Few things in life sadden one more than watching a childhood hero fall from the pedestal we placed them on. Losing that innocent world view feels as if something was physically torn away. Years later we can look back and still feel the pain.
When I was 14 we moved from our rural farm/ranch into a smaller place on the outskirts of town, and for the first time in my life I had cable television. It was old-fashioned analog cable with something like 7 channels total, but it sure beat the heck out of the 1.5 channels (NBC all the time and ABC half the time) that we got out in the country. The really big thing was that I got PBS for the first time and soon thereafter they started showing Sagan’s series, Cosmos.
I was gobsmacked. Before Cosmos, science shows were rather dry documentaries very much of the “just the facts” school. Cosmos changed all that. Sagan succeeded in conveying the awesome beauty and wonder of science. For the first time in my life, I saw the rich internal life of minds doing science externalized onto the TV screen.
Being a science geek, I worshiped scientists like other kids worshiped sports heros. From the first episode of Cosmos onward, I thought Carl Sagan was God. I read everything the man wrote and everything written about him. He seemed the perfect role model of disciplined rationalism and empiricism, which contrasted so sharply with the faith-based world view of the fundamentalist Christians who surrounded me.
A few years later, in the mid-’80s, Sagan become an advocate of a concept about the consequences of nuclear war called “nuclear winter.” The idea was that during a nuclear war, dust and soot from the mushroom clouds and subsequent ground fires would rise to the top of the Troposphere and stay there. The soot layer would absorb solar radiation and become warmer than the layers below, creating a “self-lofting” effect. The soot layer would remain high in atmosphere for months or even years, effectively shadowing the Earth below and causing a catastrophic drop in temperature everywhere. So, even if people escaped the immediate effects of a nuclear war they could expect to find the entire planet frozen over.
Nuclear winter became the darling of the nuclear-freeze movement and Sagan became a significant figure in the movement. His scientific prestige convinced a lot of people that a nuclear war, even a limited one, would have far worse consequences that anyone had imagined before and that therefore just about anything that would might reduce the chance of war should be tried. (It would later turn out that Soviet intelligence was behind a big segment of the nuclear-freeze movement in Europe, and that they pushed Soviet scientists to promulgate the idea of nuclear winter because it scared so many people in the West.)
I firmly believed at the time that nuclear winter was possible in large part because one of my personal heros believed it. By 1988, however, it became clear that the idea was invalid. Scientists had long known that clouds of dust or soot from volcanoes or forest fires could provoke cooling on a wide scale. Those clouds, however, quickly dissipated. The nuclear-winter hypothesis claimed that the cloud generated by nuclear war would not behave in the same manner but would be “self-lofting” and persistent. More-advanced computer modeling shot that idea down and by the late ’80s no one but a few unfortunate Soviet scientists were really pushing the idea.
If the story had ended there, Sagan’s involvement could have been written off as an honest mistake, but the 1991 Gulf War showed that Sagan had let politics warp his science. Sagan vociferously opposed the liberation of Kuwait and claimed that Saddam’s threat to torch the oil fields would create a vast “self-lofting” cloud of oil smoke which would cause significant weather disruptions in West Asia and possibly the entire world. Sagan said that the science showed that liberating Kuwait would be so environmentally destructive that it outweighed any other benefits.
When I saw Sagan on TV making his claims I felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach. Being keenly interested in the nuclear-winter hypothesis I had read the research several years before that put the idea to rest. Self-lofting clouds simply don’t occur. I knew Sagan had to be aware of the new research on the matter and I had assumed that he had long since dropped the idea. To see him stand up and proclaim a hypothesis that he had to have known had no validity was devastating to me. It became clear to me that Sagan was marching in cohort with his old nuclear-freeze crowd who opposed the liberation on ideological grounds, and that he was fabricating, consciously or otherwise, a scientific rationale for his opposition. Subsequent events would later prove Sagan absolutely wrong. Saddam did torch the oil fields, the fires did produce huge clouds that blocked the sun and cooled the areas underneath them, but the clouds were never self-lofting or persistent and they had no significant impact anywhere.
I think Sagan fell prey to the post-modernist concept that if a person has power as a result of some role they fill in society then they have a moral obligation to use that power to advance their political ideology. In the ’80s, Carl Sagan was the public face of science in America. He was that era’s Albert Einstein, the one scientist who virtually everyone knew and recognized. The temptation to use that recognition and respect to advance a political agenda proved too tempting. He let his role as political activist subvert his role as a scientist.
The nuclear-winter/oilfield-winter episodes became yet another lesson to me about the way in which politics corrupts science. Such lessons strongly inform my attitude toward global warming. I have no doubt that if Sagan stilled lived he would be lecturing us all just as emphatically about the “reality” of global warming as he did about the “reality” of nuclear winter. The poison of politics infects even the best of us if we let it. Once we drink from that cup we never think clearly afterwards.
And fallen heroes never truly rise again.