When Science Doesn’t Have a Simple Answer

This historic debate from the height of the Cold War provides a refreshing perspective on science and politics.

Edward Teller and Linus Pauling
Physicist Edward Teller, left, points at a formula on a blackboard in May 1968. Chemist Linus Pauling, right, is pictured circa 1954.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photos by STF/AFP/Getty Images and Universal History Archive/Getty Images.

A version of this piece originally appeared in Issues in Science and Technology.

On Feb. 20, 1958, in the midst of an escalating number of nuclear weapons tests worldwide—25 in 1955, 55 in 1957, nearly 120 in 1958—two scientists met in San Francisco for a live televised debate over nuclear weapons testing, fallout, and disarmament. In front of big block letters reading KQED, the call sign of the public television station, sat Linus Pauling, the 1954 Nobel laureate in chemistry and a compelling voice in the push for world peace through nuclear disarmament. To his left was physicist Edward Teller, looking comfortable and confident. Teller helped build the atomic bombs detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, and did work on the more powerful hydrogen bomb. He supported constructing increasingly powerful weapons to deter nuclear war with the Soviets.

Since this debate aired nearly 60 years ago, the spectacle of scientists dueling in public over matters of political disagreement has become commonplace. Experts line up on opposing sides of a widening array of policy debates around issues as diverse as climate change, genetically modified crops, food and nutrition, and K–12 education. The experts speak as scientists. But very often they also speak on behalf of one political position or another. As a result of such advocacy, the line between science and politics seems to be growing more and more blurry.

When the politics are divisive and the science is complicated and uncertain, scientists should help the public come to terms with complex and difficult dilemmas. Their approaches for helping us to make decisions can include advocacy, analysis, and education. Today, scientists may—intentionally or not —blend analytical or educational approaches with advocacy, thus furthering perceived entanglements of science and politics. This situation is quite different from the picture we get when we look back to a time when such debates were much less familiar, scientists were mostly in the background of political processes, and the authority of science was much less wrapped up in its role in public controversies.

On that night in 1958, the television camera first focused on the moderator sitting between the two scientists. “We in the United States bear an enormous burden in the decisions which must be made,” he began, referring to society’s questions about how to handle nuclear weapons. “In an effort to sharpen the focus … two of the world’s leading scientists agreed to debate the issue of ‘Fallout and Disarmament.’ Each speaks from personal convictions based upon experience, thoughtful consideration, and a profound knowledge of the subtleties involved.”

Pauling, wearing a suit tailored to fit his thin frame, spoke first. A week shy of his 57th birthday, the top of his head was practically bald and gray hair curled around his ears. Pauling had begun giving lectures about the science of atomic weapons after the United States used the bombs on Japan in 1945. By the end of the 1940s, he had shifted to speaking about the dangers of atomic weapons, always keeping his presentations up to date with the latest scientific advances and political developments.

Placing both hands flatly on the table in front of him, Pauling leaned forward and looked straight into the television camera. “I am a scientist. I am interested in the world, this wonderful world we live in.” He seemed a bit uncomfortable and he hesitated slightly. “And I am especially interested in human beings.” With this line, his demeanor relaxed.

“We must not have a nuclear war. We must begin to solve international disputes by the application of man’s power of reason in a way that is worthy of the dignity of man.” With each must, Pauling’s voice got louder. “We must solve them by arbitration, negotiation, the development of international law, the making of international agreements that will do justice to all nations and to all people—will benefit all nations and all peoples. And now is the time to start.”

One month before this, Pauling and his wife, Ava Helen, had traveled to New York and presented a petition to the head of the United Nations. The day after their U.N. visit, the front page of the New York Times reported “9,000 Scientists of 43 Lands Ask Nuclear Bomb Tests Be Stopped.”

But not all scientists thought nuclear testing should be stopped. Teller and Albert L. Latter, also a nuclear weapons expert, challenged the petition in an article they published in Life magazine. The story’s subheading blared: “Father of H-Bomb and Colleague Answer Nine Thousand Scientists: Fallout Risk is Overrated.”

In their Life article, Teller and Latter cited scientists who concluded that background radiation bombarding the planet from the sun and X-rays from procedures at doctors’ offices were more dangerous than nuclear weapons tests. Teller and Latter used this information to claim that the chances of contracting leukemia or bone cancer from fallout were negligible.

During the debate, Pauling turned to a copy of Teller’s Life article. “I should like to read a statement in this article,” Pauling said, putting on his glasses. He began reading: “ ‘Since the people are the sovereign power in a democracy, it is of the greatest importance that they should be honestly and completely informed about all the relevant facts.’ ” He read each word with deliberation, and then said that Life readers “are not honestly informed or completely informed by this article.” Pauling proceeded to read several passages of the article, many relating to the potential health impacts of radiation, that he deemed “not true” and “seriously misleading.”

Pauling finished his presentation with some science of radiation that he hoped would help viewers understand the magnitude of the dangers from fallout. He recited memorized estimates that 15,000 children yearly would be affected by disease-causing genetic mutations should nuclear testing continue at the current rate and noted that “there are serious effects on the health of human beings now living.”

Pauling’s dark eyebrows rose in emphasis, and he rarely turned his eyes away from the television camera. “This is the opinion that I and many of my scientific colleagues—a great many—have.” He smiled slightly and nodded in satisfaction as he reached the end of his opening statement.

Teller had a different strategy for his opening statement. “I would like to emphasize at the outset that there are many, many facts about which Dr. Pauling and I agree,” 50-year-old Teller stated in a thick Hungarian accent. His relaxed demeanor and slightly disheveled appearance made him appear more avuncular and approachable than Pauling. “Now, the first points about which I would like to agree very strongly with Dr. Pauling are his quest for peace and his great appreciation for human life.”

The camera cut to Pauling, who stood with back straight, brow furrowed, and lips pursed.

“We are playing for big stakes,” Teller continued solemnly. “We are playing not only for our lives, we are playing for something more. We are playing for freedom, for our own freedom, for the freedom of our friends and allies.” Siding with the U.S. government’s nuclear policy of deterrence, he believed that force was the best way to maintain freedom and eventually achieve an international agreement. Disarmament stripped nations of their ability to retaliate. It had allowed Adolf Hitler and the Nazis to occupy Teller’s homeland.

Born to a Jewish family in Hungary and educated in Germany, Teller emigrated to the United States in 1935 to escape Nazi persecution. The feelings of harassment were still fresh, and anger rumbled in his raised voice. The belligerence of the Soviet Union made the country no more trustworthy than Nazi Germany. Placing freedom above peace allowed him to appeal to viewers’ fears of a Communist takeover. He argued: “We must avoid war under all possible circumstances, except, in my opinion, one: when the freedom of human beings is at stake.” War was a last resort; developing and testing weapons deterred war.

Pauling tried to turn the debate back to what he felt was the central question that scientific information could address: the amount of genetic damage presently caused by test explosions. But Teller was savvy at politics. He spent most of his public speeches appealing to people’s belief systems, but he did not ignore the science.

When Pauling discussed the science of fallout, Teller turned it into an opportunity to talk about another side of nuclear science, a utopian future made possible by continued testing. He spoke of the development of clean explosives devoid of radioactive elements, of days when nonradioactive nuclear explosions could be used to crush rock for mining, dig canals, and possibly even increase oil production.

“Now let me tell you right here,” Teller stated earnestly, “this alleged damage which the small radioactivity is causing by producing cancer and leukemia has not been proved, to the best of my knowledge, by any kind of decent and clear statistics.” Teller continued stating each word slowly and clearly through his thick accent. “It is possible that there is damage. It is even possible, to my mind, that there is no damage. And there is the possibility, furthermore, that very small amounts of radioactivity are helpful.”

Teller’s position on the scientific evidence for risks from fallout was clear: Too much was unknown. Researchers had yet to provide conclusive statistics about the damaging effects of radioactive fallout on the reproductive system. Without stronger scientific evidence, it was too early to take a radical action that could make the U.S. vulnerable to nuclear attack.

Teller captured viewers with ardor and urgency that were sure to have them listening intently to his message about the specter of a catastrophic world war. So Pauling switched his focus from fallout science to policy advice that might calm listeners’ concerns. “I do not believe that there is going to be a nuclear war. I believe that these great stockpiles of nuclear weapons are really deterrents, as President Eisenhower has described them. Deterrents that will prevent war.” The next step, he said, was instituting an international agreement to stop bomb tests. However, Pauling’s tempered statements and restrained demeanor undermined his effectiveness toward an emotional connection with listeners.

Nuclear weapons are deterrents, Teller agreed. But to cease tests was to give the world to the Russians. “Now, peace based on force is not as good as peace based on agreement, but in the terrible world in which we live—in the world where the Russians have enslaved many millions of human beings, in the world where they have killed men—I think for the time being the only peace that we can have is the peace based on force.” Soviet ruthlessness left the United States no option but to stay strong.

The debate volleyed in this manner. Teller grabbed the advantage from the beginning and never let go. He had a better presence on camera. And while he discounted the science of fallout, his arguments resonated with viewers better than Pauling’s numbers, statistics, and bland delivery.

Teller got the final word. “I have to tell you that I am not talking about these things calmly,” he emphasized, lurching his torso toward the camera. “I have feelings. I have strong feelings. Many people were killed in Hungary from where I came, and all people in Hungary lost their freedom.”

Striking the desk twice in rapid succession, he continued his tirade. “This question of freedom is the most important question in my mind. I don’t want to kill anybody. I am passionately opposed to killing,” Teller spat out, “but I am also even more, more, more passionately fond of freedom.” His head bobbed vigorously. He condemned censorship. He rebuked totalitarianism. His fury was obvious. And with his rage at a boil, he concluded: “I am talking for my freedom, for his freedom”—he gestured to Pauling—“and for the freedom for all of us.” With that statement, the debate ended.

Now, more than half a century later, what seems especially remarkable about the debate is how overtly Pauling and Teller—pre-eminent experts both—connected their opposing scientific perspectives and policy preferences to their highly personal views of the world and of the best ways to manage the unprecedented specter of nuclear Armageddon.

Each scientist drew on his scientific expertise to argue his position, and each had valid, though different, interpretations of the latest fallout science. By the end of the debate, however, science held only a supporting role, as each man emphasized his value-based position on an international policy issue. Pauling remained stoic as he used statistics to urge peace through an international treaty banning nuclear testing. Teller made the topic personal by focusing on his family and others’ experiences with totalitarianism to support the use of force to keep the peace. The scientists spoke as advocates for their positions.

The Pauling-Teller debate reminds us that there is an alternative, and arguably better, way to involve scientific experts in political controversies. Neither scientist tried to occupy a pedestal of detached objectivity in a world of momentous dilemmas and divisive politics. As the scientists argued, the audience could easily recognize their statements for what they were: informed perspectives influenced by personal values.

This doesn’t mean that science should be disregarded in political debate, but it does mean that experts need to be recognized as humans with biases, preferences, and always-incomplete views of the difficult challenges facing democratic society. In the end, the question of whether expertise confers special wisdom about how best to resolve political controversies is a matter for each of us to decide.

The final word belonged to neither Teller nor Pauling, but to the moderator. Perched on his stool between the two scientists and looking at each in turn through thickly framed glasses, the moderator reminded viewers of their responsibility in what today might seem extraordinary terms: “It is apparent that the issue has not been resolved, but I am sure that both of our guests would agree that its ultimate solution rests in our hands. That each of us bears the moral obligation to examine the evidence, draw conclusions from this evidence, and act upon our convictions.”

A version of this essay originally appeared in Issues in Science and Technology. Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University, and New America; Issues in Science and Technology is a publication of the National Academies in partnership with Arizona State University and the University of Texas at Dallas.