Does the War On Terror risk The End of the World ?
Some people want you to think so -- history is full of prophets of doom who fail to deliver.
Al Gore seems bent on raising his “good friend Carl Sagan” from the Cold War political graveyard in time for the Halloween anniversary of 'Nuclear winter' s TV debut . As part of the media campaign to scare voters on the eve of a hotly contested election, this hoary Freeze Movement favorite is joining a new horror show,the The Great Warming ,starring Keanu Reaves and designed by Voodoo Arts. and Bill Moyer's Is God Green ?
Sagan's Nuclear Winter" hypothesis proposed that any use of atomic weapons, even to halt a Soviet attack-"a pure tactical war,in Europe ,say" would fill the sky with black smoke creating a lethal global freeze. 20/20's recent Last Days On Earth portrayed it as more lethal than a killer asteroid.as did PBS Secrets of the Dead and Jericho, CBS's chiller about a mysterious WMD strike. On 10-10,Freeze movement doyenne helen Caldicott was back on the tube , telling PBS Travis Smiley 'Nuclear winter.. "would end life on Earth" while North Korea's underground test led the BBC World Service to opine 'a nuclear winter has broken out inside the White House ."
Though once advertised as hard science , ‘Nuclear Winter' went off screen in 1991, after Sagan jumped the shark on Nightline, where Ted Koppell asked him if the 'nuclear winter theory was about to come true as Saddam Hussein torched Kuwait. Yese indeed, said the star of PBS Cosmos series predicting the black skies generated by burning oil wells would cast a killing pall over Asia just as surely as a nuclear war. It didn’t happen-- You can learn the cautionary reasons why from my Wall Street Journal Op-ed, at http://www.textfiles.com/survival/nkwrmelt.txt
‘Apocalyptic predictions' Sagan told Foreign Affairs in 1984, “ require higher standards of evidence“ He failed to provide it, offering only his own authority instead , as he launched a campaign of literal megahype. An Inconvenient Truth's hundred fold exaggeration of the rate of sea level rise pales in comparison to Sagan's personal best. He promised the end of the world for a millionth the bang of the asteroid impact b that doomed the dinosaurs. Now ABC's 20/20 has outdone Sagan's low budget apocalypse , claiming a global ice age "could" result from launching "just 20 missiles." Turning the dial from Sagan's co-author Brian Toon on ABC to PBS Scientific American Frontiers , impressionable viewers saw Alan Alda egging on another 'Nuclear Winter ' co-author, Peter Raven.
Fear of WMD's has put the world back on edge, but 20/20’s 'Nuclear' Winter re-run remains wackier than Doctor Strangelove. Sagan’s low-budget Doomsday Machine was supposed to deliver all the Biblical unpleasantness of a 100 million megaton asteroid blast . Asked ( again on Nightline ) if nuclear winter was like the dinosaur slaying catastrophe , Sagan replied "Exactly."
But there's a problem with the analogy . No such human arsenal exists - it would take a Hiroshima bomb for every man, woman, and child on Earth. What remains pf Cold War weaponry today is plenty scary, but why must 20/20 outdo the Freeze Movement in lowering the ante on the Apocalypse? The answer is depressingly simple . Having known Sin at Hiroshima, science was bound to run into advertising sooner or later.After pitching the end of the world on the cover of The Cold and the Dark , and helping to steamroller the theory into print in the prestigious pages of Science yet another Sagan co-author, Donald Kennedy went on to become the editor of the AAAS flagship journal. It's something to think about when his next editorial decrying the politicization of science predictably appears.
Fear sells thoughtless ideas , and wins votes. Recycling a Cold War advertising campaign is easy, but even Sagan’s erstwhile political ally,Council for a Livable World president Professor George Rathjens of MIT,has balked at the hype: “Nuclear winter is the worst example of the misrepresentation of science to the public in my memory.” There are ominous structural parallels between the distortion of the environmental sciences and the disinformation campaigns of the Cold War. Today it is 20/20, not energy lobbyists, who are in deep denial , for ‘ Nuclear winter ‘ was the first, worst , case of a crude climate model being equated with concrete reality to effect political ends.
Climate modelers must often rely on educated guesses, but stringing together dozens of ‘what ifs?' as Sagan’s cohort did , runs a fatal risk of the ‘Garbage In, Gospel Out ‘ syndrome In the original ‘nuclear winter’ model this meant glossing over thirty nuclear war ‘scenario’ variables , using ‘worst case ‘ values for the lot of them . In practice, Sagan ended up telling a systems programmer to simply turn off the sun off like a light bulb, and leave it that way for a Biblical forty days and forty nights. Whereupon the temperature of the model’s featureless, ocean-less, Planet Earth plummeted to forty below zero.
Scientists knew that this ‘robust ‘ prediction was improbable as a pat royal flush, but ordinary people didn't understand that the deck was stacked . To them , ‘nuclear winter signified freezing to death in the cold and the dark, as seen on the cover of Sagan‘s eponymous book , endorsed by Paul Ehrlich,of Population Bomb fame, and televised as The Day After - Jericho is a disco era miniseries remake!
Strategic policy analysts taken in by Sagan's insistance that the theory was fact had to ponder a NATO Srurrender if tactical weapons indeed risked ‘The extinction of Homo Sapiens ” This desabilizing end run around scientific due process outraged many. The British journal, Nature thundered that “ nuclear winter" research "has become notorious for its lack of scientific integrity “ -a quote that came from another Gore ally on the global warming front, MIT hurricane expert Kerry Emmanuel.Hollywood immortalized Sagan's apocalyptic hypothesis as a Star Trek script, but it did not survive the development of more realistic models, witness the 1986 repudiation of Sagan's ‘apocalyptic predictions' by Stephen Schneider of NCAR in Foreign Affairs .
Climate models are what you make of them- they can serve equally as
real scientific tools or political toys.” Nuclear winter” began with a
premise uncontroversial as CO2’s ability to trap heat, Nobel Laureate
Paul Crutzen’s observation that it tends to be cooler in the shade,
even of a mushroom cloud. But environmental artists hired by Sagan
turned Crutzen’s Ambio article
“Twilight at Noon” into a dark vision of a frozen
planet. To climatologists who understood the devilish details,
Sagan’s model-based-- and biased-- megahype was an unfunny joke,
played at the expense of their credibility on the eve of the global
warming debate. Today others who care more about policy than science
make no distinction between disasters natural and human, or real and
imagined - all are motivational grist for the mill of fear.
The best kept secret of the Science Wars is how little both sides know. Models often force scientists to rely on educated guesses. This is fine, unless they start to string together dozens of ‘what if’s?’, as Sagan’s cohort did, to justify one out of an infinity of possible outcomes. Making ‘nuclear winter’ presentable involved using ‘worst-case values for over thirty variables in a row.
Scientists appreciated that this was crazy, but ordinary people did not. To them, ‘nuclear winter’ signified Mister Science saying they would all freeze to death in the cold and the dark if Ronald Ray- gun was re-elected. A generation ago Al Gore’s answer to the question: ‘Is Nuclear Winter Real and Relevant “, a symposium we both addressed , was statesmanlike .Not only was Sagan’s apocalyptic theory unproven -- nuclear disarmament was too important to base on a myth. No longer- with An Inconvenient Truth fading fast as his presidential prospects. Al may end up migrating from the cover of Vanity Fair to a cameo appearance in The Day After The Day After Tomorrow.