BREAKING: Obama to pick a physicist for science advisor

By Phil Plait | December 18, 2008 2:08 pm

From fellow Hive Overmind blogger Melissa Lafsky and Science magazine comes the news that Obama may be picking physicist John Holdren as his science advisor!

I’ll let you read those links for the details. But here’s my opinion: Awe. Some. Holdren has some pretty good credentials, including on climate change. That last bit allows me to say, with all the schadenfreude you care to assign to me, that I hope this makes global warming deniers cry into their oil stock portfolios.

It fills me to overflowing with warm fuzzies to hear all this news from Obama’s organization (well, not all of it…). It’ll be nice to have someone in the White House who is not an anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-reality thug. Very nice indeed.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Piece of mind, Politics, Science

Comments (48)

  1. Sanity

    Huh? A president picking a scientist for a science advisor?

    *checks outside*
    noooo, pigs aren’t flying yet. Could there still be hope left?

  2. Well, he said to hope and hope I did! This is awesome news. Just exactly what I expected from him. Ahhh, it’s going to be nice to watch scientific endeavors get support and true attention again.

  3. Mike W

    This is great news, now if we can just get Rick Warren away from Obama…dont know what is going on with that ..

  4. tacitus

    Good news. Now if he would only dump that anti-science bigot, Rick Warren, from his inauguration…

  5. SLC

    People seem to forget that Bushes’ science adviser, John Marburger was also a physicist. Hopefully, the difference is that President Elect Obama will, unlike the current incumbent, take advice from his science adviser.

  6. Mus

    ANOTHER physicist?

    I want some biology representation!

  7. Ja Muller

    Who cares? You could say all that stuff about Bush’s science advisor as well.

  8. Robbie

    The Crooks and Liars post was hilarious in its insanity.

  9. Next thing you know he’ll be making a Nobel prize winner Secretary of Energy!

  10. I was with all the other doom criers when I heard about the Rick Warren news. I was frustrated that he would pick such a vacuous bobble head who could write the atrocious ‘Purpose Driven Life’

    Then I had to take a step back, and take it all in proportion. He gave him a 5 minute spot to pray to what ever deity he worships. In contrast, he gave the position of Energy Secretary to Steven Chu, which had me jumping up and down and clapping. All of his other posts have been solidly rational people, who base their ideas of the economy on the science of economics, not their ideology.

    Now, I hear that another scientist, John Holdren might be the Science Advisor? I still wish we didn’t have to listen to Warrens drivel, but in comparison to all of Obamas other choices, the evangelicals get the ‘thanks for coming’ gift. Hooray for rationality.

  11. Brian

    Exactly. Let the evangelicals have the door prize.

    “Thanks for coming. There’s the door.”

  12. Utakata

    I love the last bit of quote in the “well, not all of it [warm fuzzies]” link:

    “‘Inclusiveness’ does not meaning putting whatever hatemonger you can find onto the program, if it did we’d have the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan delivering the invocation.”

    My arguement exactly.

  13. Mick

    I always wanted scientists in politics.

    Although I do have to admit that if the results of having scientists in politics is anticlimactic, I’d lose even more faith in humanity.

    So I really hope they’ll do a great job! But I do think they will.

  14. BaldApe

    On Rick Warren, he’s trying to woo evangelicals away from the Rethuglican party. Many religious people are much more worried about stewardship of the environment than the big business types who have red-herringed the abortion issue to death.

    And speaking of the Big Business people, I can’t wait for the screams about how it will cost the economy trillions, while new renewable technologies make somebody else gazillions. You know, kinda like how Detroit is losing money trying to sell monster trucks to hockey moms.

    I can’t forgive GM for turning down the smartcar.

  15. Jeffersonian

    The daylight we are experiencing after eight years of darkness and retro time distortion is at this point close to putting me into shock. And the amazement continues. Thinking, planning for citizens rather than peers, and the rewarding of skills and intelligence (as opposed to family paybacks) is making me gape daily.

  16. Chris A.

    Hmmm. President-Elect Obama’s predecessor (He Who Shall No Longer Be Named) set the record for the longest time in office before naming a science adviser since the post was created (not to mention the most time spent on vacation while in office–but I digress).

    I wonder if P-E Obama now holds the record for earliest naming of a science adviser. Any history wonks on this blog who might care to take a crack at this supposition?

  17. space cadet

    I think we might know more about the P.E. when we see if he picks anti-vaxer Kennedy to head EPA. I realize vaccination and ecology are fairly distinct topics, but the selection of anybody with his head that well hidden would be scary, real scary.

  18. Gary Ansorge

    I believe Obama has already chosen Lisa Jackson as head of the EPA. She is reputed to be really bright and (hard)science oriented. Note that allowing Rick Warren to give the Invocation is not that big a deal. Warren at least concerns himself with compassionate activism in the arena of the disadvantaged. True, he is down on gays, but he is representative of about 70 percent of the US populace in that regard. I really don’t care what the religous right thinks about all that. I expect Obama doesn’t either but he does have a need to try to bridge the gap between the militant right and the rational left. A tough job in the best of times. I’d guess this is just a sop to them.

    GAry 7

  19. Gary Ansorge

    Dang: I hit submit before I was done,,,

    I would have preferred an astrophysicist for the job but I guess a plain old physicist will do,,,grumble,,,after all, that was my passion and it worked for me,,,mostly,,,

    Gary 7

  20. jorge c.

    dear mr.plait
    i’m 64 years old and so i’ve seen lots of elections, in my country, in your country and in the rest of the world… and what i’ve seen, made me a political sceptic. do you remember u.k. tony blair and his “third way”??? well, he ended sending troops to irak with your actual president!!!
    another P.M. who sent the army to irak, was the Liberal (right) Ron Howard, of Australia. he was (is) a climate denier and refused to enter the Tokyo Treaty. last year he was ousted from power and now the P.M. is Ken Rudd, of the Labour Party (left) he ratified Tokyo Treaty, and put a reputed scientific, Ross Garneaut in charge of Climate Change Politics. he made a very famous (in Australia) report about the danger of a warming world and a made lot of recommendations.
    a few days ago mr Rudd, announced the australian goals in the reductions of CO2 emissions… 50%?? 40?? 25%???
    NO!!: 5(FIVE)%!!!!! the australians greens are hysterics and speak of treason..
    so i’ll wait and if in 4 years (or less) and i’m alive, we will speak again. in the meantime…
    and not, i do not say that mr obama lies, but he is a politic.
    and please do not forget too, that the reductions goals of Europe after all what they have said is… 4%!!!
    excuse me for the low down, for the extention of my comment and of course for my bad english!!!!
    i do not have the links, but you could read “The Ages” (Australia) and BBC.

  21. Depends how you look at that 5% reduction jorge c. Rudd has stated it is minimum figure and could go as high as 15% depending on what the rest of the world does. They also reckon they’ve worked it out on a per capita basis and in that case it works out to be closer to 27% because in the period 1990 – 2020 Australia’s population has or will grow by almost 50% whereas the EU population will barely change. You are right about one thing. The Aussie Greens are hysterics.

  22. jorge c.

    dear shane:
    nearly a year ago, mr rudd promised a reduction between 25% and 50% not 5%!!! that is my point.
    you (and mr rudd) suppose that the australian population will grow by 50%
    and u.s.a. will not charge… australia is an “european” country, very similar to usa, canada, 50%??? sorry, but i think it is a very wild speculation. and”depending on what the rest of the world…” excuses. why do you think that the greens are hyssterics??? because they are crazy???
    in my country it is 2 hs. 30ms PM!!! i must go to bed. have nice dreams
    P.S. what doy you think about the continuity of secretary gates??

  23. jorge c.

    oopps A.M. not P.M.!!!!!

  24. KC

    Well I hope this physicist is better than the last one. John Marburger, who came into the position with great credentials, but leaves with his reputation in tatters…I’m embarrassed that he was president of my alma mater.

  25. I’m probably a global warming denier by title, but I’m not denying any climate change. I’m just unconvinced by the evidence for CO2 being the cause. I’ve followed the scientific debate since 2004 and my humble personal opinion is that the evidence that leans towards CO2 not being the culprit seems to out-weigh the evidence for, in both quality and quantity.

    I’m 25 years old and is a promoter of energy consumption. I never owned oil stocks, I don’t have a car and mostly travel by bike.

    I’ve looked for the evidence for the CO2 cause. But all I find is vague indicators. I’d sure be glad to accept input and data arguing against me from anyone.

    Thank you.

  26. Thomas Siefert

    With the Cabinet that is being put together at the moment, I think that USA is in for some major changes for the better.

  27. Hi Jorge c, Australia’s population is very definitely growing at a rate that will indeed show a rise of at least 45% in 2020 on our 1990 population. We’ve been growing at a rate of about 1.5% per year. We add about a million people every three years or so. We’ve always had a high immigration rate and currently we have one of the highest birth rates we’ve ever had too. So that 5% figure is around the 25% promised on a per capita basis – at least that is what the politicians are saying. The “depending on the rest of the world” means that if they do more than promised Australia will too. The 5% is a minimum.

    Yes the Greens use a lot of hysterical rhetoric. Yes many of their policies are crazy. Some of what they believe verges on luddism and religion. I do agree with the Greens on some issues though.

  28. K

    Gott wonder if the Cabinet being selected will be confirmed and/or assigned as currently planned–it seems some have significant “skeletons in their closets” & some reshuffling may yet occur:

  29. RL

    We’ll see about the reality-based thinking of Holdren. From what I’ve read about him, he is knocked for not taking economic realities into account. A lot of his earlier work and writings seem to have a view that holds people are bad, they just hurt the environment. He’s put forward some ideas like I=PAT (Human Impact on the environment is equal to Population x Affluence/consumption x Technology), stated that the worlds oil and gas supplies were very limited and now denies that, was a member of the Limits to Growth club etc. Maybe he’s grown or changed his views.

  30. David D

    On the Rick Warren choice:

    Is this really any different than a beloved, skeptical astronomer as a regular guest on the CoasttoCoast radio show?

  31. AJ

    (Bart Mitchell) “All of his other posts have been solidly rational people, who base their ideas of the economy on the science of economics, not their ideology.”

    Economics is a *science*?

    Since when? I’ve always thought it was, at *most*, a school of ideas… much like the study of History (and I say that as a recent history graduate, hence the capital letter). It’s just not the kind of thing which seems amenable to the scientific method.

    Anyway, obviously the “US President picks scientists to be in charge of national scientific endeavour” story is excellent news!

  32. Bryan

    @Phil — out of curiosity, you proclaim yourself a hardened “skeptic”, yet you’ve already made up your mind about global warming? (that it’s man-caused and therefore man-solvable) I’m starting to seriously question your qualifications as a skeptic.

  33. Chas, PE

    Great that there will actually be a couple of real scientists in science positions…

    I’m still waiting to hear who Bartack will appoint as Chief Engineer of the United States…..

  34. Gary Ansorge

    Phil has this strange tendency to “go with the evidence”,,,for some odd reason,,,

    Skepticism does NOT mean doubting EVERYTHING just because you can,,,it does mean doubting whatever goes against the evidence.
    1) There is a lot of evidence FOR an increase in overall planetary temperatures.
    2) There is a LOT of evidence for an increase in planetary CO2 levels
    3) CO2 is a KNOWN retainer of infra red radiation
    4) Human industrial civilization is a KNOWN contributor to atmospheric CO2 levels
    5) There is a lot of evidence that CO2 levels have risen in lock step with the growth in human utilization of organic fuels

    Therefore, as a conservative estimate, it is highly likely humans are directly responsible for the increase in planetary temperatures.


    ,,,but that’s just silly, isn’t it??? Says the skeptic,,,(snark)

    Gary 7

  35. David D


    Wow. Climate science is SOOOO simple!

    Who’da thunk it?

  36. Gary Ansorge


    Simple? HArdly. These are just data points for modeling purposes and ALL models are, by their nature, incomplete. In order to make a complete(read:perfectly congruent) model we’d have to have as many data points as there are particles comprising the entire planet, including all the influx of solar photons and their re-radiation, which is why we invented statistical analyses,,,too much data required,,,so we can build models that are(kinda,sorta,more or less accurate). It’s one way we have of getting a handle on how reality works,,,

    Gary 7

  37. Bryan


    Don’t higher temperatures cause water to evaporate faster? Does more evaporation lead to more clouds? Do clouds and other moisture in the air block infrared radiation? And where there is a higher concentration of CO2, can plants absorb it faster? Have all these effects been incorporated into the models?

    I’m skeptical because I build engineering (not weather) models for a living, and I am stunned at how often I see bad interpretations/extrapolations of model data, and for all the talk of global warming, all I’ve seen of these models and their data is a chart on wikipedia that shows a *1* degree increase over the last 140 years. *One* degree?! I’m no expert on weather, but the whole thing feels like bad science.

  38. Gary Ansorge

    Bryan: Water VAPOR is also a hot house “gas”. Clouds reflect incoming radiation of some wave lengths and reflect others. During heavy overcast(at night), surface temps usually increase, due to the reflection of infra-red back to the surface. Cloud formation is a much more complex process than we usually expect. It involves H2O vapor condensation around small nuclei. We notice more clouds during volcanic eruptions because they provide lots of dust in the upper atmosphere for the vapor to condense around. So total radiative retention depends upon whether we have more heavy cloud formation during daylight hours or at night. I’m not conversant about which wavelengths are most affected. You’d have to check with a meteorologist about that.

    Plants can only deal with CO2 in certain maximal concentrations. I recall reading that at (CO2 concentrations) above 5% plant growth is retarded. Fortunately, we’re unlikely to experience that extreme, unless a super volcano goes off. Plant growth also depends upon available liquid H2O and as we’ve seen, global warming shifts rainfall patterns in (currently) unpredictable ways. If the rain falls where there is lots of plant growth(mostly the tropics) then plant growth could compensate but:
    1) the tropics are being deforested at multi-millions of acres/year. Fewer trees=less carbon absorption.
    2) plant decay releases carbon back into the air:higher average humidity would accelerate that process. Soft fiber plants decay a lot faster than woody plants like trees so,,,
    We have no way of knowing how rain patterns will be affected, so the tropics may not be of much help.

    The whole point of global warming is that it will change what we have come to rely upon as livable areas. If the Antarctic ice melts to a significant degree(since that ice is currently on land) it could raise world H2O levels so much that most land close to the ocean(like LA, New Orleans, Houston, etc) would be inundated(LA averages 16 feet above sea level) and that would dispossess several hundred million people(Hungry, cold, ANGRY people). Even Greenlands ice sheet melt could raise it by 10 feet.

    I know a I degree C rise doesn’t seem like much, but that’s just a start, a warning. It does represent a LOT of energy, spread over the entire globe. It won’t destroy Earth. It will however, make things a whole lot harder for a LOT of people.
    ,,,and I don’t expect they’ll just lie down and take it,,,

    GAry 7

  39. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Climate science is SOOOO simple!

    Probably not, but that is supposed to be the predicted main driver – and the majority of the experts seem to agree since a few years back. And the alternatives are starting to be excluded; I believe I saw a press release on a paper ruling out solar variation this week, and with the current trend it is likely it will stand up.

    So if the temperature is increasing, CO2 is increasing, the other hypothesized climate drivers looks to be excluded, the majority of the experts have voted with their feet, and as a consequence international climate organizations as well, one has to be slightly skeptic about the rationale behind people claiming that the jury is still out. It is in, and now we have to face the consequences, whether we like it or not.

    [Not that there isn’t likely to be other mechanisms around, IIRC another press release claimed to see an older trend in climate concurrent with agrarian cultures, perhaps due to CO2 and methane release with changed land use. I assume there is plenty of leeway in CO2 trends, as it naturally should go down late in a glacial interstitial, i.e. right about now.]

  40. Escuerd

    Yes, CO2 drives global warming:

    The gist:

    Take the average temperature over the last 150 years, and the amount of carbon dioxide emissions over the same period. Do a regression on each and look at the residuals. They are very robustly correlated with CO2 emissions leading the temperature increase.

    That pretty much settles it for me.

  41. Pontus P

    If all I only saw was the evidence for anthropogenic global warming (worse the simplified conclusion of that same evidence), I would too be settled. However, it seems like whenever I personally look into any area of AGW the conclusion seems to be drawn by either an amateur, a columnist or a politician while the actual data is alot more modest or showing no conclusive evidence of AGW. For example, the graphs showing the CO2/Temp-correlation misses the detail that temperature drives CO2 and not the opposite. And alot of the time temp. graphs only span about 200 years – having everyone flabbergasted. Wider graphs does show that we have had similar rapid increase in both temperature and CO2 in the past before the post-war economic boom as well. They also show that we are currently in a relatively cold period.

    Nothing of this is proof against AGW, but it definately makes room for doubting that we have an enormous problem.

  42. Escuerd

    Pontus P, I don’t think you read what was at the link I posted.

    If you had read it, you’d note that the CO2 data that the author used came from estimates of the amount of CO2 people contributed each year, not from measurements of the amount that was in the atmosphere, so the argument that temperature increase drives CO2 increase doesn’t apply here (unless people create more CO2 when it’s hotter).

    The type of analysis they used (comparing residuals) was both powerful, and easy to follow. The stock “room for doubt” arguments against AGW that you brought up don’t really apply to it.

    Also, pointing out that the person who wrote the article is not a professional climate scientist is classic ad hominem fallacy. He’s not pretending to be one either, but his input has more value than you give it credit for.

  43. Escuerd

    By the way, while we’re talking about authority, do members of the IPCC count as amateurs, columnists, or politicians?


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar