Saturday, March 10, 2012

Rhetoric and Reality

Click the arrow to watch the video of Dr. Tyson's testimony March 7, 2012 before the Senate Science Committee.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is not only a prominent American astrophysicist but also perhaps the most visible and eloquent advocate for space exploration.

For those of us who grew up on Carl Sagan and his PBS series Cosmos, Dr. Tyson evokes memories of how Sagan engaged the American public thirty years ago with his articulate and passionate description of how the universe works.

1980: Carl Sagan describes artificial and natural selection. He concludes, "Evolution is a fact, not a theory."

Sagan enraged the creationist community when he said in Cosmos, "Evolution is a fact, not a theory. It really happened."

Tyson took on creationists in his own style with a November 2005 column titled, "The Perimeter of Ignorance" that appeared in Natural History magazine. Mocking creationist theory of intelligent design, Tyson pointed out the deficiencies in the human body and called it "stupid design":

Stupid design could fuel a movement unto itself. It may not be nature's default, but it's ubiquitous. Yet people seem to enjoy thinking that our bodies, our minds, and even our universe represent pinnacles of form and reason. Maybe it's a good antidepressant to think so. But it's not science—not now, not in the past, not ever.

Sagan was a political activist. He was arrested for an act of non-violent civil disobedience at a Nevada nuclear test site. He openly opposed President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed "Star Wars" by its critics. He helped found The Planetary Society and was its first president.

Tyson is a former president of the Society's Board of Directors, and remains on the board. The Society is politically active within the laws for a non-profit; it may not endorse candidates or take a specific position on legislation. Its web site has a Legislative Action Center where members can contact elected officials to make their opinions known.

Tyson seems to lack Sagan's political activism. He speaks to and about politicians, he speculates about why Congress is so dysfunctional, but beyond that he doesn't seem to be politically active.

Tyson was invited to address the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on March 7. The committee has 25 members. Of those, only three were present when he spoke — Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and John Boozman (R-AR).

Tyson proposed doubling the NASA budget, which right now is about $18 billion per fiscal year. I would say his proposal fell on deaf ears, but there were almost no ears present for those words to fall upon.

I recorded Tyson's appearance and posted it on YouTube, where in three days it already has 12,000 views. Tyson is an Internet darling, so his words are widely heard, if not revered.

But do they translate into political action?

Has Tyson ever called on his followers to contact their congressional representatives? Has he urged them to call Congress to support or oppose specific legislation? Has he organized any campaigns that mobilize his faithful to lobby for doubling NASA's budget?

I've seen some comments by Tyson which suggest he is somewhat uninformed about the politics of the government space program. In a January 2011 interview, for example, Tyson wrongly stated that Barack Obama ended the Space Shuttle program. The fact is that George W. Bush cancelled the Space Shuttle in January 2004, effective the end of International Space Station construction circa 2010. Congress agreed, so NASA spent the next six years ending Shuttle support contracts. The Shuttle program was ended after the Columbia accident in January 2003. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board conluded that the Shuttle was "a complex and risky system," which was why it was being phased out. Tyson doesn't seem to understand all this.

Dr. Tyson is a visionary, and an extremely gifted and popular speaker. But he doesn't seem to understand how to translate those skills into the political action necessary to enact his vision.

Carl Sagan knew how.

I wish Carl was still with us to show the way.

And I don't think he would have put up with addressing a nearly empty senate hearing chamber.

UPDATE March 11, 2012 5:30 PM EDTDr. Tyson sent out a Twitter message which states, "'Case for Space' cover-story in @ForeignAffairs mag. that led to Senate's invitation for me to testify." He provides a link to a March/April 2012 Foreign Affairs article titled, "The Case for Space: Why We Should Keep Reaching for the Stars."

This article has some factual historical inaccuracies, both with the Kennedy era and the last ten years post-Columbia. Rather than regurgitate what I've written before, I'll point you here and here.

Tyson also writes, "China’s latest space proclamations could conceivably produce another “Sputnik moment” for the United States, spurring the country into action after a relatively fallow period in its space efforts." My personal opinion is that this is unlikely.

Let's say China lands taikonauts on the Moon in 2019 (which is unlikely). It will have been fifty years since we did it. That's a "Sputnik moment"?!

I wrote on January 26, 2011:

I understand what the President means by his "Sputnik moment" phrase, but I cringe because to me it means, "A moment where everyone panics, overreacts, succumbs to hysteria and totally misses the point ...

For the more sober, Sputnik suggested the Russians could strike the U.S. with an ICBM. The absence of an American satellite implied it could not retaliate. That was totally false, but the Eisenhower administration was reluctant to expose military secrets to respond to what they viewed as an overreaction.

If anything, the administration missed the propaganda value behind Sputnik until it was too late, until after the Soviets launched Sputnik II with a dog aboard.

I admire Dr. Tyson's eloquence and his passion for space. But this further reinforces my impression that he doesn't understand the political dynamics behind NASA's budget process, nor does he know how to marshal widespread political support for his proposal to double NASA's budget.

1 comment:

  1. A much larger-than-life fellow, Carl Sagan. Among his other accomplishments, you might note one superior SF novel (CONTACT), a volume or two of history, his founding of the planetary science journal ICARUS, his popularization of the search for extraterrestrial intelligences, and his role in kickstarting the still rather active field of climate modeling.

    What's of interest here is that Sagan accomplished what he did AS AN INDIVIDUAL rather than as a spokesman for this society or another. He was a professor at Cornell and a lab director, and we were all politically underveloped back then; his activities didn't bring Cornell into any hostile limelight or lead to Rush Limbaugh diatribes; there was no budding industry of Internet journalists intent of refuting each of his tweets; neither Republican nor Democratic congressmen had yet grasped the totalitarian implications of studying global weather.

    It may be that Tyson is more timid than Sagan, or that he has failed to reach for the same kind of influence. And perhaps Sagan had more of a lust for fame, or more willingness to embrace it. My own impression is that Sagan's popular fame was kind of a fluke; he was a prominent person all along in the tiny field of planetary sciences; that TV exposure made him familiar to millions and millions of people was something no one had anticipated.

    I think Tyson holds back from comparison with Sagan, partially from modesty, partially because accusations of glory hunting would obstruct his messages, partially because science and space issues just don't resonate with the American public as they once did. Even Carl Sagan would have problems today being Carl Sagan.