Opinion

Op-ed: Junk science, from SDI to hydraulic fracturing

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Opinion,Kevin Mooney,Op-Eds

It was technological innovation that broke America from the orbit of the doctrine of nuclear mutual assured destruction, known as MAD. Three decades ago, the world's two great superpowers were holding each other's large population centers hostage.

President Reagan changed all this with a nationally televised speech 30 years ago this month, in which he announced the United States would pursue defensive countermeasures that could render ballistic missiles "impotent and obsolete." The speech came just a few weeks after he had described the Soviet Union as an "evil empire."

Reagan's call for the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI, was widely derided at the time as a "Star Wars" fantasy, but it genuinely put the Soviet leadership back on its heels. After a long period of uneasy detente based on mutual fear, Reagan had not only re-energized but also remoralized American foreign policy.

"That was a tremendous one-two punch," says Paul Kengor, a history professor at Grove City College and author of several books on the Reagan presidency. "First, he challenged the Soviets morally and spiritually with the 'Evil Empire' speech, then he moved to exploit America's technological advantages with SDI."

The necessity and feasibility of missile defense are widely accepted today, but Reagan's SDI unsettled his own military establishment, the mainstream media and the academic community. The Soviets sought to undermine the program, Kengor explains, not because they thought an anti-missile system wouldn't work, but because they feared it might.

In fact, SDI's robust role in undermining the Soviets became clear after the fall of communism -- Alexander Bessmertnykh, foreign minister for General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, has said SDI "accelerated the decline of the Soviet Union."

Today, yet another game-changing technological advance threatens to change international relations forever. And some of the same media outlets, academic institutions and pressure groups that worked to discredit SDI 30 years ago are now concentrating their efforts against it. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which has made it possible to tap into natural gas deposits that were previously inaccessible, could soon make America a net energy exporter, and the naysayers are out to stop it with any dodgy argument or scientific claim they can get their hands on.

The New York Times' "Drilling Down" series, for instance, highlights the research of Cornell University professor Robert Howarth, who concluded that natural gas generates more greenhouse gas emissions than coal production. These findings were later debunked by Howarth's own Cornell colleagues and a team of scientists at Carnegie Mellon University. But Howarth still has the media megaphone.

So does filmmaker Josh Fox, an anti-fracking activist best known for "Gasland," which dramatized images of flammable water in homes. Although a 1976 study by the Colorado Division of Water found that methane had already been present in the water used in the film as a result of natural forces, "Gasland" fixed the blame on fracking. Even outgoing Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, no friend of fossil fuels, admitted to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that there is no evidence to show fracking is responsible for water contamination. Yet using just such discredited arguments, green activists have already cowed New York public officials into imposing a moratorium on fracking.

The anti-energy efforts of today parallel the criticisms directed against SDI in the 1980s, in that they invoke junk science to advance policy aims at odds with American interests.

The historical antecedent to contemporary anti-fracking activists is the late Carl Sagan, an astronomer from Cornell University, who was active with the Union of Concerned Scientists, or UCS. Sagan was so scandalized by the SDI speech that he signed a cable message to then-Soviet leader Yuri Andropov expressing concern over the militarization of space. At a Capitol Hill press conference, Sagan told members of the press he was "extremely upset" by Reagan's speech because "it seemed to go in exactly the opposite direction from what is necessary to preserve the planet." But Sagan's argument depended on his and other UCS scientists' ludicrous overestimate of how many satellites a missile defense system would require. The original estimate from a UCS report was 2,400 satellites. During congressional testimony, a UCS official lowered the organization's estimate to 800. The figure was later reduced to 300 and then 162.

Junk science is not new. That's why it's worth looking back to the debate over SDI 30 years later. In the context of the debate over fracking, this old episode demonstrates how the capricious embrace of unscientific evidence can have severe ramifications for the nation.

Kevin Mooney is a national reporter for Watchdog.org

Kevin Mooney is a national reporter for Watchdog.com

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Kevin Mooney

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