Chapter 3: Skeptics
One of the motivations for writing this series was to address public perception around the space program, which could be characterized as a mixture of apathy and skepticism. We could blame this on a PR problem or on the insulated nature of the scientific community. But there is more to it.
There are a lot of things that grab our attention today. Like 24 hour news, political theatrics or the next binge-worthy drama. None of those things are inherently bad and I confess to spending a lot of my time fully engrossed in them. However at the same time, the scientific community is continually pushing the boundary of our understanding and imagination. We detected Gravitational Waves, Voyagers went beyond the Sun’s influence, NASA landed rovers on Mars, ISS is conducting some amazing research, private ventures like SpaceX are becoming a reality. The list goes on.
It’s fair to say that groundbreaking scientific discoveries don’t happen as often as other stories. They take years of work and peer review by design. They are often presented by scientists who have a specific way of explaining things. The majority of scientific publications are not even meant for general consumption, they are specifically for other scientists. To bridge this gap, several science communicators are trying to explain the complexities of the world around us in a more approachable way. Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson (both hosts of the show Cosmos), Bill Nye, Kip Thorne and Stephen Hawking come to mind quickly.
The problem is that they can’t easily explain fundamental details to make up for a lack of general scientific knowledge — there is some basic understanding and curiosity expected from the people receiving this information. If there is a theme to this series, it is this — we need to increase the scientific knowledge of our society and continually update it with the progress that scientific community makes. For a society that is so dependent on the fruits of scientific labor, we are dangerously ignorant to even the basics of it. This is my effort to help increase our collective scientific baseline.
Carl Sagan eloquently put it— “We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces”
This is not to say that existential crises on Earth can be ignored. Douglas Rushkoff wrote an insightful article titled ‘Survival of the Richest — The wealthy are plotting to leave us behind’. He argued that the wealthiest amongst us, do not see themselves playing any role in our future. Actually, they want to escape it. That “the very essence of what it is means to be human is treated less as a feature than as a bug”. To paraphrase the article’s main solution — our future rests on humans being more compassionate towards each other. In other words, as Douglas put it, on “humans being more human”.
That’s a rational conclusion and I reached out to him, hoping to add to his sentiment — “Specifically to the example of flight to Mars. What I see under the NASA’s Artemis and SpaceX Mars agenda is a possible organizing principle for the entire human race. Instead of one government or one company achieving flight, I see the benefit of embedding the idea of going to & beyond Mars as our common goal. The benefit is that we stop being smaller factions, bickering over trivial issues , instead, take on a generational challenge.”
He responded with a simple “Sure — I don’t mind a mission to Mars, done collectively. But I do think our climate/energy/food/topsoil/economic crises are much more urgent, and more easily addressed. Again, through collective big-project action.”
The scientific community loves a challenge and those urgent crises Douglas listed are big ones. Investments into space programs not only directly improve our technology and quality of life on Earth, but also enable us to apply that expertise to tackling global problems. Only by building capabilities to monitor our weather (including our Sun) and sending out probes to understand atmospheric evolution of other planets, have we been able to complete Earth’s climate model. This has led to two major conclusions — Earth is not unique in its climate and human activity is directly responsible for its destruction. Only scientific illiteracy would lead anyone to believe that we can escape this reality, or even worse, afford to deny it. By cultivating scientific curiosity, we can reach for the stars and live in harmony with our planet.
So, if I can convince a few more folks to take interest in science advocacy, subscribe to a newsletter, or follow NASA, or even better, read my favorite book — A brief history of time, this endeavor will be worth it.
A few more resources. Please add more in comments:
- Become a part of Planetary Society or encourage STEAM education
- Follow space agencies like European Space Agency, Indian Space Research Organization or ISS Research
- Follow Inspiration4 Astronaut, Astrophysicist Janna Levin, fellow writer Jatan Mehta’s newsletter or ArsTechnica’s Eric Berger
- Watch JFKs full “why go to the moon” & “act of faith” speech
- Read NASA’s Impact of Science on Society 1985 — Burke, Bergman, Asimov
- Honorable mention for StarTalk (NDT & Chuck Nice) that makes scientific topics fun