Al Gore Blamed Obama’s Debate Performance on Denver’s Altitude. Is That a Plausible Excuse?

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Oct. 5 2012 12:33 PM

Did High Altitude Affect President Obama’s Debate Performance?

A mini-Explainer on Al Gore’s explanation for Wednesday’s debate

Barack Obama.
President Obama during his debate with Mitt Romney in Denver on Wednesday

Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images.

Al Gore joked on Wednesday night that the high altitude of Denver affected President Obama’s debate performance. How high does a person have to go before his cognition is affected?

At least 6,000 feet. There is no evidence that Denver’s mile-high altitude has any effect on mental performance. The president may have been able to blame his lackluster display on thin air if the debate had been held in Kabul, Afghanistan (elevation 5,902 feet), because some studies have suggested that the first signs of short-term memory problems associated with acute hypoxia begin to appear at about 6,000 feet. That estimate, however, is controversial, and many researchers think you have to go much higher before mental performance is affected.

Altitude would be a more plausible excuse for President Obama had the debate been held in Bogota, Colombia (elevation 8,727 feet). At elevations of about 8,000 feet, research subjects have shown a diminished capacity to perform complex mental tasks, perhaps including calculating corporate tax rates.

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Some of the criticism of the president’s performance focused on his apparent lack of fighting spirit, general sluggishness, and occasional irritability with moderator Jim Lehrer. Those can all be symptoms of acute hypoxia. Mountaineers often experience wild mood swings, from severe lethargy to euphoria, and sometimes exhibit impatience and increased sensitivity to criticism. A researcher studying European expats living in Ladakh, Kashmir, in the 1920s observed: “It is astonishing how the most decisive of men will slowly and insidiously lose the power of decision and become unwilling to bear responsibility.”

Since hypoxia-related lassitude and emotional instability don’t seem to appear until a person surpasses 11,000 feet, President Obama could only have blamed the entirety of his shortcomings on altitude if the debate had been held in a city such as La Paz, Bolivia (elevation 11,942) or Lhasa, Tibet (elevation 12,002 feet).

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.