What makes a controversy

timecoverlarge-2The New York Times' Gardiner Harris had a story about a controversial Obama administration pick. It seems that Dr. Francis S. Collins, the geneticist who led the effort to sequence the human genome, is facing some opposition on his path to heading the National Institutes of Health. Some are praising the pick, but not everyone:

There are two basic objections to Dr. Collins. The first is his very public embrace of religion. He wrote a book called "The Language of God," and he has given many talks and interviews in which he described his conversion to Christianity as a 27-year-old medical student. Religion and genetic research have long had a fraught relationship, and some in the field complain about what they see as Dr. Collins's evangelism.

The other objection stems from his leadership of the Human Genome Project, which is part of the N.I.H. Although Dr. Collins was widely praised in 2003 when the effort succeeded, the hopes that this discovery would yield an array of promising medical interventions have greatly dimmed, discouraging many.

The article is exceedingly short and the objection to Collins on religious grounds isn't explained beyond what you see above. But what I found particularly interesting about this article was just that it exists.

See, there's another controversial Obama administration pick. But you wouldn't know it from reading the New York Times news pages. His name is John Holdren. He is President Obama's science czar -- director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, assistant to the president for Science and Technology, and co-chair of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Here are some of the views he's publicly espoused:

-- Women could be forced to abort their pregnancies, whether they wanted to or not; -- The population at large could be sterilized by infertility drugs intentionally put into the nation's drinking water or in food; -- Single mothers and teen mothers should have their babies seized from them against their will and given away to other couples to raise; -- People who "contribute to social deterioration" (i.e. undesirables) "can be required by law to exercise reproductive responsibility" -- in other words, be compelled to have abortions or be sterilized. -- A transnational "Planetary Regime" should assume control of the global economy and also dictate the most intimate details of Americans' lives -- using an armed international police force.

The first several times people sent me this information, I thought it was far too crazy to be true. But if you go to the link above, you can read the quotes as scanned from the pages of Ecoscience, a book Holdren wrote with Paul and Anne Erlich. The link above even provides extensive context if you still think it's impossible that Holdren could have ever espoused such views before winning his coveted administration role. Here's a sample of what he's written:

If some individuals contribute to general social deterioration by overproducing children, and if the need is compelling, they can be required by law to exercise reproductive responsibility--just as they can be required to exercise responsibility in their resource-consumption patterns--providing they are not denied equal protection.

When Holdren wrote these things in the late 1970s, he was operating under the belief that the earth wasn't just overpopulated but really overpopulated. Those of us who are old enough remember that Ehrlich, Holdren and others trumpeted quite the panic regarding overpopulation during that era. Whether you think that such beliefs give him an excuse for advocating forced abortion, eugenics and totalitarian regimes is up to you. But let's see how the New York Times described his views when he was picked late last year:

For Science Adviser, Dogged Work Against Global Perils

John P. Holdren has spent decades wrestling with ways to reduce planet-scale risks -- notably the spread of nuclear weapons and the buildup of greenhouse gases.

I mean, he's no - quelle horrreur! -- evangelical Christian . . . but are you sure there's no controversy about this man who advocated putting sterilizing agents in our drinking water? None? There it is, in the last paragraph:

Dr. Holdren has occasionally been drubbed by conservatives as overstating environmental perils. But he has many defenders, too. Lewis M. Branscomb, a physicist who served on presidential panels in three administrations, wrote in an e-mail message that if Dr. Holdren, Dr. Chu and others nominated for science and technical positions were confirmed, "No president since the days of Benjamin Franklin will ever have been so well served in matters scientific."

So all that objection over Holdren, which comes from more than "conservatives," of course, can be boiled down to worries that he overstated environmental perils? You've got to be kidding me. ecoscience And, considering that Benjamin Franklin's days ended pretty shortly after George Washington's presidency began, I'm not sure what this quote means. Still, isn't it interesting the narrative that gets pushed? When President Obama appoints men like Holdren, it's all about science. We're told that religion has had a fraught relationship with genetics? What is the relationship between science and the people who said overpopulation would doom us by the end of the 20th century if we didn't enforce strict population controls? How did Holdren's predictions turn out?

When President Obama announced he would increase federal funding for stem cell research that destroys human embryos, we got headlines like this from the Washington Post:

Obama Aims to Shield Science From Politics

Time magazine published this breathless "news" account:

The President's decision does much more than expand funding for stem-cell research. It heralds a shift in the government's view of science, ushering in an era in which it promises to defend science -- and the pursuit of useful treatments -- against ideology.

At the time these things were written, Holdren had already been announced -- months prior - as Obama's pick. Do his views strike you as the triumph of science against ideology?

But when an evangelical Christian, an extremely well-regarded scientist, is named -- all of a sudden the Times sees controversy? Why is that? And Collins is an evolution-believing, pro-choice, pro-embryonic stem cell research evangelical Christian. Can you imagine if he didn't hold those views?

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