Sixty years ago, two worldviews took to shenanigans worthy of a thousand HBO series. East and West launched an arms race, two superpowers had nuclear weapons: the situation was extremely alarming. In the midst of this political conflict, there was also a high-strung scientific debate in the USA.
One side was led by Linus Pauling , winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He campaigned for disarmament and against nuclear tests – later he would also get the Nobel Peace Prize for his commitment. Pauling was of the opinion that the fallout after nuclear tests is harmful to health. On the other side were scientists like Edward Teller, who had worked on the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and was involved in the development of the hydrogen bomb. He was in favor of nuclear testing and was of the opinion that nuclear weapons were needed to avert an attack by the Soviet Union. Teller insisted that the fallout’s radioactivity is so low that nobody has to worry about it.
In a television debate in February 1958, the two scientists clashed. After that, Pauling was so angry that he refused to continue public discussions with Teller – which he found “improper” . But the dispute persisted and both sides continued
The TV debate
“According to my estimates, the increase in mutation rate due to radioactive precipitation from testing at the current test rate is one percent,” Pauling said in the TV debate – meaning one percent more children with severe genetic damage. “75 million children are born every year, 2% of them with hereditary diseases,” explains Pauling. “With an increase of 1%, it comes to 15,000 seriously ill children per year, whose suffering is due to the fallout.”
Teller, on the other hand, argued that there was no clear evidence that such a small increase in radioactivity caused any damage whatsoever. Anything imaginable could theoretically increase the mutation rate and he cites a study that establishes a possible link between mutations and tight clothing. According to these calculations, it would be possible that fashion causes 100 or 1000 times more damage than the radiation from the nuclear tests.
The moderator concludes, “It has not been solved”. The spectators did not walk out any smarter.
The question of mutation rates and radioactivity is actually not political – but in the politically tense context of the Cold War, it became one. Some accused Teller of being a Militarist. Others accused Pauling, of being a dirty Commie. The whole debacle did not do any good for science nor its image.
The Climate Today
Today, once more, a scientific question in the United States is discussed politically: Global warming. According to a recent Gallup poll (March 2018), 69% of Republicans believe that the importance of global warming is generally overestimated. Only 4% of Democrats share this opinion. 91% of Democrats, but only 33% of Republicans, are concerned about global warming. In 2000, it was still 78% – 64% . The division between party lines is increasing.
There is a broad scientific consensus that man is the main cause of an ongoing global warming. The fact that so few Republicans see this must probably be due to the fact that they shy away from the consequences: a change in their own behaviors and a regulation of the industry. Too deep is the politically motivated aversion to any state intervention, especially if it could jeopardize the economy. President Donald Trump calls global warming a hoax. Some even believe in a conspiracy on the left. “For some reason, this issue of climate change has emerged as a paramount issue for the left – in this country and around the world,” said Vice President Mike Pence in an interview .
As different as the debates about nuclear tests or climate change are – there are also many similarities. In both cases, the debate is not factual, since it is about politically sensitive issues. Scientists are accused of having a political agenda – they are communists or leftists or rightists. In both cases, the boundaries between politics and science are blurring.
Does that mean we should separate politics and science? So in the sense that scientists are apolitical and provide the facts, while politicians – or society in general – pull the political conclusions? Hardly likely. Scientists are part of society. They are human beings and thus they have a right to a political opinion. And yet one wishes that scientific facts are seen as what they are: facts, not munition for the use of either right or left. The ice is melting in all directions.