A Free-Market Energy Blog

John Holdren and the “Argument from Authority” (Revisited)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- August 18, 2009

[Editor Note: An earlier series at MasterResource on John Holdren, President Obama’s science and technology advisor, is being reprinted given the recent controversy surrounding Dr. Holdren’s earlier views. This original post is dated January 22, 2009]

Paul Ehrlich treated his intellectual rival Julian Simon with great disrespect during Simon’s lifetime. Ehrlich refused to debate Simon or even meet him in person. He insulted Simon in print. Ehrlich even scolded Science magazine for publishing Simon’s 1980 breakthrough essay “Resources, Population, Environment: An Oversupply of Bad News,” with the words: “Could the editors have found someone to review Simon’s manuscript who had to take off this shoes to count to 20?” (quoted in Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource II, 1996, p. 612)

Such intolerance for reasoned dissent, unfortunately, has also been a trait of Ehrlich protégé John Holdren. After I published my review of John Holdren’s criticism of Bjorn Lomborg in 2003, I emailed  Holdren my paper, “The Heated Energy Debate,” and alerted him to a new book I had coming out, Climate Alarmism Reconsidered. I also asked why in his course he did not see fit to assign any non-alarmist readings to his Harvard class on environmental sustainability.

I reproduce pertinent parts of our email exchange from September 17, 2003:

Bradley to Holdren, et al.:
I reviewed the Description and Syllabus to your course and thought that the students could benefit from some more critical thinking, which is provided in the attached web-published essay I wrote.  I will be revising/expanding this paper for later publication, probably in a book of essays on the Lomborg controversy, and would welcome your specific criticisms.  Perhaps the students themselves can delve into it as a project.
… I hope your students can benefit from the best arguments on each side.

Holdren responded:

… What exactly entitles you to the evidently self-applied label of ‘energy expert’?  My students can indeed benefit from the best arguments on all sides, but they will not find the best of anything in either your polemics or Lomborg’s.


You are of course entitled to (verbally) attack me in any legal way you like, but please don’t then pretend in personal notes to me that we are colleagues, each doing our best to get at the truth…. [Y]ou appear to be … lacking both discernible qualifications in the real world and the ability to tell a good argument from a bad one. I want nothing further to do with you.

I ended our exchange with this response:

My books, and my chapters to other edited books (one co-edited by the Ford Foundation Professor of International Political Economy there at the Kennedy School), should be in your library.  I have sent you some of my work before (no acknowledgement) and will send you gratis whatever other of my publishings you do not have and would like to have.  [Your assistant] graciously did this for me, and I would hope she could help me again down the road.

I have written a detailed fact-based critique of your work.  I am not “your enemy” but a critic of your energy policy analysis and policy recommendations.  I am a severe critic of your personal attack on Bjorn Lomborg, and frankly it was the ad hominem part of your criticism that inspired me to drop what I was supposed to be doing and pen “The Heated Energy Debate.”  …. I strongly feel that your students could read and profit from my essay, and in a “facts are friendly” environment they could even lead you to better clarify what you believe and no longer believe.  Such a stocktaking would also be helpful if it was communicated to me so I could update the essay.

I have to insist that you stop attacking the person in place of the arguments…. Your written record is very germane given the way you personally attack your opponents…. Please re-read and re-consider your own quotations over the years that I have reproduced in black and white in my essay…. Discard what you no longer believe, and, if necessary, “nuance” your “energy problem” argument some more.  Consider your past and present views in light of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago, 1962, 1970, particularly pages 67-68.  Drop the elitist, anti-intellectual “argument from authority.”  Stop being so angry at your critics and enjoy life a little more knowing that the world is not going to Hades!  Julian Simon and Bjorn Lomborg–and maybe the present writer–are presenting a different and quite possibly stronger paradigm than that of Paul Ehrlich and yourself.”

Close mindedness and diatribes are the last things that are needed in a science advisor. Perhaps Holdren’s approach will change as a public servant (you and Iare paying for part of his salary, right?).


  1. Andrew  

    I’m sorry Robert but I have to think you a bit naive to try to communicate with Holdren-the man is convinced that the world will come to an end if people listen to you instead of him-do you have any idea how self righteous and hateful that kind of attitude can make people? You’re lucky he didn’t bite you or something!!


  2. Demesure  

    Lomborg has claimed today Obama wants to know more about his Coppenhague [GW skeptical] Consensus : http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=fr&sl=da&tl=en&u=http%3A%2F%2Fjp.dk%2Findland%2Ftrafik%2Fklima%2Farticle1784508.ece
    (original in Danish).

    It must be that Holdren has other feelings on Lomborg (which I doubt given his unrepentant intolerance) or has been short-circuited by some of Obama staff. Or it’s just hopeandchange overridden by reality.


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