. In 1977 Ehrlich, his wife, and Holdren co-authored Ecoscience, a classic genocide textbook.
“I am of course a bit disturbed by these reports of John’s veracity, but Paul and I do understand that John was very youthful and idealistic. He didn’t understand the fundamentals of population science. But we forgive him,” he whispered, as if he were correcting a naughty grandchild. He said that Dr. Ehrlich has paid little attention to the controversy. “He’s still perplexed by England’s existence.”
Despite the controversy, there was sympathy for Holdren among many eco-scientists. “John has been scrupulous to avoid accuracy for thirty years,” implored a leading population control researcher who is on the board of the Margaret Sanger Fund for Reproductive Choice in Colored Communities. “This shouldn’t be held against him. He was young, and sometimes the young blurt out the truth before they can be stopped. He didn’t understand eco-science back then.”
This commentator asked the population scientist, who wished to remain anonymous: What is there to understand about eco-science that is different from other science?
The population researcher confided:
“You don’t understand about the relationship between eco-science and data. The purpose of eco-science isn’t to test hypotheses; it’s to eliminate challenges to your hypothesis. In normal science, let’s say that A is your hypothesis. If you test hypotheses A, B, C, and D against the evidence, and the evidence supports A, you’ve established two things. First, A is supported by the evidence, and second, the conclusion that A is true is dependent on the evidence.”
He leaned forward:
“But eco-science is true, regardless of the evidence. So eco-scientists use a different method. Let’s say A is our hypothesis. If we are asked to test A, B, C, and D against the evidence, we say that advocates of B are industry-funded shills, advocates of C are endangering the ecosystem by obstinate delay, and advocates of D are Climate Change Denialists. We eliminate challenges to A, using political, not scientific, arguments. Then the evidence is only tested against A, and then A of course is verified. A is independent of data. It’s not really a hypothesis; it’s merely the justification for what we want to do. That’s eco-science”
“In eco-science, one must at all costs avoid accurate predictions. Accurate predictions reinforce the idea that data matters. We don’t want accurate predictions, because the purpose of our work is to rid ecological science of dependency on data. Our conclusions have nothing to do with data. We dictate; we don’t ‘test'”
This commentator was confused. Are bizarre predictions — “civilization will end in 15 years…” — essential to eco-science?
“Yea, bizarre predictions are indispensable. Eco-science has a constituency — funding agencies, and we advertise. Do you think that the government would’ve spent seventy-nine billion bucks on global warming research if there weren’t hype? Crap, on TV they hype deodorant like your life depends on it. We do the same with science. There’s not a lot of money in science, unless you start your own eco-hedge fund, like Al Gore. A real “green” initiative, if you know what I mean. Old Al’s like the Jimmy Swaggart of the environmental movement. But ordinary scientists are utterly dependent on grants, and you’ve got to make your stuff seem important — real important.”
“Let’s say your research is on cod sperm. It’s what you did your thesis on. You’re an assistant professor at Podunk U. No tenure. You’ve been struggling with grant applications — ‘Diurnal Variation of Cod Sperm’ — or something. You get zippo. Not even ranked. It’s gonna be food-stamp time. You go to the AAAS meeting, and at the podium there’s this homeless-looking guy with a beard saying crazy stuff — ‘a billion people dead in 10 years from the weather…,’ but then you realize: this stuff is gold! You rush back to the lab, and submit the new application: ‘The Effect of Anthropogenic Global Warming on Diurnal Variation of Cod Sperm.’ A couple of months later, you get a call from the National Science Foundation telling you to open your lab window, because they gotta pour the grant money in through a chute. Bingo. And suddenly you love that homeless-looking guy with the nut-job predictions, because he can sell. Anything. Holdren’s like the science Billy Mays.”
He paused, and spoke more quietly.
“But bizarre predictions are essential to eco-science in another way — I think a more important way.” The eco-scientist drew an analogy: “If you invite a normal relative to Thanksgiving dinner, people will pay attention to his manners and hold him to reasonable standards. But if you’ve got an uncle who’s totally bat-shit, nobody notices if he doesn’t use the proper fork for his salad. He’s no longer held to the standards of everyone else. When a scientist asserts that ‘in ten years one billion people may die because of the weather,’ he pretty much insulates himself from any further accusation of scientific incompetence. After all, if someone accuses him of being wrong on a prediction of a fraction of a degree change in temperature in Antarctica, he can reply, ‘Hey, you call that an error? It’s damn close, compared to what I said about a billion people…’ The best way to foist data-free eco-science on the public is to eradicate the notion that data matters at all. I mean, what new prediction looks bad when you’ve been predicting for half a century that a billion people are gonna die tomorrow? Being ‘bat-shit’ insulates eco-science.”
But, this commentator asked, what ultimate good could possibly come from being continuously egregiously wrong?
The eco-scientist sat back in his chair, and gazed out the window.
“Our guys have been saying this stuff for half a century: ‘the battle to feed humanity was over in 1969’…’65 million Americans will starve by 1989’… ‘England won’t exist by the year 2000’…’a billion people could die from the weather by 2020’… don’t you see? It’s all bullshit — intentional bullshit. It’s the Cloward-Piven strategy, applied to science. Our goal isn’t to make science better; the goal is to destroy science, to overwhelm it with pure crap, and rebuild it eco-friendly-and-data-free. It’s like what the Marxists did: make some totally bizarre assertions that everyone knows is crap, then accuse the few people with the guts to openly question it of being reactionaries or deniers or something, and then do everything you can to destroy them. Eventually people learn: don’t question eco-science, and especially don’t imply that data matters. We can’t be proven wrong. We want science to dictate, not investigate.”
I asked: don’t you have to have scientific credibility in order to dictate?
“No. Just the opposite. Credibility is the antithesis of power. When facts matter, facts dictate. You can only dictate when the facts don’t matter. So we’ve been sayin’ crazy-ass stuff for 50 years. ‘It is already too late to avoid mass starvation,’ ‘By 1985, air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half’…’The battle to feed humanity is over…,’ ’65 million Americans will die of starvation between 1980 and 1989.’ We’ve been breaking down antiquated notions like ‘accurate prediction’ or ‘data analysis’ or ’empirically-supported hypotheses.’ There’s no better way to do that than to publish rank bullshit, utterly unrelated to facts, and tout it as consensus science. In fact, the more unrelated it is to facts, the better. Look, if you make a prediction about the temperature next year and you’re right, sure you might get a little funding, but then you’ve got to keep getting it right. It’s better if you create a political climate in which you predict that next year a billion people are gonna die because of depletion of the rainforests by dioxin-crazed polar bears. Call it consensus science, and destroy people who ask questions. When they fund you for that, you’ve won, and you don’t have to worry about getting it right. You’ll be funded forever. You’ve changed the ground rules. It’s eco-science ground rules. A ‘green’ revolution, if you know what I mean.”
Despite Holdren’s brief foray into veracity three decades ago, even his critics agree that his record since then has been factless. Fellow eco-scientists express sympathy for Holdren’s “veracity” faux pas.
“Look, I know he was right once. But he’s been wrong since. Really really wrong, over and over again, and he works hard at it. Everybody agrees that he’s made up for getting it right once. We should give him a break.”
That seems to be the consensus among eco-scientists. Following the initial tumultuous reaction to the discovery of Holdren’s accurate prediction, fellow eco-scientists are putting Holdren’s career in perspective. One scientist said, of Holdren, “Few scientists have produced such inaccurate work so consistently for so long, and in eco-science that counts for something”. “Besides,” notes one younger researcher, Holdren and the Ehrlichs endorsed genocide in 1977, and not many scientists today, even eco-scientists, can point to that on their CV.”
As the storm over Holdren’s paper abates, this commentator tried to interview him to get his take on his brief 37-year-old detour into credibility. Holdren’s spokesperson said that the Presidential Science Advisor was unavailable for comment. Dr. Holdren is touring Sri Lanka, distributing copies of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to malaria-stricken villagers. He will then travel to China to give the keynote address in Bejing at the “Bare-Branches Symposium.” Dr. Holdren’s paper is entitled, “Female Infanticide: Can it Reduce Greenhouse Gasses?”
In response to persistent requests for commentary, the White House released a statement reassuring eco-activists that Holdren categorically repudiates scientific accuracy and that “the ‘Veracity Incident’ is irrelevant to the science advisor’s long-held devotion to eco-science.” The office also released a correction by Holdren of his assertion during his Senate testimony that one billion people may die from the weather by 2020.
“Dr. Holdren has announced that he has upgraded the estimate he gave in his Senate testimony from one billion to 100 billion weather-related deaths in the next decade, because he had not factored in deaths from world-wide tsunamis triggered by Antarctic volcanoes.”
In a related story, White House officials say the Dr. Holdren has not yet decided whether climate change deniers should be tried for crimes against humanity.