Climate, Nuclear Weapons, A New Era

The current issue of the New Yorker magazine has a compelling article  narrating the history of the nuclear arms race from the end of World War II to the present.  The article describes a transition from the Cold War Mutually Assured Destruction (MDA) and the build up of nuclear arsenals to tens of thousands of war heads to their present levels numbering about 15,000.  According to the article, the US has spent over $5 trillion amassing its portion of that nuclear arsenal.  The forecast is that the costs will rise significantly as the arsenal is modernized with improved technology; it predates much of what we take for granted in our current communications and computing power.

The article, which I urge you to read in full, discusses how Regan’s Strategic Defense Initiative began to displace MDA as a stasis between nuclear powers:  if suddenly the US were able to thwart an incoming attack, there would be no MDA.  Today’s nuclear view is at least that hazy: what if state actors aren’t the only ones who can attack with fission or fusion devices?

What astonished me about the article was how it tied the development of nuclear arsenals to the development of climate studies.  The advent of climate research apparently was the military itself in the early 1950s.  These studies led to an understanding of how above ground testing could affect weather, climate, but even more pertinent to the military and government officials was detection of those tests.  If you recall the 2010 eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland that disrupted air traffic because of the immense clouds of ash that reached the upper atmosphere and spread far and wide, it will come as no surprise that these early military studies keyed on volcanic eruption data.  In fact, most of the climate data agencies that exist today had their genesis from this military research.

Of course, it was not and is not that simple.  If it were, we would likely have no debates going on politically, economically or scientifically today.  Enter Carl Sagen and his nuclear winter theory.  It provided a scary scenario of what would happen around the world if nuclear weapons were used only in specific areas of the wold.  Critics claimed there was too much unknown risk in the modeling assumptions (but may have ignored the risk assumptions in their own models).  Sides were taken, teams drawn up.  Sagen, a true scientist, was an easy target for his critics because he was also widely popular as a writer and as host of Cosmos on PBS.  Yes, I watched it faithfully, full disclosure.

I am writing about this article and asking you to delve deeper into how the climate debate and the nuclear arsenal are so linked together, not to change anyone’s mind.  I do hope, that like happened to me, you will understand a lot more about the complexities and lack of niceties of these two important parts of our history and contemporary problems.

What it also did was to get me thinking about how non-state actors, terrorists, might use nuclear and biological weapons that leverage the weather and climate.

Launching a nuclear weapons attack is no small feat. First you need the know-how to construct the weapon.  Not such a biggie these days, but it also takes sufficient nuclear material and not a small amount of engineering.  And in constructing it, you have to worry about killing yourself from radiation exposure and accidental detonation.  The hardest part, though, is the delivery systems.  They require money, physical size, and must avoid detection until targets are reached.  The dirty bomb in a truck is still hard because shielding the radiation from the weapon is hard relative to detecting it.

Thinking about climate relative to nuclear weapons scared me more than a truck.  Load up a cargo ship with crushed volcanic rock, store a bomb on it, and detonate it offshore before it is detected (please, please have detection systems I am not aware of). Would the ash, not just containing particulates and sulfur but also radioactive material, spread out over the coast line and inwards doing far more damage and deadly destruction than the blast force?  What if the ship were sunk and the bomb exploded underwater?  Would the explosion be large enough to create a tsunami in targeted areas?

Still a lot of uncertainty in the risk assumptions for these and other scenarios.  I worry more about biological attacks.  It probably doesn’t take much of an advanced degree today nor a vast amount of equipment to use CRIPSR techniques to turn mosquitoes into swarms of deadly weapons.  Or lady bugs.  Or whatever.  Borne by the same winds and weather that we debate about as heading us to calamity or oblivion, we have little or no defense or maybe even warning for such malevolent agents.

What lets me fall asleep at night is that however easier this stuff gets, it’s still hard.  However destructive some terrorists might be, the uncertainty and risk of weather, climate, as a delivery system makes it too risky for what they envision as their world afterwards.  That scientific research will not get underfunded and put into the scrap of history because politicians don’t understand or don’t agree with it.  Science has pushed us forward, sometimes haltingly, for centuries. It is capable of so much, but it needs good policy and leadership, not scorn and derision.

The hallmark of science is not that it is always right but that it has self-correction built into its methodologies.  It is meant to be continually tested and challenged, not by opinions but by facts.  What non-scientists have to learn to do is to recognize the difference between the two.  Opinions change all the time, but facts really don’t.  What changes is knowledge, something that sheds light on the boundaries of facts.  We though the earth was flat (and people emphatically stood by that opinion), we though the earth was the center of the universe, that stars were glowing points on some cosmic fabric, that disease was caused by foul air and spirits, and so much more that has been displaced by knowledge and scientific verification.

It may not have mattered to anyone’s day to day life if the earth were flat or round, if there were countless stars and we were at the edge of one part of the universe, but it may matter greatly if our species is impacting the livability of our planet or is someone has the wherewithal to match their desire to destroy a big part of us.  We should not err on the side of inaction or doubt, but to do what we can and do it now to not let that happen.

The popular corporate slogan when the nuclear arms race was “THINK.”  It should still be the number one thing we do.

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Truth or Consequences

When I was in early junior high, I developed a crush on a girl in my class; I believe her name was Cheryl.  While I may not remember her name, I distinctly remember that I thought she was cute, and she had a more mature figure than just about any other girl in school.  Let me quickly add two key points:  first, no romance ever blossomed between us, and second, she had a younger sister with whom she did not get along.  Her younger sister and I were friendly, though, and she was the one who told me that Cheryl, or whatever her name was, wore a heavily padded bra.

Now this was amazing news to me.  My first recollection of fake news was in fact falsies, themselves fake.

I can’t identify the precise moment other fake news and news-like things dawned on me, but I had a growing sense of the disconnect between what I would later call conventional or accepted views and the nagging sense that something wasn’t quite right.  On TV, all of the married couples slept in twin beds, but when I would go to friends’ houses, none of their parents did, nor did mine.  I applied the early inklings about procreation to this deliminator and figured out that either TV couples wanted no more kids, or it was a contrived situation.

Teenage boy interest in females in the late 1950’s seem to have as its only source of visual fulfillment issues of National Geographic.  We had no real life experiences, no Internet, and not even Playboy or other later liberating publications to deliver us the images we so badly craved.  It wasn’t for a few years later that I realized National Geographic taught me more about the effects of gravity than anatomy.  A bit more fake news.

On the road to early adulthood, I had other occasions to question, and later verify to my satisfaction, other forms of fake news.  Propaganda was a word we all knew and identified with the Soviet Union, and with that bit of real news, assumed that everything from there was just fake news.  Well, maybe.  But the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and the political upheaval that took place in the 1960s provided a smorgasbord of fake news delights.  It took a long time, in most cases, for the real news to emerge and be recognized.  A bit later, Watergate, and fake, fake news as real news.

Back then, in that pre-historic time, there were people and places we could turn to and be somewhat confident that what we saw and heard was indeed truthful.  CBS News and Walter Cronkite, Jim Leher and Robert McNeil at PBS, are examples that come to mind.  Plus, when TVs were not ubiquitous but movies were, there were newsreels. Maybe a mix of fake and reliable news, but at least we got to see it with our own eyes.

Also remarkable to me was that some very real news from the era became the source of completely fake news: conspiracy theories.  No moon landing, the Kennedy assassination, on and on.  We once thought this the stuff of crazy kooks. I was always amused and delighted, in a perverse sort of way, going through the checkout lanes at the supermarket to see the headlines on tabloids:  “Mother gives birth to alien” or “Pack of wild dogs take over South American country” or – well turn on your crazy machine.  But now, how different are the tabloids from an immense pool of Internet sites?  Can it be that  the kooks outnumber the sane?  And are running things?

Has fake news always been there? I am no academic historian, but I would bet soundly it has been.  Shakespeare’s plots suggest fake news was a way to vanquish enemies, win love interests, or in other ways to gain power.  Dickens had fake news at the heart of many of his tales.  They were hardly the only writers through the ages that recognized this probably innate human trait;  it’s just the media has changed from secret parchment dispatches to smartphones.

When my daughter was a senior in high school, she came home one day and told me that one of her teachers was looking for parents to volunteer to teach a class.  Insanity gripped one, or both, of us and I found myself in front of a class of mostly bored looking and inattentive high school kids; who wouldn’t at that age be bored when someone’s dad is going to give a lecture?  What I had prepared was a slide deck that I told them consisted of 10 really astonishing things I found on the Internet.  In fact, only one was actual; the other nine I completely made up.  My intent was to make them be skeptical of Internet things, but I was wrong.  When I told them of my “fake news,” no one seemed interested or surprised.  Much less concerned. I wrote it off as teenage boredom.  Probably my second mistake.

Today we might think fake news happens when someone, or some government, puts up a web site that looks authentic and legitimate and pushes out stories that are knowingly false (like I did for my high school lecture).  Those activities, much like government sponsored propaganda from the cold war days, was intentionally designed to deceive and control what people believe.  But maybe there is a lot more to it.

The rise of conservative, and to some extent progressive, talk show hosts has blurred the lines between opinion and news facts.  When they are aggressive, loud, extreme in their opinions and didactic, few of their devotees see them as anything other than authentic and their words relate what no one else will say: the truth they have been waiting to hear.  Sure, they are biased in their beliefs and opinions (or maybe just good entertainers or both), and sure, they want to convince you of their truth, but it doesn’t a priori mean their news is fake.  At least in as much as they openly present who and what they are.  Listeners and watchers have to make judgements on whether what they hear and see is accurate.

And that is a big part of what fake news has become to mean:  my real news is your fake news and vice versa.  You may love the New York Times and believe that it is a publication that strives for fair and accurate reporting, and I may believe everything is made up to rob  me of my rights to liberty and life while I stand by Fox News as the only major media outlet who tells it like it is.  Multiply that on down the line to countless talking heads, newsletters, web sites, and stupid bloggers like me and the result is a couple of parallel universes of truth and fiction, or at least lack of fact.

There might well be other sources of fake news that are not so obvious, that may in fact be part of the divide that creates my fake and your fact:  internal voices.  In the January 9 issue of the New Yorker, the article “The Voices in Our Heads” by  Jerome Groopman discusses how he talks to himself (he is a staff writer on science and medicine) and that a lot of people do the same.  The first reaction might be to cross to the other side of the street if you saw any of them coming, but he suggests it may not always be a pejorative malady but instead part of some people’s neurobiology.  He cites the work of Charles Fernyhough, a British professor of psychology at Durham University, in England, who has researched and written on the subject and who himself has “inner voice” dialogues.

There is no conclusive evidence yet to fully understand why this is true for some people, or whether it is important (you see, real science doesn’t work like fake news although some fake news grabs onto science and connects dots not there).  But history (another fake news source?) has lots of anecdotal tales that relate to it.  Joan of Arc heard God speak and command her to lead the French in an uprising against the English rule (burning at the stake has fallen out of favor with talk show hosts I’m afraid).  The Old Testament of the Bible is replete with conversations between men and God, and Muhammad was the Prophet guided by God according to the Koran.  These contrast a bit more favorably with the guy carrying the sign about the end of the world on the street corner downtown, but we don’t know for sure.

We can be fairly certain that most people, hearing a voice certainly different from their own, coming from no discernible specific location, and whom they attribute to God or even some other strong force (any number of sci-fi movies covers this very well) wouldn’t hesitate to believe what they hear in their heads.  It’s not pathological per se, but it is understandable.  And you think there is any way you are going to convince them those internal voices are speaking fake news?

I heartily suggest reading the article at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/09/the-voices-in-our-heads.  It is wide ranging, does not focus on conversations with divine entities, but instead sheds some new light on how our brains might work.  Never ever a source of anything but amazement and wonder to me.

For the foreseeable future, fake news in all its forms of delivery and acceptance is here to stay and part of the fabric of our daily lives.  Vice News did a clever video gathering clips from dozens of news shows basically joking that fake news is fake itself.  Sigh.

I love being around smart, really smart people.  There is so much to learn and know.  One of the signs I look for in really smart people is their recognition of what they don’t know.  They are humble in that regard, healthily skeptical and inquisitive.  It is, I believe, a significant part of what makes them smart.

I would like to hang out around you, so please try and be smart in that humble, inquisitive and skeptical way.