On Carl Sagan and Policy Debates

Eric Michael Johnson of The Primate Diaries posted a few days ago an article on Carl Sagan’s theory of Nuclear Winter and the political reaction to it in the early 1980s.

Okay, okay, yes, I will admit that Sagan was not the only person involved in the Nuclear Winter theory, that being the idea that a large nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union would have plunged the Earth into an ice age. However, he’s the person who popularized the idea, and who fought the hardest and the loudest to express the idea.

The general thrust of the article is that politicians, especially conservative politicians, want to remove science from political debates about science:

Nevertheless… the general feeling is that scientists should stick to assembling the facts and leave the commentary to people like them. Whether the issue is environmental degradation, global warming, stem cells, nuclear technology or concerns about genetically modified foods and chemical additives the resounding call from conservatives is that scientists should butt out of the debate centering on . . . science.

The article points out that while Sagan’s advocacy of Nuclear Winter theory has little effect on Ronald Reagan’s militant stance toward the Soviet Union in the 1980s, it had some effect on the Soviet attitude toward the Cold War:

In the first half of the 1980s, the findings of U.S. and Soviet physicians on the aftermath of nuclear war and the ‘nuclear winter’ theory noticeably influenced the Soviet leadership.

The article covers more ground than just Nuclear Winter and Carl Sagan. As someone with an interest in science and its role in policy debates in the political sphere, I thought the article was worth checking out.

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