The Point on asteroid mining and antiscience

By Phil Plait | May 5, 2012 7:00 am

The Point is a web-based talk show on the Young Turks YouTube channel where various issues are discussed by panelists. They have people send in short videos making some salient point, then panelists discuss it. Cara Santa Maria — the senior science correspondent at The Huffington Post — guest-hosted the show this last week, and asked me to send in a video for discussion. I talked about asteroid mining, which started an interesting discussion.

For more information about asteroid mining and Planetary Resources, you can read my recent post about them.

The video embedded above is set to start at my segment, but I’ll note that my friend Chris Mooney was the first video they discussed, talking his new book "The Republican Brain". Chris is always careful when he discusses this topic, knowing it will be misinterpreted willfully or otherwise, which of course it has been. But I do have to point out one thing that bugged me: noted science author K. C. Cole was on the panel, and I agreed with much of what she said. But when talking about Chris’s book, she brought out the "Well, there’s antiscience on the left as well" meme, and that argument really irks me.

Yes, there does exist antiscience bias on the left as promulgated by antivaxxers and alt-medders — and I have to debunk that way too often as well — but it’s not nearly as far-reaching as antiscience on the right. It’s not a party platform, for one thing, and for another there simply isn’t nearly as much or as focused as it is on the right. Read this link for more about this (especially before you leave a comment here — hint, hint).

Still, it was an interesting discussion on The Point, and I’d like to thank Cara for inviting me. And as to her question at 35:43… yes. Yes, I am.


Related Posts:

Breaking: Private company does indeed plan to mine asteroids… and I think they can do it
Space firm about to make a big announcement. I take a stab at what it is.
TED talks now on Netflix… including mine

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, NASA, Piece of mind, Space

Comments (53)

  1. CPS

    Haha… I didn’t know you were promoting the end of the world on May 27, 2012!!! That’s what the ad in your RSS feed links to. :Dhttp://imgur.com/CNzzb

  2. Great talk and Tsiolkovsky quote BA. :-)

    Once again we have someone (Max Lugavere to be precise – 35 min.38secs) dragging out the old canard of looking after the Earth first as if we can’t do both at once! :-(

    Yes we could & should work on fixing ageing, cancer and making conditions better for more people and so many other things but we can also get the experts and pioneers in space exploration and development working on mining asteroids and setting up human space outposts and retruning to the Earth’s Moon and more.

    As for legality, let’s follow Shakepeare’s advice when it comes to lawyers! ;-)

    Oh & Newt now apologising for the one thing he actually got right in my view? *Facepalm.* Groan. I think it is very sad that Gingrich’s Moon colony proposal got so widely mocked and even sadder that he was the only one who had such a Star Trek type policya nd attitude human spaceflight~wise. :-(

    I really hope this asteroid mining plan actually becomes ewhat it has the potential to be. I badly want to see this happen in my lifetime. I wish them all the best. :-)

    PS. As for the MotoGp qually from Estoril :

    Cbyr = Pnfrl Fgbare -lrf!!! – gura Crqebfn, Pehgpuybj, Yberamb & Fcvrf. Ubcrshyyl Pbyva Rqjneqf jvyy or bxnl nsgre uvf pbyyvfvba jvgu Enaql qr Chavrg fgbccrq gur frffvba oevrsyl, fgvyy njnvgvat jbeq ba gung.

    Coded in rot13 decoding site linked to my name to avoid spoilers for folks that may not want to know yet.

  3. SLC

    One should not assume that the anti-vax folks are all leftists. As David Gorski points out on a recent blog post over at the ORAC site, the leading anti-vaxer in the US House of Representatives, who is thankfully retiring, is Rethuglican Representative Dan Burton of Indiana, a nutcases nutcase.

    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2012/05/dan_burton_strikes_again.php

  4. Great explanation, Phil, making the methodical steps clear. I honestly don’t understand the skepticism… were people this obtuse when things like the railroads were first discussed?

  5. Antiscience? Has science now attained the status of a religion in the minds of the faithful? I think you folks need to get a little more culture, because this “nerd fascism” you’re pushing is an utterly hopeless ideology! According to science, you and I are random configurations of 10^28 atoms which are of no more value than any other such collections of particles anywhere in the universe. According to science, consciousness – the inner cosmos – isn’t measurable and therefore doesn’t exist! According to science, the universe is a mindless, gibbering void which will soon destroy us all!

    These things may or may not be true, but they are truths the human mind isn’t prepared to accept. Pure scientism leads to nihilism, madness and extinction, which probably explains why atheism has always failed as a basis for civilization. When atheism goes on the march, birthrates plummet, civilizations fall and people perish. This is just a historical fact, and it’s a history lesson we may have to learn again the hard way if your “new atheism” prevails. Remember the words of Carl Sagan: “the cosmos is rich in mystery”; without mystery the human soul starves and people “go mad from the revelation,” as Lovecraft so prophetically described the bleakness of the materialistic worldview.

    However, the good news is that there is a third way between materialist nihilism and religious fundamentalism, and that is the way of the psychonaut – esoteric exploration of the real final frontier, which is inner space. What is truly interesting about life is the contents of your mind — consciousness, not giant rocks or gaseous spheres! So please, nerd atheist-fascists, I beg of you: do some meditation, alter your consciousness, look inward, and try to realize that there are far more things in heaven and earth (and your mind) than are dreamed of in your philosophy!

  6. Kevpod

    Phil, there’s no doubt that the conservatives have attacked science more systematically on the national level.

    But, where I live, it is the left that is most active in mounting woo-based attacks on things like fluoridation and SmartMeters, and who promote garbage like homeopathy, neuro-linguistic programming, acupuncture and other nonsensical non-treatments. These are things I encounter almost daily.

  7. Azmi

    People these days shouldn’t look science in a bad light, no matter what religion they are. If their religion is the reason for antiscience, they it’s their religion that is flawed. Thankfully, I am in a religion where I am taught to look at the world and appreciate God’s creation and find out the secrets within them, and unlocking the secrets of the universe is encouraged, even.

    Also, the reason I think the moonbase idea is mocked because it’s just a little too ambitious and far fetched, so I can live with that. However, given the information that Planetary Resources has given which is actually feasible in today’s economy and level of technology, I find that going against this particular asteroid mining project to be appalling. Sure, I welcome a devil’s advocate who can present the limitations on the project, but unless someone can give evidence that this cannot work, I stand by my side.

    Anybody shouldn’t be on the extremes. Sure, not everybody on the right are antiscience or anti-vax people, and not all legitimate scientists are necessarily anti-religious or atheists (and that’s because I know a few who are scientists AND practicing a religion). But I have to accept the reality that there are many whom I support politically (sort of) are antiscience folks. Still, I don’t have faith on the other side, either, as they might compromise many of the freedoms that every man should have (particularly on stricter more ridiculous gun regulations, in which many liberals falsely believe it would make us safe. Yes, I have just said that!). *Sigh*

  8. Wzrd1

    Azmi, when my parents were growing up, the thought, even a bare notion of travel to the moon or even NEAR it was considered lunacy. It was considered utterly imponderable and impossible.
    I grew up alongside of the Apollo program and watched the moon landings live.
    To consider a moon base impossible is to say that we’ve not technologically advanced at all in 40 years!
    To consider a moon base fraught with peril, obstacles and difficulties in all disciplines of science would be accurate, but difficulty and danger do not make something impossible.

    As for Planetary Resources, it’s their money to spend as they please. When we start telling private individuals what they can and cannot invest their money into, we’ve departed from our current economic system.

    As for “the other side” and freedoms, that other side hasn’t advanced any further firearms legislation and interestingly enough, machine guns were outlawed by a republican dominated congress. I’m more liberal, but highly supportive of the second amendment and own a half dozen firearms that range from competition target models to two different hunting models (long range and heavy brush environment). Eventually, I’ll get an M-4, as I got rather used to having one around over the years of military service… That said, I’m for registration and tracking, as it would then enable tracking of straw purchasers and their conviction for illegal arms sales. I’m also one of those wild eyed people who believe that the insane should not be permitted to possess a firearm.
    I also hold a CCW permit that I need to renew.
    So, there are people all over the spectrum in the real world. It’s those at the extreme edges who are both the minority and the loudest screamers. We are SUPPOSED to be living in a nation with MAJORITY rule, not a loud minority ruling and most certainly not some wealthy minorities purchasing our government!

  9. Gunnar

    I am uncomfortable with labeling people or ideas as either conservative or liberal. I think that neither conservatives or liberals have a monopoly on either truth or error.

    I think that liberals are more likely than conservatives to come up with new ideas, whether good or bad, and more likely to be biased in favor of the new and previously untried simply because it is new, as well as being more likely to quickly recognize the merits of new ideas that are genuinely better.

    Conservatives are more likely to cling tenaciously to the old, whether good or bad, simply because it is old and familiar, as well as being being less likely to abandon tried and true ideas that still serve us very well, before the new is demonstrably better.

    Good, new ideas that manage to survive conservative opposition long enough to prove their worth to the satisfaction of all who are both honest and reasonable, automatically become part of the repository of the tried and true, of which conservatives claim custodianship, and will, thus, very likely be regarded by future generations as part of mainstream conservatism.

    I don’t think that science is inherently either liberal or conservative–at least not according to how those labels seem to be defined nowadays by many. It is just the best way mankind has yet discovered to distinguish between truth and error. Honest conservatism to me simply means preserving that which has served us well and is demonstrably still useful, while always being open to the possibility that something we have not yet tried or discovered might be better still. I don’t think there is anything honest or rational about the rabid anti-science stance taken by the self-styled conservatives who have managed to hi-jack the Republican Party.

  10. We unfortunately have a three way semantic split with just two political terms to cover them. Liberal gives one, but conservative covers both those who want to hold the line or slow things down a bit as well as those regressives who want to take us back to the 1800’s, 1500’s, or the Stone Age. Gender marking in human languages often does the same type of thing. Probably related.

  11. JohnW

    Phil, you’re wrong in this regard – the left is much more antiscience than the right. Generations of poor urban minority kids are cycled through the inner city failure factories we mislabel as public schools, and the Democrats have been running almost all of them for the last 40-50 years.

    For crying out loud, the graduation rate in the Detroit public school system is 26%! Back of envelope calculations, that means 47,000 out of their 64,000 students won’t be getting an education over the next 12 years. Despite the fact that they spend well above the national average per student per year.

    Their last mayor who wasn’t a Democrat left office in 1962.

    The societal catastrophe that is Detroit alone outweighs all of the annoying “teach the controversy” laws passed in Texas or Tennessee or wherever. But you have similarm if slightly less awful, situations in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago, DC, LA, Cleveland… Hell, the New Orleans public school system got better after it was destroyed by a hurricane! Any attempt at reform is fought tooth and nail by the Democrats, all so they can keep that sweet, sweet teacher’s union money rolling into their coffers. All at the expense of our most vulnerable citizens.

    I look forward to the day when the so called skeptic blog community devotes some attention to this. Maybe they have, and I just missed it. I know “Democratic run schools continue to suck” makes for a less absorbing headline than “Creationist Republicans in Podunk pass another teach the controversy law. Doomed!” But it’s a far more important science and education issue to this country. You’re focusing on a hangnail when a brain tumor is killing the patient.

  12. amphiox

    According to science, you and I are random configurations of 10^28 atoms which are of no more value than any other such collections of particles anywhere in the universe.

    FALSE. Science doesn’t say this. Science specifically states that the configuration of atoms that makes us up is definitively NOT random, and science makes no judgement on value one way or another.

    According to science, consciousness – the inner cosmos – isn’t measurable and therefore doesn’t exist!

    FALSE. Science doesn’t say this. In fact there are ENTIRE FIELDS OF SCIENCE dedicated to investigating and measuring consciousness.

    According to science, the universe is a mindless, gibbering void which will soon destroy us all!

    FALSE. Science doesn’t say this. Science says that we are part of the universe, and we have mind, so the universe isn’t mindless. The void doesn’t gibber, and it will most certainly not SOON destroy us all.

    Pure scientism leads to nihilism, madness and extinction

    FALSE.

    atheism has always failed as a basis for civilization

    FALSE. Atheism has never been tried as a basis for civilization, nor do any rational atheists advocate that it should. Secularism perhaps, but secularism is not atheism.

    When atheism goes on the march, birthrates plummet, civilizations fall and people perish.

    FALSE. Atheism has, in fact, never ever been on the march. When SECULARISM is on the march, birth rates do fall, but only as a secondary effect of IMPROVING quality of life for women and children, civilizations RISE, and people SURVIVE.

    This is just a historical fact

    FALSE. You clearly don’t understand what the words “historical” or “fact” mean in the english language.

    What is truly interesting about life is the contents of your mind — consciousness, not giant rocks or gaseous spheres!

    Both are equally interesting and both are being studied by science. And you can rest assured that if we learn anything useful or interesting about either, it will be through the work of science.

    Before you try to criticize something, Sean baby, it is generally a good idea to EDUCATE YOURSELF, even just a little bit, about what you are planning to criticize, so that at the least you know, even a little bit, something about what you are talking about.

    It helps to avoid opening your mouth prematurely and exposing yourself as an utter fool, as you have just done.

    I would advise you to try this in the future.

  13. Solius

    Sean the Mystic Fraud wrote:

    Pure scientism leads to nihilism, madness and extinction…

    Citation needed. Or you sir, are a liar.

  14. John

    Enough! Let’s get back to the feasibility of asteroid mining!…of course it’s technically doable, but unlikely to be economically viable against terrestrial options–BUT if used in space for habitat and other infrastructure materiel, just maybe it’ll beat the $20,000/kilo cost to send up resources from the ground….last I heard, water alone cost the ISS folks something like $30k per liter…

  15. Azmi

    @ Wzrd1
    I think I have made myself vague about the moonbase. Sure, we can do it even now, but the thing is we still have not gone over the barriers of challenge that make maintaining a moonbase difficult. Sending water and food is expensive, so we need a local supply of water, but we don’t have the means to mine the water on the Moon yet. I actually like the idea of a moonbase as it would be a stop to get to exploration of Mars and beyond, and mining asteroids isn’t a bad idea, either. Sure, there will be critics, but if it’s truly plausible to do this, we should go for it.

    As for gun control, what I meant about limiting freedom is to limit choices and limit based on cosmetic and outlawing “evil features.” I actually don’t have an opinion on registration, but tracking a firearm that is already sold gives the means for the government to spy on you. Still, if we can track something without sacrificing privacy, then I don’t mind. I agree that the insane or have a felony record or with a history of drug abuse, etc. shouldn’t have weapons as they could be the threat to themselves since they are unable to use firearms safely. However, everybody other than the risky types should not be limited. If you’re going to have an AR-15, then go for it!

    Extremism is never good nor is radicalism. Which is why I don’t label myself as conservative nor liberal, and I’m sort of in the middle.

  16. Messier Tidy Upper

    @12. 12. amphiox :

    FALSE. Atheism has never been tried as a basis for civilization, nor do any rational atheists advocate that it should. Secularism perhaps, but secularism is not atheism.

    My possibly unreliable memory suggests that atheism was the official state religion of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR i.e. Communist Russia a.k.a. the original “Evil Empire”) plus Comunist China – still the case today with a limited and suppressed state operated Church I think and certainly very brutally repressed Tibetan Buddhist monastries. :-(

    Athiesm imposed by far left wing communist / socialist dictatorships also prevailed or still does in :

    * North Vietnam – now all Vietnam,

    * Cambodia during Pol Pot’s regime,

    * North Korea although its hard to say that’s really technically atheist given its worship of the communist dictators including a supposedly eternal President – actually long dince deceased – Kim Il-Sung.

    Oh plus Fidel Castro’s Cuba too.

    Pretty sure there have been other officially athiest nations too – some of the Arab and African hellholes in the 1960’s – today in some cases even?

    Actually, I think the first atheist “civilisation” – if you can call it that was imposed on the French following their most famous revolution which ushered in the Terror when Robespierre (sp?) and other far Left radicals (if the term extends that far back -essentiallywhat they were though I’d think) operated the guillotine pretty much all day every day until Napoleon took over and ended it. :-o

    Now I could be a bit hazy on some of these, but yeah, these athiest regimes did exist (still do for Cuba, North Korea & Vietnam) weren’t exactly paragons of human rights and treating people well. :-(

    Now i’m not saying the person youare arguing with there is corrcet onmuch else – but those are, I’m fairly certain, the facts in this particular point.
    FWIW. I’m agnostic – no big fan or organised religion or extreme anti-religion and religion bashing.

  17. Messier Tidy Upper

    PS. Personally, I believe in secular governance where what if anything an individual chooses to believe religion~wise is entirely up to them with no government interference at all.

    I don’t think government should tell folks what they must worship and that includes denying them the choice of following a religion if they so desire. The state should stay out of people’s religion as much as it stays out of their bedrooms – which in both cases should be completely as neither very personal aspect of an individuals life is the governments business at all.

    I think this ‘secular’ situation broadly best describes the governments of United States of America, Australia, United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and other such Western nations. (Yes, I know some of these have officially less strict Church/State separation than others and at least one case -the UK – an established national Church but broadly speaking the de facto situation.)

  18. Yup. Antiscientific attitudes are a problem in every group, but they are a particular problem in the American conservative wing. Just because a problem is pervasive doesn’t mean that it can’t have areas of high concentration.

  19. amphiox, giant rocks are as interesting as the contents of your mind? Really? Rocks = thoughts? Here we get to the root of the problem; I say subjective universe >> objective universe, and probably a superset thereof, whereas you apparently believe that they have equal status, which I find ridiculous. How do we arbitrate this dispute? We probably can’t, so we’ll just have to agree to disagree and learn to tolerate each other, as an alternative to meeting on the battlefield.

    Also, your claim that everything useful about consciousness will be discovered through science is preposterous. How will a scientific theory or experiment ever tell you what it feels like for a collection of atoms to feel inspired, or awed, or in love? Even Sam Harris admits that consciousness may be forever out of reach of science, hence there will probably always be a need for mystics.

    And please, no arrogant condescension sir, I’m quite educated in these areas, and like most people who have thought a bit deeply about them, has found evangelical scientism shallow, inadequate and dangerous! As Messier already noted, previous attempts to make atheism and scientism the basis of civilization have ended rather badly, which is a fact I suggest you meditate upon further.

    MTFBWY…

  20. Outcast

    Sadly the right doesn’t have the monopoly on anti-science. The left, particularly the environmental movement, is full of new age nonsense and various other forms of anti-scientific nonsense.

  21. dmbeaster

    Anti-science behavior is not confined to one side of the political spectrum, but politicization of science and denial of science as a political agenda is pretty much an exclusively right wing phenomena. And that is far more serious than any of the scattered anti-science trends more typical of leftist thinking.

    You should be angry about the phony “both sides do it” meme to trivialize the seriousness of right wing hostility toward science. And its not just global warming or other current hot button issues. Fluoridation, ozone depletion, toxic shock syndrome – there are many other historical examples now largely passe because the general public finally rejected right wing nonsense about this.

    As for JohnW’s weird screed about school issues, there are plenty of failing “Republican” schools too. Problem schools are not confined to the inner city, and those school failures have more to do with the ills of the urban poor than any other cause. It is not ideologically based. Just go look at the research on poor student performance in Republican dominated rural areas. It reflects the same pattern of failure as inner city schools in urban poor areas, which suggests that poverty has more to do with the issue than party ideology. Poverty affects school performance in two ways – a more unsettled family life and less support from parents about education, and an overall lack of funding compared to higher performing schools.

  22. JB of Brisbane

    Just to get us back on topic – the Huffington Post has a Science Correspondent? Who woulda thought?

  23. amphiox

    My possibly unreliable memory suggests that atheism was the official state religion of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR i.e. Communist Russia a.k.a. the original “Evil Empire”) plus Comunist China – still the case today with a limited and suppressed state operated Church I think and certainly very brutally repressed Tibetan Buddhist monastries.

    Just because a regime is atheistic doesn’t mean that atheism is the “basis of civilization” for that regime.

    Also, your claim that everything useful about consciousness will be discovered through science is preposterous

    Citation, please.

    How will a scientific theory or experiment ever tell you what it feels like for a collection of atoms to feel inspired, or awed, or in love?

    We ALREADY HAVE entire disciplines of SCIENCE devoted to investigating exactly this. Please educate yourself before spewing more ignorance here. You continue to make an utter fool of yourself.

    And supposing there is something that scientific methods cannot give us information about? Do you have an alternative way of knowing to propose? One that will produce results as reliable as the scientific method? One wherein you can self-correct and determine when you are wrong?

    Perhaps there might be some things science cannot answer for us. But there isn’t any other way of knowing that has any remote chance of answering those things, either. So if science cannot answer it, then it isn’t knowable.

  24. amphiox

    As Messier already noted, previous attempts to make atheism and scientism the basis of civilization have ended rather badly

    Messier is wrong. NONE of those are actually examples of atheism actually being a basis of civilization, anymore than eagle-symbology is a basis for American culture.

  25. Gunnar

    I agree with most of what MTU has to say, but I still agree with amphiox that none of MTU’s examples were really examples of atheism being a basis of civilization (nor do I think MTU really meant to imply that).

    Their failure was largely due to their being as “religiously” dogmatic and intolerant in their world views as the worst of the religions they criticized, and, of course, that they were brutal tyrants. Atheistic fanatics and tyrants are just as bad as religious fanatics and tyrants, and even more irrational (if anything) because of the inherent dichotomy between fanaticism and honest atheism. The mentioned regimes were just as anti-scientific in many ways as ultra-conservative Republicans. Pol Pot, in particular, persecuted scientists and intellectuals of all kinds at least as brutally as did the religious inquisitors of Gallileo’s day.

    As MTU pointed out, secularism and atheism are not quite the same thing. It is possible to be a religious person and still be a strong advocate for secular govenment. Whether religious fundamentalists like it or not, the U.S. Government is probably the first Goverment in history that was deliberately set up by its founding fathers to be strictly secular in nature, and it is this very secularism, so bitterly denounced by religious fundamentalists, that, in effect, guaranteed the religious freedom that made possible the great proliferation of religious sects that exist in this country–including the most vociferous and extreme fundamentalist sects.

  26. amphiox, you’re not listening dude. Subjective states of consciousness *are* knowable, just not with any scientific method. How do you propose to scientifically investigate conscious experience as it feels *from the inside* (not by measuring neuron potentials, etc.) The method you *can* use is called introspection.

    As Sam Harris put it (see http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-mystery-of-consciousness-ii/ ):

    “Therefore, although science may ultimately show us how to truly maximize human well-being, it may still fail to dispel the fundamental mystery of our mental life. That doesn’t leave much scope for conventional religious doctrines, but it does offer a deep foundation (and motivation) for introspection. Many truths about ourselves will be discovered in consciousness directly, or not discovered at all.”

    Here’s to science *and* mysticism! MTFBWY…

  27. Gunnar

    Getting back to the subject of this thread, it seems unlikely to me that mining of the moon and near-earth asteroids for minerals intended to be used here on earth would prove to be economically viable. However, when used as raw materials and fuel to be used to build infrastructure in space to support people living and working there, and build and supply vehicles used for further space exploration (as suggested in the video), it makes a lot more sense than expending the horrific amounts of energy it takes to lift all the needed materials up out of the earth’s gravity well.

    On the other hand, if we manage to capture a sizeable asteroid and nudge it into a near orbit around our planet, it shouldn’t take a prohibitive amount of energy to drop valuable materials mined from it down that same gravity well to the earth’s surface.

  28. amphiox

    Looks like Sean STILL demonstrates absolutely NO understanding of what science actually is. Again, there are ENTIRE FIELDS of science dedicated to the investigation of subjective states. And NO, measurements of neuron electric potentials has NOTHING TO DO WITH IT.

    As for introspection, can introspection error-correct? How would you check to make sure the “knowledge” you obtained from introspection is actually correct?

    If you do not know if and how you might be wrong, YOU DO NOT KNOW.

    You are only guessing.

  29. amphiox

    To make asteroid mining economical for use on earth would require a breakthrough in launch technology that would allow us to get infrastructure into space (and down from space) much cheaper than rocketry.

    Something like a space elevator.

    I actually don’t think large scale exploration, exploitation, or colonization of space will ever happen without that sort of enabling technology being developed first.

  30. amphiox

    And speaking of introspection, science uses introspection as well, as anyone who actually practices science would know.

  31. Gunnar

    @amphiox #29:

    “To make asteroid mining economical for use on earth would require a breakthrough in launch technology that would allow us to get infrastructure into space (and down from space) much cheaper than rocketry.

    Something like a space elevator.

    I actually don’t think large scale exploration, exploitation, or colonization of space will ever happen without that sort of enabling technology being developed first.”

    I so much agree with that! In particular, I don’t think we ought to send off a manned expedition to Mars using something as primitive and inefficient as chemically powered rockets. Unless and until we can perfect an Ion drive or other means of propulsion that can enable us to accelerate all the way there, we ought not to send men there. An Ion drive, for example, that could achieve a continuous acceleration of merely 0.1g all the way there (turning around and decelerating at the half-way point, of course) could get us there in under a week, if my rough calculations are correct. Even a continuous acceleration of only 0.01g should enable a trip of under 3 weeks each way. With chemical rockets, it would take the better part of a year, IIRC to get to Mars. The chemical fuel needed to get a crew of men, plus all the food and water needed to sustain them on such a long voyage is astronomical! Besides that, I would fear for both the mental and physical health of a crew of astronauts closed up together in a very limited space for so long in zero g conditions.

  32. Messier Tidy Upper

    @30. amphiox Says:

    And speaking of introspection, science uses introspection as well, as anyone who actually practices science would know.

    Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrodinger and Stephen hawking are perhaps best known after all for ideas derived through thought experiments and deep reflection not observations or experiments. Yes. :-)

    @23. amphiox :

    Just because a regime is atheistic doesn’t mean that atheism is the “basis of civilization” for that regime.

    How do you – and for that matter how does Sean the Mystic – define “the basis for civilisation” anyhow?

    I’m not sure, its a pretty nebulous concept.

    But the Societies /nations I mentioned did make atheism a key part of their ethos and official politico-cultural doctrine for whatever that’s worth.

    They also aren’t societies or nations I’d want to live in and ranged from not particularly successful to downright horrendous and murderous. :-(

    @25. Gunnar :

    I agree with most of what MTU has to say, but I still agree with amphiox that none of MTU’s examples were really examples of atheism being a basis of civilization (nor do I think MTU really meant to imply that). Their failure was largely due to their being as “religiously” dogmatic and intolerant in their world views as the worst of the religions they criticized, and, of course, that they were brutal tyrants. Atheistic fanatics and tyrants are just as bad as religious fanatics and tyrants, and even more irrational (if anything) because of the inherent dichotomy between fanaticism and honest atheism. The mentioned regimes were just as anti-scientific in many ways as ultra-conservative Republicans. Pol Pot, in particular, persecuted scientists and intellectuals of all kinds at least as brutally as did the religious inquisitors of Gallileo’s day.

    That’s it indeed. Atheism in a horrid sort of way in those places became a type of state sponsored “religion” – part of a political ideology that imposed itself in a pretty much worst-of-religious-fanaticism way. :-(

    As noted its hard to say precisely what’s meant by “basis of cvilisation” but the guiding ideology of these nations – the Soviet Union, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Cuba etc .. – was to make its citizens think alike and all officially believe in the same lack of and hostility to religion. Atheism was politically and culturally imposed by force and considered mandatory and that was part of what these lands were about.

    As MTU pointed out, secularism and atheism are not quite the same thing. It is possible to be a religious person and still be a strong advocate for secular govenment. Whether religious fundamentalists like it or not, the U.S. Government is probably the first Goverment in history that was deliberately set up by its founding fathers to be strictly secular in nature, and it is this very secularism, so bitterly denounced by religious fundamentalists, that, in effect, guaranteed the religious freedom that made possible the great proliferation of religious sects that exist in this country–including the most vociferous and extreme fundamentalist sects.

    Again, spot on. :-)

    Secular for me I think works very well.

    Atheism – state level anyhow – not so much.

  33. @31. Gunnar :

    Besides that, I would fear for both the mental and physical health of a crew of astronauts closed up together in a very limited space for so long in zero g conditions.

    OTOH, the earliest human explorers like Ferdinand Magellan, Sir Francis Drake and even Captain James Cook took small crews on very small and crowded ships on voyages that lasted many years – and so many of them perished. Yet they discovered so much and our modern world would not exist without them.

    It can be done – it has been done.

    All male crews isolated for years on end – not even knowing where they were going or when they’d get anywhere for very long periods of time. With no one at home knowing if they were dead or alive, no phones, emails or artificial satellites.

    Most of them – including Magellan and Cook – never made it home in the end.

    A very different era with very different conditions and expectations of course – yet still.

    Today crews could easily be mixed gender (or, gasp, even all female! ), in communication all the way and have so much more knowledge that it makes space exploration a virtual doddle. “Loooxuey. Pyooore looxoory!” as the Monty Python Yorkshiremen would say! ;-)

    (Click my name here for sketch.)

  34. Messier Tidy Upper

    Continued @ 31. Gunnar :

    With chemical rockets, it would take the better part of a year, IIRC to get to Mars.

    I think that’s actually quite do~able especially when you look at how long some of the cosmonauts and astronauts have spent aboard the various space stations. Plus the 500 day Mars mission simulation thingummy that was completed not all that long ago.

    If memory serves – & please correct me if I’m mistaken – the record for time spent in space by a human individual is well over a year and there’s the story of a cosmonaut (or three?) who was launched by the Communist Soviet Union spent time aboard one of their Salyut stations or was it maybe Mir before returning to a radically different free capitalist Russia. Recipe for instant future shock! ;-)

    If you offered me the chance to travel to Mars and that meant a year long trip – I’d go. I’d volunteer to go even if it was a strictly one way ticket – which has been seriously suggested.

    I don’t think I’m alone in this desire either.

    Ideally, yeah, we’d find technologies to get us there quicker. Magsails, ion drives, nuclear, anti-matter a whole heap of ideas of varying plausibility and likelihood have been proposed and so many of them would be so wonderful if they work out. 8)

    But, y’know, I just want us to go there. Somehow. Sooner the better.

    I think that’s a basic part of human nature. I think – & certainly hope – we’ll achieve it. :-)

    I don’t think it is a lack of technological ability and engineering creativity that’s holding us back. I think its lack of funding and vision and political will.

  35. amphiox

    Those states MTU mentioned were all states that set themselves up as quasi-religious entities. They used “atheism” as a convenient club against a perceived rival to state power – the churches. “Atheism” was a tool they used, and what they called “atheism” had little resemblance to anything we would recognize as atheism today.

    “Atheism” was no more a major part of those societies than red, white and blue stripes are a major part of American society.

    Now secularism, on the other hand, has been used as a basis for society – and the examples we have are all the liberal democracies of the First World today.

    Secularism I would say has been rather successful.

  36. amphiox

    Ion drives as they currently are can never be used for a Mars type mission. The thrust they produce is too low to accelerate large masses within a short enough period of time that would be needed to move humans and their life support.

    Perhaps the tech can be improved, but I think the high efficiency-low thrust trade off is fundamentally inherent in the science underpinning the design, so it may not be changeable, any more than a kite, no matter how advanced, could be used to carry passengers on a transoceanic flight.

    We’ll need some other form of propulsion for manned missions around the solar system, in the end.

  37. amphiox

    The idea that this or that brutal authoritarian regime was “atheistic” is a standard slander thrown against atheists. It is a recurrent theme in anti-atheist bigotry and it is a lie.

    Atheism is anti-authoritarian in its essence, and no authoritarian regime can be atheistic, by definition. If you replace gods with the state or the leader you are still a theistic state – you’ve just chosen not to call yourself one. And you are not atheistic even if you pretend to be and use that word. You may persecute the church and believers, but what you are just another religion that pretends not to be one, oppressing other religions to keep yourself in power.

  38. amphiox

    One possibility with respect to the economic barriers to space colonization, is that an individual or groups of individuals, or government, or other nonprofit organization, of sufficient power and wealth, bootstraps the initial space infrastructure, at significant financial loss to themselves, just because they believe in it and are sufficiently wealthy from other sources to eat that loss. (Not unlike a wealthy sports team owner operating his team at a loss in order to win a championship.)

    Once that infrastructure is established in space, the collection of space resources then becomes a positive economic proposition for maintaining and expanding that infrastructure itself, freed from the need to compete with earthbound resource collection.

    To some extent I think this is exactly what this asteroid mining announcement is. The major financial backers aren’t expecting any direct profit in the near term, if at all. Several have pretty much admitted this outright.

  39. artbot

    The big and serious issue here is…that lip-ring. Can. Not. Wait…until this stupid fad dies.

  40. The panelists take the “eggs in one basket” quote and run with it, but the survival imperative is pretty secondary to my interest in getting humanity into space. Exploration is a good in itself. We don’t expect to colonize Antarctica or the Marianas Trench, but it sure is awesome that we have developed the means to visit and study them.

  41. Gunnar

    @amphiox #36

    I realize that ion propulsion cannot be used to get a manned expedition off the ground at either end of the Mars mission, but it is my understanding that there should be no problem relying on it to get from earth orbit to Mars orbit and vice-versa. If I am not mistaken, the brute power of chemical (or, eventually nuclear powered) rockets is only needed to climb out of the gravity wells of earth and Mars (and, probably, to make a safe, soft landing on Mars)

  42. E Fraker

    @JohnW; re: school-reform

    I’m a Detroit native, and about as liberal-progressive as one could be but I agree that union regulations can be an impediment to improving our schools. Still – it is easy to argue that the existing system isn’t good enough, its much harder to show me how schools can be reformed without subjecting them to the profit motive.

    I would be 100% behind Rick Snyder’s authoritarian and anti-democratic “emergency management” plans if he pushed through a legal mandate keeping previously public sector institutions like our schools strictly non-profit. The idea that Kaplan or anyone else is optimizing a child’s education with an eye toward’s profit is morally abhorrent to me.

    So yeah – I’ll help you fix the schools, I’ll help you bust the unions. But not unless you can sign a bill guaranteeing that no-one will make a single cent of profit doing so. Once the profit motive is a factor, everything else gets marginalized – you can’t even begin to consider it when things as important as health or education are on the table.

  43. Nigel Depledge

    Sean the Mystic (5) said:

    Antiscience?

    Yes, such a thing exists. It is a thought process / worldview that takes the opposite stance from science. It is a tool of any endeavour that seeks to avoid being undermined by simple little things like contradictory evidence. Science states that we should only draw conclusions about the world from evidence and reason, whereas antiscience basically just says “No!”.

    Has science now attained the status of a religion in the minds of the faithful?

    No; quite the opposite in fact.

    The Royal Society’s motto, for example, translates as “take nobody’s word for it”.

    I think you folks need to get a little more culture, because this “nerd fascism” you’re pushing is an utterly hopeless ideology!

    What?

    According to science, you and I are random configurations of 10^28 atoms which are of no more value than any other such collections of particles anywhere in the universe.

    Wrong.

    Those 10^28 atoms (assuming you to be correct there) are configured according to the laws of chemistry and biological heredity. That is far from random.

    According to science, consciousness – the inner cosmos – isn’t measurable and therefore doesn’t exist!

    Wrong again. It manifestly does exist, but its exact nature is hard to pin down. However, neuroscienceis making great progress in that direction. It may very soon be feasible to measure consciousness.

    The current leading idea is that consciousness is an emergent property of our complex brains.

    According to science, the universe is a mindless, gibbering void which will soon destroy us all!

    Who said this? Where and when did they say it?

    These things may or may not be true,

    And they sound like a bunch of strawman arguments, but go on.

    but they are truths the human mind isn’t prepared to accept.

    What, you mean like quantum superposition? Oh, wait, people accept that now. So what exactly did you mean here?

    Pure scientism leads to nihilism, madness and extinction, which probably explains why atheism has always failed as a basis for civilization.

    Gosh, there is so much wrong in just this one sentence. How do you do it?

    First, you must define exactly what you mean by scientism.

    Second, you must show that anyone at all practices “pure scientism”.

    Third, you have not even attempted to demonstrate your contention that “pure scientism” leads to nihilism, madness and extinction.

    Fourth, atheism has never been used as a basis for civilisation, so your contention that it “has always failed” is groundless. (The old official Soviet atheist state used atheism as a tool for controlling the populace, not as the basis of its civilisation. To my knowledge, no other civilisation has ever even tried to enforce atheism.)

    Fifth, you provide no clear reason why atheism would ever fail as a basis for civilisation, since atheism is not the same thing as “scientism”, even without a clear definition of “scientism”. The reason for this is that atheism can quite happily exist without science – all it requires is sufficient disillusionment with religion.

    When atheism goes on the march, birthrates plummet, civilizations fall and people perish.

    Citation needed for this dramatic and hyperbolic contention.

    This is just a historical fact,

    Not until you support it with evidence, it’s not.

    and it’s a history lesson we may have to learn again the hard way if your “new atheism” prevails.

    Actually, atheism often leads to humanism and humanitarianism. After all, in the absence of an afterlife, one tends to respect this life rather more deeply. In our so-called western civlisations, there is plenty of injustice and inequality perpetuated in the name of religion. Maybe widespread atheism would be a good thing.

    Remember the words of Carl Sagan: “the cosmos is rich in mystery”; without mystery the human soul starves

    And this, of course, is the driver for scientific enquiry. Religion certainly cannot answer any of the universe’s deep mysteries. Also, you are assuming the existence of a thing for which there is no evidence and no reason to suppose it exists – the “soul”.

    and people “go mad from the revelation,” as Lovecraft so prophetically described the bleakness of the materialistic worldview.

    Lovecraft was a horror writer, not a scientist. From what I have read of his writings, it is more the revelation of the existence of the Old Ones and alternative dimensions, and the things that dwell therein, that leads to madness, not mere revelation of the fundamental workings of the universe.

    Besides, you are making an argument from authority, and I do not accept Lovecraft as an authority on science.

    However, the good news is that there is a third way between materialist nihilism and religious fundamentalism,

    There are scores of ways, most of which you seem determined to ignore.

    and that is the way of the psychonaut – esoteric exploration of the real final frontier, which is inner space.

    Until you can show that this has some factual basis, stick to the sci-fi.

    What is truly interesting about life is the contents of your mind — consciousness, not giant rocks or gaseous spheres!

    Some people have more interesting minds than others. Yours is interesting in the same way a train wreck is interesting – it has a compelling horror about it, but I wish it had never happened.

    And to dismiss the beauty and wonder of the whole universe so is crass in the extreme.

    So please, nerd atheist-fascists, I beg of you: do some meditation, alter your consciousness, look inward, and try to realize that there are far more things in heaven and earth (and your mind) than are dreamed of in your philosophy!

    Oh, so now you are butchering Shakespeare too, huh?

    In fact, the thrill is in the finding out, and in the knowing and passing that knowledge on to other eager minds.

    To extend your paraphrase, there is more in the minds of scientists than is dreamt of in your philosophy, Sean.

  44. Nigel Depledge

    Azmi (7) said:

    Still, I don’t have faith on the other side, either, as they might compromise many of the freedoms that every man should have (particularly on stricter more ridiculous gun regulations, in which many liberals falsely believe it would make us safe. Yes, I have just said that!)

    A right is merely a privilege enshrined in law.

    You contend that liberals “falsely believe” that gun control would make people safer, yet in nations where gun ownership is strictly controlled, deaths from gunshot wounds are far, far lower. And, if you look at the facts of the matter, a huge number of children in the US are injured or killed in their homes in gun-related accidents. I have never seen any evidence that gun ownership reduces crime. If you are aware of some, perhaps you should cite it, rather than assume it.

    So, AFAICT, the facts contradict your contention.

  45. Nigel Depledge

    Azmi (15) said:

    I actually don’t have an opinion on registration, but tracking a firearm that is already sold gives the means for the government to spy on you.

    Since a firearm is made with one purpose and one function – to kill – why is it unreasonable for a government to track these devices within its borders? On the assumption that your contention is true, the govt. can only spy on you when you are carrying your firearm.

    What’s the big deal?

  46. Nigel Depledge

    MTU (16) said:

    Now I could be a bit hazy on some of these, but yeah, these athiest regimes did exist (still do for Cuba, North Korea & Vietnam) weren’t exactly paragons of human rights and treating people well.

    Maybe so, but atheism isn’t/wasn’t the basis for those governments. It is/was a tool of those governments.

  47. Nigel Depledge

    MTU (17) said:

    I think this ‘secular’ situation broadly best describes the governments of United States of America, Australia, United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and other such Western nations. (Yes, I know some of these have officially less strict Church/State separation than others and at least one case -the UK – an established national Church but broadly speaking the de facto situation.)

    And here lies an irony – the UK has an official state religion, and our head of state is the head of the Church of England, and yet we seem to have more religious freedom than pertains in the USA, in which the Constitution nominally guarantees freedom of religion.

    In the UK, religion is a non-issue in elections, be they local or parliamentary. But what are the chances of an atheist getting elected to any significant office in the USA?

  48. Scott

    KC Cole said a telescope on/orbiting(?) the moon would give amazingly clear pictures, and would also provide high-resolution spy photos. The moon is much farther away than the spy satellites currently orbiting the Earth, so unless the moon-orbiting lens is the size of a football stadium, the current spy satellites will give much better photos.

    This makes me wonder about the rest of her “science reporting”.

  49. Nigel Depledge

    Sean the Mystic (19) said:

    amphiox[sic], giant rocks are as interesting as the contents of your mind? Really?

    Yes, quite plausibly.

    Rocks = thoughts?

    Where the hell did you pull this out from?

    Just because Amphiox viewed two different phenomena as equally interesting, does not in any way equate other aspects of those phenomena. As it happens, we still have only the vaguest notion of what the bulk of Earth’s mantle is made of, and how it works to transfer heat from the core to the crust. Such data would be pretty useful in refining vulcanological models, and may potentially have applications in volcanic eruption preditcion.

    Here we get to the root of the problem; I say subjective universe >> objective universe,

    On the basis of what, your own sense of self-importance?

    and probably a superset thereof, whereas you apparently believe that they have equal status, which I find ridiculous.

    And here’s the rub. How do you even go about clearly stating what your subjective universe even is in a way that makes it relevant to everyone? For all I know, your subjective universe is densely populated by nubile space fairies – and you would have no way of either confirming or refuting this idea.

    The objective universe – i.e. that which can be demosntrated by means of physical evidence and logical inference from such evidence – can be the same thing for everyone. Whereas every individual could easily possess their own distinct subjective universe; and such subjective universes are by definition impossible to share in any but the vaguest way.

    How do we arbitrate this dispute?

    The only way to arbitrate anything with any rigour is by reference to physical evidence and logic. Pretty much by definition, a person’s subjective universe is not accessible to objective measurement.

    We probably can’t, so we’ll just have to agree to disagree and learn to tolerate each other, as an alternative to meeting on the battlefield.

    Or, you could accept the irrelevance of subjective experience to this particular set of issues.

    Also, your claim that everything useful about consciousness will be discovered through science is preposterous.

    This is a strawman. Ampiox did not claim what you claimed (s)he did.

    How will a scientific theory or experiment ever tell you what it feels like for a collection of atoms to feel inspired, or awed, or in love?

    We don’t know. This does not mean, as you seem to think, that we will never know how to determine such things.

    Even Sam Harris admits that consciousness may be forever out of reach of science, hence there will probably always be a need for mystics.

    Even if consciousness does prove to be “forever out of [the] reach of science”, there has never been any need for mystics.

    And please, no arrogant condescension sir, I’m quite educated in these areas, and like most people who have thought a bit deeply about them, has found evangelical scientism shallow, inadequate and dangerous!

    I am sure that your strawman view of “evangelical scientism” is indeed shallow, inadequate and perhaps even dangerous. Perhaps your first step should have been to demonstrate by reference to actual evidence that your view of “evangelical scientism” is relevant in some significant way.

    So, I pose a couple of questions:

    1. What, in your view is “evangelical scientism”? Please be specific.
    2. Who actually exhibits this “evangelical scientism”; and what have they claimed? Reference to specific examples is necessary.

    As Messier already noted, previous attempts to make atheism and scientism the basis of civilization have ended rather badly, which is a fact I suggest you meditate upon further.

    Messier Tidy Upper (MTU) failed to demonstrate that atheism was the basis of any civilisation. As I and Amphiox have pointed out, secularism has indeed been the basis of civilisations; atheism never has. Where a state has been officially atheist, the atheism has been a tool of the state to control its populace. Atheism itself has never formed the basis of a civilisation.

    Perhaps you would care to demonstrate how it might even be possible for a lack of belief in the preposterous to form the basis of a civilisaiton?

    MTU did not even mention scientism, so your claim there is entirely false.

    MTFBWY…

    And that, too.

  50. Nigel Depledge

    Sean the Mystic (26) said:

    amphiox, you’re not listening dude. Subjective states of consciousness *are* knowable, just not with any scientific method.

    This is self-contradictory.

    Without some form of checking, how can you ever know anything beyond cogito ergo sum?

    If you are checking what you think you know by reference to an external reality, you are doing science. If you are not doing this, you can never be sure that what you think you know is real or some form of hallucination. Unless you redefine “real” to include hallucinations, in which case the word becomes meaningless.

    For example, we know that all subjective experience of reality is the result of our complex brains processing electrical impulses from the senses, but we cannot know for sure that our subjective experience is ever anything more than patterns of electrical impulses except insofar as our internal models of reality make successful predictions about it. One must, therefore, assume that one’s subjective experience of reality correlates directly with a reality that is external to the self. On this assumption, we can function in the world.

    And from this assumption flows an entire way of checking what we think we know. If we accept that the external reality is independent of the self, then we can use that external reality to verify our internal models of that external reality.

    However, anything purely subjective, i.e. not a part of the external reality, is not susceptible to this verification unless we discover some means of recording and sharing that subjective experience. Some would say that we already have some approximate measures of subjective experience in the media of music, art, poetry and so on.

    Thus, unless we can make subjective states of consciousness external in some fashion, and hence verifiable, we can never really know anything about them with any confidence.

    How do you propose to scientifically investigate conscious experience as it feels *from the inside* (not by measuring neuron potentials, etc.) The method you *can* use is called introspection.

    In other words, how do you validate your introspection?

    If introspection can be validated by reference to something external, then you can derive real knowledge from it. Otherwise, any conclusion derived from it remains hypothetical.

    As Sam Harris put it [url omitted]:

    “Therefore, although science may ultimately show us how to truly maximize human well-being, it may still fail to dispel the fundamental mystery of our mental life. That doesn’t leave much scope for conventional religious doctrines, but it does offer a deep foundation (and motivation) for introspection. Many truths about ourselves will be discovered in consciousness directly, or not discovered at all.”

    This is just gibberish. Any “truths about ourselves” can only be known to be true if they are independently verifiable.

    Here’s to science *and* mysticism!

    Well, whatever gets you through the day, I guess. Just don’t think your mysticism ever actually lets you truly know anything.

  51. I think getting to the asteroids will be less expensive than thought. See discussions here:

    exoscientist.blogspot.com

    Bob Clark

  52. B. Gilbert

    As I understand it, the real goal of this Planetary Resources consortium is to begin building the infrastructure necessary to do all these grand plans we have for space. Mr. Gingrich may have been a bit off when he said a proposed moon colony would be an exclusively American enterprise, something this big would necessitate the inclusion of the entire world to pull off successfully.

    Initially I was bummed about President Obama cancelling the Constellation program, but with launch companies like Space-X, Dreamcatcher and the rest coming in to take up the slack, NASA can put those fund to use on more scientific endeavours rather than worrying how its gonna get stuff to orbit.

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