Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Science Blogs

I have been spending a few months over at Scienceblogs and have been generally disappointed with the site and its content. After reading some truly first rate articles about … well, science and technology, I found that there exists a large portion of the website dedicated to political and philosophical discussions. It turns out that its not just “large” but appears to occupy a majority of the site’s content … at least based on my observations.

The philosophical topics tend to focus on the New Atheist’s attempt to argue a purely philosophical debate by interjecting “science”. That and by generally being pricks. No surprise there.

The political topics are the usual boilerplate statist/lefty arguments on nearly everything under the sun, but usually go something like this “OBAMA IS GOOD, OBAMA IS GREAT, WE SURRENDER OUR WILL TO HIM ON THIS DATE” and “FOUR LEGS GOOD, TWO LEGS BETTER”.

I think ever since Einstein (maybe Newton, who knows) used his celebrity to step from the scientific to the political realm (read Einstein’s asinine lectures on socialism for more on that), there has been a rush of mainly liberal and left wing scientists to follow suit. It is argued, by them at any rate, that since they are experts in X, Y and Z, that this expertise naturally lends itself to them being experts in policies impacted by X, Y and Z …. as well as every other letter in the alphabet. After all, they are flipping geniuses and who can argue with that?

It’s the notion that the celebrity scientist is an expert on anything the pontificate about and to question them is to reject the scientific method and rationality.

Take Carl Sagan for example.

Sagan was, by all accounts, an accomplished and intelligent man. He was a well respected authority on Astronomy but unfortunately he believed that his reputation on scientific issues should give him equal authority on scientific and moral matters and worse, he allowed his political biases to cloud his judgment of technical and scientific matters. Sagan’s work on “Nuclear Winter” is an example where he was willing to support a scientific theory because it supported his own political biases and not because it was good sound science.

Sagan didn’t actually develop the idea of Nuclear Winter”, it was initially hypothesized in the Soviet Union by Georgy Golitsyn in 1982 at a meeting of the Committee of Soviet Scientists in Defense of Peace, Against the Nuclear Threat. It should have been a flashing red light that a scientific conclusion like “a large nuclear exchange, even if completely one sided, would cause the earth’s climate to plummet 30 degrees C” would be coming out of the Soviet Union. Especially so given the committee’s Orwellian name. Couple this with recent relations that this was disinformation campaign run by the KGB and that one of Sagan’s team members, Soviet physicist Vladimir Alexandrov, disappeared in Madrid never to be seen again, and its painfully clear in retrospect that this was part of the larger Soviet influence campaign on the Nuclear Freeze movement.

Aside from the issue that there are indications that the KGB may have had a hand in shaping Sagan’s conclusions (unbeknownst to Sagan to be sure), “Nuclear Winter” was a sales job to further Sagan’s brand of politics and he hit the circuit to push it. Months before the release of any peer reviewed results Sagan lobbied the press and politicians very hard to sell this to the world.

As Michael Chriton said: “this is not the way science is done, it is the way products are sold”

After quite a bit of back and forth over Nuclear Winter in the 80’s Sagan saw his chance to demonstrate to the world the truthiness of his ideas. Near the end of the first Gulf War, Sagan along with toady Richard Turco predicted that the oil fires in Kuwait were spewing so much soot into the air that agriculture in SE Asia would be severely effected by it, so much that there would be frost in spring and summer in SE Asia and the effects globally would lead to a year without a summer*. Sagan debated Fred Singer (noted climate change skeptic) on Nightline during which he made several more dire predictions while Singer said that Sagan was acting like a hysterical Nancy and the soot would quickly settle out.

Needless to say Fred Singer was right and Sagan was wrong.

All of which leads me to conclude the following: Science and politics don’t mix well, regardless of who is doing the mixing. Let relevant scientific fields speak with authority within their relevant fields, and leave it to that.

*given Sagan’s notoriety, the specific nature of the predictions as well as how spectacularly bad they were, its amazing that there isnt a copy of this (for free) anywhere in the internet, so I have cut and pasted it here


  1. I am not sure that your understanding of the history of the "nuclear winter" theory is correct, and you seem to rely on the sensationalist account in Peter Early's book, "Comrade J".

    The theory was not created by Sagan or Golitsyn, but grew out of a great deal of scientific work on the possible effects of nuclear war. Although this dated back to the 1950s, there was a lot of research on the effects on the ozone layer and the effects of dust and smoke carried out in the 1970s. The leading researchers worked in the USA, many of them for official government agencies and research institutes.

    In 1980, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences initiated research on several related issues, which were published in 1982 in their journal "Ambio". There was a key paper on the effects of dust and smoke by Crutzen (a Nobel-prize winning atmospheric scientist) and Birks. Early quotes Sergei Tretyakov as saying that "Ambio" was influenced by the KGB and some faked research, but he doesn't explain how a scientist like Crutzen could be influenced by research that didn't stack up.

    Golitsyn has said that he became interested in the topic of global cooling when he read "Ambio". He had done work on dust storms on Mars and applied it to the post-nuclear scenario. But he didn't originate the theory, he was a latecomer to this work.

    Sagan was a showman and a man of strong political views, and the issues around nuclear winter were outside his field of research. But he was only one of five authors of the TTAPS study (he was the S in TTAPS), and the others, notably Richard Turco, were well within their field of competence.

    The predictions of TTAPS have been superseded, but that's the way science works. The fact that the work was wrong is not evidence that its authors were duped by the KGB.

    There is another story here, which has not received any attention at all. Why has this rumour, that the nuclear winter scenario was dreamt up by the Russians and dumped on the west through gullible scientists, been circulating so long without any evidence? (It goes back at least to 1985.) I suspect that it is because the scenario became current at the time of the big anti-nuclear protests of the early 'eighties. The real disinformation in this sequence of events comes not from the Russians, but from hawks in the west.

  2. Sensationalist or not Early's book, "Comrade J" was well received in intelligence communities and by intelligence journalists. It would also be usefull to add that Tretyakov, Early's source for the book, has waived his cut of royalties from the book, so he has little to gain from lying or exaggerating his experiences.

    Regardless of who can claim credit for the formulation of “nuclear winter”, the Soviets did do quite a bit of research on the subject. Tretyakov’s claim that they pushed it on gullible western scientists as part of a disinformation campaign whose aim was influencing the decision to deploy Pershing missiles to western Europe is certainly not without precedent. Recall that the Soviets did push the idea that the CIA was responsible for AIDS as a means of ethnic cleansing. While this did not gain much notoriety in the west (unless you attended Reverend William Wright’s church) it had a significant impact in the third world. And to say that the TTAPS modeling projections have been “superseded” is a very polite way to say that they were spectacularly wrong when they used it model a real life scenario, the Kuwaiti oil field fires.

    You mentioned that the rumor of nuclear winter being a Soviet disinformation plot began in 1985 although you failed to link Alexandrov’s disappearance to this. No one knows for sure what happened to Alexandrov, but the timing of his disappearance is suspect to say the last.

    Finally, you seem to brush off the idea that scientist could be easily duped by such crude propaganda. I would leave you with Freeman Dyson’s thoughts on this: “As a scientist, I judge the nuclear winter theory to be a sloppy piece of work, full of gaps and unjustified assumptions. As a human being, I hope fervently it is right.”

    Dyson came to conclusion that it was bad science supporting good policy and suspected that many of those pushing it knew that as well. People are people after all.

    Thanks for reading and the thoughtful response.