A Free-Market Energy Blog

John Holdren and “The Argument from Authority” (Part VII in a Series on Obama’s New Science Advisor)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- 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. jae  

    I suppose that I should be amazed that such a well-educated person would act that way, but I’m not, because I’m seeing a lot of that nonsense lately among the sheltered academics and government-employed folks. I hope this sort of an attitude will not be a part of the “Change We Can Believe In.”

    I don’t believe in argument by ad hom. In fact, such arguments are very counterproductive and keep many people from taking the author seriously. That is an especially big problem for many in the “climate science” community and IMHO is rapidly discrediting their message. Some in that community have gotten so “far-out” and hysterical that it is becoming a joke among the general public, and that is showing up in the recent polls. Give them enough rope…..

    This is all part of the far-left agenda, which assumes that people can be led by the nose using pseudo-science, media-hyped scare tactics, and ad-homs. I think (at least hope) that the libs will learn (again) that the average person is not nearly as stupid as they think they are.


  2. donal  

    very interesting. its good to know that the students at Harvard are getting such a well-rounded, unbiased education.


  3. Russell  

    Part of the global warming crowd’s M.O. is to completely destroy their opponents. They can’t debate you or anyone like you…they just insist you’re too stupid to even bother with.

    The fact that liberal educators have been operating under Holdren’s methods (present only one side of an argument, and demonize the other) is nothing new , but still reprehensible.


  4. Richard W. Fulmer  

    If fact and logic supported the alarmists’ arguments, one would think that they would whip them out of their rhetorical arsenals and blast the opposition into oblivion. One might be forgiven for suspecting that the reason this tactic has not yet been tried is that all that is left in the climate change ammo pouch is gas.


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