By Dr. John C. (“Jack”) Adler, as told to Bill DeSmedt
We left off last time with the pronouncement of that Grand Old Man of Tunguska Studies, Academician Nikolai Vasil’ev still ringing in our ears [Vasil’ev 1992] — to wit:
Since a final resolution to the question of the Tunguska phenomenon’s nature has yet to be found, and since it must be acknowledged that the perennial attempts to interpret it within the framework of the classical paradigm have so far brought no decisive success, it seems expedient to examine and test alternative ways of explaining it.
Wise words, for my money. Trouble was, it seems like alternative explanations were just what neither side in the Great Tunguska Debate — be they pro-asteroid or pro-comet — wanted to hear.
And the reason for that isn’t quite what you’d expect.
Before I get into that, though, let me say right up front that the folks at Operation Spacewatch and elsewhere are doing good work, trying to spot the asteroids and comets that might someday clobber us — and spot them earlier enough for us to do something about it. Trying to keep us, in other words, from going the way of the dinosaurs. And they’ve been doing it with only a handful of dedicated staffers and a funding level that wouldn’t pay NASA’s electric bill for a week!
On the other hand, doing good work’s no excuse for doing, well, not-so-good science — for letting your commitment override your objectivity. And, much as it pains me to say so, I get the feeling that explains a lot of the present-day Tunguska controversy. And here I don’t mean the comet vs. asteroid part.
No, I’m talking about the maybe comet/maybe asteroid but definitely not anything else part.
Because, in some strange way, it’s become what you might call “politically incorrect” to claim that Tunguska could’ve been caused by anything other than a meteorite or a comet.
Somewhere along the way, you see, the Tunguska Event’s become a sort of poster child for a campaign to raise public awareness that there are giant space rocks cruising around out there just waiting to clobber us. Seems it kind of brings that whole notion into focus, makes it more believable.
To hear NASA’s Dave Morrison tell it [Morrison 1997], “if it hadn’t been for Tunguska, we might not be aware today that there’s an impact hazard at all.”
Well, all I can say to that is, Dave ought to get out more. Out to where, for instance, he can catch a glimpse of the crater-pocked face of the full moon on a clear night. That’d raise his impact-hazard consciousness for sure.
Or, if that’s not good enough, how about Shoemaker-Levy back in 1994? Here, a steady barrage of cometary fragments goes slamming into Jupiter over the course of a week. Kicks up an impact plume the size of the whole world — with the whole world watching. And we still don’t get it?
But, no, we’ve just gotta have Tunguska too. As long as it’s a comet or a meteorite, it’s also our planetary wake-up call. If, Lord help us, it turned out to be anything else, we’d all just hit the snooze button and go back to sleep till doomsday.
Or so the theory goes.
Think I’m kidding, don’t you? After all, these are scientists we’re talking about. The only thing that’s supposed to matter to them is, like Carl says, “the quality of the purported evidence, rigorously and skeptically scrutinized.” Not whether some theory or other looks to be plausible, or popular, or profitable, or even politically correct enough to save the world. Right?
Well, it sure doesn’t sound that way sometimes. Give a listen to what rocket scientist James Oberg has to say about the Tunguska UFO “theorists” [Oberg 1982]:
[T]o defend against such future cosmic bombs [i.e., near-earth objects which might hit us] it is first necessary to recognize them for what they are. Here the spaceship theory and the distortions, omissions, and fabrications of its proponents (both well-meaning and otherwise) remain a major obstacle, and a major danger.
The fictional science and pseudoscience of the “Tunguska spaceship” should be discredited and dismissed as quickly as possible so that we can get on with defending the earth against future “Tunguska comets.”
Now, I’ll be the first to agree that anyone who plays as fast and loose with the facts as the flying saucer crowd does deserves to be “discredited and dismissed.” But does that make them “a major obstacle, and a major danger”? C’mon, Jim — lighten up!
It’s not the words so much, it’s the tone. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like a man of science talking to me. Sounds more like a man with a cause!
A cause that tells us we’ve got to keep a lid on any alternative explanations — maybe with one of those good old arguments from authority, like the one I quoted from Operation Spacewatch’s Tom Gehrels in our first Soapbox Seminar, about how “scientists have always understood” the Tunguska Object “was a comet or asteroid.”[Gehrels 1996]
And that right there’s the problem: Anytime you start using science in the service of a cause — even the best, worthiest cause — it stops being science. Because science has already got a cause. It’s called the truth.
And the truth is that having an axe to grind doesn’t necessarily make the comet and meteorite theorists wrong. The thing of it is, it doesn’t make them right either, much as they may think it does.
It’s as if, somewhere along the way, they’d gone and lost sight of another thing that Carl Sagan said — namely, that “all assumptions must be critically examined; arguments from authority are worthless.”
We’ve been arguing from authority, makes no never mind that the authority being claimed for the argument is that of — science itself. And the real shame of it is that, over the years, all those arguments from authority, all those self-confident extrapolations from too little evidence or none at all have pretty much combined to drive any competing hypotheses off the field.
Because, like those characters in the funny papers, the meteorightists and the cometarians have always been willing always take time off from beating on one another to join hands and beat on anybody else who threatened to come along and upset their applecart with a new and different idea.
As two good ol’ boys name of Jackson and Ryan were going to find out, way back in 1973.
[Vasil’ev 1992] Nikolai V. Vasil’ev, “Paradoxes of the Tunguska Meteorite Problem,” Proceedings of the Higher Educational Institutes, No. 3 “Physics,“ 1992, pp. 111-117, http://www.tunguska.ru/obzor/stat/.
[Morrison 1997] As quoted in “The Day The Earth Got Hit,” Cambridge-Conference Digest, 14 November 1997, at: http://abob.libs.uga.edu/bobk/ccc/cc111497.html.
[Oberg 1982] James Oberg, UFOs and Outer Space Mysteries, Donning Press, 1982. (Chapter Seven, “Tunguska Echoes” is available at http://www.jamesoberg.com/ufo/tungus.html.)
[Gehrels 1996] Tom Gehrels, “Collisions with Comets and Asteroids,” Scientific American, March 1996, pp. 54-59.