"Metals Mistakes" and Obama's New Science Advisor

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Barack Obama’s new science advisor should take a break from gambling — because past bets already proved that he’s “spectacularly wrong” about issues in his field, according to New York Times blogger John Tierney. A recent post on TierneyLab Blog blasts John P. Holdren, the freshly-announced science advisor, expressing concern over his infamous bet against a well-known economist during the “energy crisis” in the 1980s.

To quote Tierney:

[The economist] Dr. [Julian] Simon, who disagreed with environmentalists’ predictions of a new “age of scarcity” of natural resources, offered to bet that any natural resource would be cheaper at any date in the future. Dr. Ehrlich accepted the challenge and asked Dr. Holdren, then the co-director of the graduate program in energy and resources at the University of California, Berkeley, and another Berkeley professor, John Harte, for help in choosing which resources would become scarce.

In 1980 Dr. Holdren helped select five metals — chrome, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten — and joined Dr. Ehrlich and Dr. Harte in betting $1,000 that those metals would be more expensive ten years later. They turned out to be wrong on all five metals, and had to pay up when the bet came due in 1990.

It’s not just the mixed-up metals price predictions that bother Tierney, though. After all, many leading forecasters make mistakes with future prices. But metals aside, the pessimistic outlook towards human innovation most bothers the blogger. “That bet wasn’t just about metals,” Tierney notes in a later post about Holdren. Like many other bloggers covering science, technology and politics, Tierney found the bet against sustainable society worth further study. “It was about a fundamental view of how adaptable and innovative humans are,” Tierney explains.  

–Amy Edwards

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