[posted by Justin Levine]
Remember Carl Sagan? He wasn’t only a famous astronomer, but he was a self-proclaimed “skeptic” who tried to convince himself and others that he was dedicated to scientific principles over “pseudoscience and irrationality”.
However, that didn’t prevent him from falling into the common trap of using his “scientific credentials” to try and feign credibility on topics well beyond his area of scientific expertise: nuclear war, SDI, environmentalism, etc.
Part of this came from an internal contradiction in Sagan’s outlook. As David Morrison explains –
A number of his early publications were in exobiology, and at various times he speculated about life not only on Mars, but also on Venus, Jupiter, and even the Moon. In spite of his increasing role as a scientific skeptic, he permitted himself to indulge in this broad speculation, so long as his ideas remained within the realm of possibility.
In other words, he really stopped being a scientific skeptic, but still trotted out the label on occasion to be used as a cudgel in debate. After all, what real limitations does the “realm of possibility” have? UFO’s, Bigfoot and Remote Viewing are all within the “realm of possibility” – but this makes the entire concept of scientific skepticism meaningless. The end result of this contradiction was Sagan the scientist endorsing the Drake Equation – assuming that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe simply by nature of the fact that the universe is so big. It is certainly an attractive speculation – but it has nothing to do with science or scientific inquiry. That conclusion is nothing more than religious faith.
Things came to a head on the eve of the Gulf War when Sagan again used his credentials as a “scientist” to proclaim (without a shred of evidence beyond a religious-like faith) that setting fires to the oil fields in Kuwait would create an environmental disaster for the world akin to a “nuclear winter”. But how could anyone doubt Sagan? After all, he was a “scientist” right? That was all we needed to know. There was no need for debate. He was a “scientist”, and we weren’t, so therefore, he must be right.
As Morrison again explains –
In the autumn of 1990, Sagan made his most serious scientific blunder. Threatened with military opposition to its invasion of Kuwait, Iraq threatened to set fire to the nation’s oil wells. Sagan became concerned that the quantity of petrochemical smoke generated by these oil-field fires could generate a small-scale nuclear winter, endangering crops across Asia and threatening world food production. Of his four TTAPS co-authors, only Turco supported this hypothesis; Pollack, Toon, and Ackerman could not see how sufficient smoke could get into the stratosphere. However, Sagan went public with dire predictions. While he kept his predictions conditional, saying only that we could not show that massive oil-field fires would not have major climatological consequences (a “double negative” logic that he used frequently), his doomsday warning was widely reported. The oil fields were torched in January 1991, blackening the sky over most of Kuwait and disrupting the coastal ecosystem, but there were no climatic effects, even on a local scale. Sagan was widely criticized, and the episode had the further effect of undermining the credibility of the entire nuclear winter scenario.
Even after Sagan’s crackpot theory was clearly proven false, it wasn’t enough for the religious cult of environmental true-believers. They simply alleged that a “cover-up” had taken place in order to hide a supposed environmental disaster that nobody but them could seem to pinpoint.
Does any of this sound at all familiar regarding another debate that we are currently experiencing??
People should not be skeptical of science. But they should be very skeptical of the proclamations of scientists. Many people fail to understand that those are two very different things. Scientists have political and social biases just like anyone else. The problem is more and more of them use a veneer of “science” to try and exploit those biases and cut off debate.
[posted by Justin Levine]