15 February 2012
WHOM WE ELECT
My attention was immediately captured the other day by an announcement by the Planetary Society that amid cuts in NASA's 2013 budget, "the planetary science program has been cut disproportionately .... With this budget, there will be no more flagship missions, no more fantastic voyages of discovery in deep space." I am a child of the space age. I was 10 years old when Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite, was launched into orbit, setting off the space race between the US and the USSR. I was 12 when President John F. Kennedy delivered the thrilling speech in which he boldly declared that we would have a man on the moon before the end of the decade (1960s). I was 14 when Alan Shepard became the first American in space, and 15 when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, both as part of Project Mercury. My youth, and the world I grew into, was shaped by the exploration of space.
Through the triumphs and tragedies of the Gemini and Apollo programs, the Space Shuttle program, and all the legendary unmanned space missions which explore individual planets of our solar system, and on into deep space (think Pioneer and Voyager), not to mention the stunning achievements of our space telescopes .... through them all, we have kept alive the human spirit of exploration and discovery. And now all that is to be put on indefinite pause by a few bean counters in Washington? This is tragic.
As the US relinquishes its ascendant role in space, other entities step into the void ~ the European Space Agency, China, and individual/corporate programs. It seems a shame that the national dream embodied in NASA is being allowed to drift away, to be replaced by the warped priorities of the wealthy reactionary few who now control our government. Instead of visionary goals, we now have outsourcing and corporate welfare. Bill Moyers addressed this very theme in his most recent Moyers and Company commentary.
So what is the solution to derailed values and a gridlocked government? Substantive election reform for starters ~ corruption becomes self-perpetuating when only the wealthy can afford to run for public office. Further, I suggest that we revise our assumptions about the kind of experience required to govern. Nearly all those elected to office are lawyers or businessmen. John Allen Paulos writes in the NYTimes that the United States could learn from the example of other developed and developing nations, which "benefit from the participation and example of more scientists in government." Think about it. Those whose training and temperament is most inclined to critical thought and a dispassionate weighing of new ideas, those whose understanding of the scientific method guides their decisions, are in an excellent position to transcend petty politics and demagoguery.
Paulos notes that "Among the 435 members of the House, for example, there are one physicist, one chemist, one microbiologist, six engineers, and nearly two dozen representatives with medical training. The case of doctors and the body politic is telling. Everyone knows roughly what doctors do, and so those with medical backgrounds escape the anti-intellectual charge of irrelevance often thrown at those in the hard sciences .... For complex historical reasons, Americans have long privately dismissed scientists and mathematicians as impractical and elitist, even when publicly paying lip service to them.
"One reason is that an abstract, scientific approach to problems and issues often leads to conclusions that are at odds with religious and cultural beliefs, and scientists are sometimes tone-deaf to the social environment in which they state their conclusions. A more politically sensitive approach to problems and issues, on the other hand, often leads to positions that simply don't jibe with the facts, no matter how delicately phrased.
"Politicians, whose job is in many ways more difficult than that of scientists, naturally try to sway their disparate constituencies, but the prevailing celebrity-infatuated, money-driven culture and their personal ambitions often lead them to employ rhetorical tricks rather than logical arguments.
"Skepticism enjoins scientists ~ in fact all of us ~ to suspend belief until strong evidence is forthcoming, but this tentativeness is no match for the certainties of ideologues, and seems to suggest to many the absurd idea that all opinions are equally valid."
To clarify ~ everyone has a right to his/her opinion. But many opinions are founded in myth and rumor, with no sound evidence to back them. Therefor not all opinions are equally valid. And who better than a trained scientist (or someone equally devoted to critical thinking) to sort out evidence from smoke-and-mirrors? With more scientists and fewer lawyers and lobbyists in Washington, we would be more likely to engage in civil discourse, factual inquiry, and the pursuit of knowledge to further social programs which benefit the people .... and more likely to discover a resistance to the vagaries of ideology and ignorance.
So says this child of space exploration.