A Self-Lofting Fall

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.

This post over on Science blog that mentioned Carl Sagan brought back painful memories for me.

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.

5 thoughts on “A Self-Lofting Fall”

  1. Ditto on your comments regarding Cosmos and Carl Sagan. One of my heroes as well, though I never went so far as to read read all he wrote.

    Cosmos still stands as a brilliant achievement. Sagan was a born science teacher and instructor with an amazing ability to convey complex ideas in comprehendable language. He also understood science as a story of events and discoveries, one leading to another and another, with knowledge expanding exponentially. I first experienced that style of science instruction at the very competent hands of a physics instructor, Mr. Stuart Monde, at Baltimore Polytechnic.

    If you can imagine a group of “jaded” teenage city boys discussing what an amazing class Mr. Monde’s physics class was, you’ll get an idea of his rare ability as a teacher of science. He held us absolutely enraptured.

    He also taught us to take care with our understanding. He pointed out numerous instances where our “common sense” told us to expect one result, yet we’d get a different result upon testing. He was a big fan of physics experiment movies and would show them regularly. We’d discuss the experiment beforehand and he’d let us come to a consensus on the likely result. Then he’d show the experiment. It’s amazing how often we were wrong. Our failure to predict the outcome was always an opportunity for learning, something Sagan, of all people, should have known. And I’m sure he did.

    There was a scene in Cosmos where he returned to the library at Alexandria, the single greatest storehouse of knowledge in the world at the time. He discussed all that was stored there, from histories to maths to sciences, and how it was burned in war. He considered that loss one of the great tragedies of human history. Could the Dark Ages have been avoided had this library been saved, he wondered? I believe that thinking played heavily in his political stances. I imagine he asked himself, If I can frighten people away freom nuclear war by stretching – or even lying – about the science, am I serving a greater good? How far back will a nuclear war set human civilization? I suppose these are the questons he grappled with, then he made a choice.

    You and I might (and probably would) argue that humanity is always served best by the truth, as best we can ascertain it. He, as a result of his fame, found himself with a bully pulpit and an international audience at a pivotal point in history. He used it.

    In the early 1980’s I was working at Gould Ocean Systems. We built towed sonar arrays for the NATO navies and had 80%+ of the western naval market. Our library carried all sorts of serious periodicals on defense and foreign policy issues: International Defense Review, Armed Forces Journal, Proceedings of the Naval Institute, Sea Power, Janes, etc. It seemed clear from my readings that the USSR was seeking a first strike nuclear capability and was using the peace movement to encourage unilateral disarmament in the West. So I was a big fan and supporter of the US defense/offense buildup and the “star wars” ABM system.

    Still, on relection I have to wonder. What exactly were all the forces that came to play in bringing Gorbachev to power? Did the widescale discussion of nuclear war effects have some part in bringing the reformists to power there? Could, in some small way, Sagan have played some part? It’s an interesting and somewhat uncomfortable question. I suspect history is a result of many complex factors. Sagan and the nuclear war effects crowd may have been one.

  2. Expertise in one area does not necessarily translate into:

    1) expertise in another (possibly related) area
    2) correctness of all conclusions in the “expert” area
    3) honesty

    But, on the other hand, it tends to lead to mostly correct ideas within the “expert” area.

    This is why authorities should be taken seriously, but not treated as infallible. Far too often, people treat scientists (or priests or other authority figures) as perfect, and therefore take what Carl Sagan says about nuclear winter, or what Asimov says about the Bible, or what Pastor Dave says about voting, as truth. And far too often, others completely dismiss whatever any authority figure has to say, pretending that their individual opinion is just as valid as expert opinion. Both are grave errors.

    It made a big impact on my life when I realized my dad is occasionally wrong. He’s still one of the smartest people I know (and I know an awful lot of PhD’s in hard sciences) but I’ve learned not to just take whatever my dad says as truth. If he says it it’s probably worth thinking about, but could ultimately prove to be wrong.

  3. My personal hero with feet of clay was JFK.

    The initial heroism of a man saving his shipmates was great and got him elected president.

    But I always wondered how something as manueverable as a PT boat could get run down by a destroyer. Turned out JFK turned off his engines (in direct contradiction to standing orders,) to “listen for the Japs,” and when he tried to start them again, the high-perform engines vapor locked.

    He also didn’t have a life raft on deck because he had an army fieldpiece roped to the deck to try and shoot destroyers. DUMB?

    I don’t have idols any more, because every one of us is Human, subject to our own foibles.

  4. What exactly were all the forces that came to play in bringing Gorbachev to power? Did the widescale discussion of nuclear war effects have some part in bringing the reformists to power there?

    Internally,the Soviets did not believe in the concept of Nuclear-Winter. Internally, they pushed the idea that they could survive and even win a nuclear war. The nuclear-freeze movement itself was a creation of soviet intelligence.

    I think the driving internal force for change in the Soviet union was the realization that they could not economically afford to compete militarily with the west. Remember that Gorbachev’s goal was just to reform the Soviet economy, not its political order. He just lost control.

    Had the nuclear freeze movement succeeded, it would have reduced the pressure for reform so I think we can safely say that Sagan’s efforts were counterproductive.

  5. Lawyers learn this dealing with experts. People are smart when they are talking about what they really know about. No matter how “smart” they may be in some general sense, outside their areas of expertise they are not smart. Experts retained to testify in court sometimes make the error of going beyond what they really know about — or worse, if they are motivated by greed or ideology. If you are alert, and on the other side, you can humiliate some very smart people on cross examination if they cross that line.

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