A Free-Market Energy Blog

Climate Skeptics: Time to Apologize to Professor Holdren

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- April 1, 2019

“[Bjorn] Lomborg’s performance careens far across the line that divides respectable (even if controversial science) from thoroughgoing and unrepentant incompetence…. He has needlessly muddled public understanding and wasted immense amounts of the time of capable people who have had to take on the task of rebutting him.”  – John Holdren (2003)

This April 1st is a good time for skeptics of settled, high-sensitivity climate science to make amends. My apology goes to the distinguished John P. Holdren.

My comeuppance (below) reminds me of the episode of Dallas where J. R. Ewing befriends a pretty young secretary at a friend’s office. He talks her up, she bubbles.

At J.R.’s next visit, she bashfully asks if he would like to go to a party with her.

“Sorry honey,” he responded. “I’ve got bigger fish to fry.”

The point is not that J. R. is a fossil-fueler. And it is not that there was a social gap between two people in the Dallas story. The story is … don’t go playing outside of your league.

My Trespass

Intellectually, I trespassed into Professor Holdren’s space and received a deserved rebuke. Here is the background.

After Professor Holdren published a criticism of Bjorn Lomborg in 2003, I spent two months on a White Paper examining his oeuvre of energy writings. What I did not already have was cheerfully provided by his longtime assistant at Harvard, Patricia.

I emailed Professor Holdren my final paper, “The Heated Energy Debate,” and alerted him to a new book I had coming out, Climate Alarmism Reconsidered. I also asked why his syllabus on environmental sustainability (it was published online back then) contained no non-alarmist readings for his Harvard class (quite unlike Pierre Desrochers’ far better effort).

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

Bradley to Holdren: “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.

and

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.”

The fault was clearly all mine. Why did I even write a paper of Professor Holdren’s past views? How could I know what his latest thoughts were without taking his class–and just how am I ever to get to Harvard to listen in without the resume?

So on this day, I humbly apologize to Professor Holdren for taking time out of his day back in September 2003.

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