I like to compare visiting the Federation of American Scientists website with probing a dental cavity with your tongue; you know the only result is going to be intense pain, yet you do it anyway.
During one of my aimless wanderings of the internet, I remembered a particularly testy debate I had with Dr. Ivan Oelrich, vice-president of the FAS strategic security program. Basically, he wrote a bizarre piece that used a convoluted rationale to argue against the Reliable Replacement Warhead. I replied with a somewhat sarcastic comment that pointed out the fallacy of his logic, and from there we got into a debate about the merits of nuclear weapons in general. A few posts later, he spazzed out on me, declared me some type of fanatic, threw a bunch of semantic nonsense at me, and upbraided me for wasting his time…one wonders why he bothered publishing and replying to my comments at all if he thought them a waste of his time. Then he refused to publish my follow-up, which I thought was very unfair, especially after subjecting me to that kind of outburst…I guess he wanted to get the last word in. In truth, I later regretted the sarcasm that I began the debate with. But his tantrum was wholly disproportional, especially since by that time the discourse was quite substantive.
The episode demonstrated quite well competing modes of thinking. Dr. Oelrich, coming from a scientific-technical background, relied on arguments derived from the scientific paradigm. I, with a political-strategic education, argued from a paradigm and context that surrounds the scientific. Nuclear weapons are ultimately political instruments; their extraordinary physical and, yes, psychological power means that disarmament will never occur, period. Nuclear weapons will only disappear after the advent of weapons even more destructive… anti-matter or nanoweapons, for instance. Oelrich’s refusal to acknowledge nuclear weapons as viable political instruments led to our disagreement.
The divide is even worse on philosophical issues, which explains the vitriol powering the New Atheist movement. Despite their supposed commitmentto free-inquiry, debate, non-secrecy, etcetera, scientists are just as willing to silence opposition as any other political group. In my experience, many scientists aren’t even willing to debate at all (because of the supposed purity of their method as the one true path to knowledge), but they certainly are willing to denounce you as an uneducated, fanatical cretin if you take a position they don’t like.
And for all their talk of saving the world from a nuclear doom, arms controllers are often very cantankerous and ornery individuals…maybe it’s because they fear death more than the rest of us.