Foolish Planetariums

By JoAnne Hewett | September 16, 2008 2:09 am

Science Debate 2008 has asked Senators Barack Obama and John McCain to answer 14 top science questions facing America today. The theory is that we are living in a science dominated world and we should know where the candidates stand on science issues – a topic not usually covered by the press. Obama sent in his answers a couple of weeks ago and McCain’s appeared today. A side-by-side comparison of the candidate’s replies can be found here.

However, perhaps a set of prepared responses to a set of prepared questions is not the most telling way to judge a candidate’s stance on science issues – or any other issue for that matter. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad the folks at Science Debate 2008 have set up the questionnaire and am pleased that both candidates took it seriously enough to provide answers. But, perhaps the most telling glimpse into a candidate’s views on a subject can be obtained when that subject comes up during a live interview. Here’s what John McCain had to say today when speaking to the Associated Press and Florida newspapers:

“That’s nearly a million every day, every working day he’s been in Congress,” McCain said. “And when you look at some of the planetariums and other foolishness that he asked for, he shouldn’t be saying anything about Governor Palin.”

This was a comment about Obama’s earmark requests in response to queries about the earmarks Governor Palin has requested for Alaska. Quite frankly, I am left speechless at the phrase: “planetariums and other foolishness.” Perhaps I’m biased, but I never thought of planetariums as being foolish.

So, I did some checking on the internet. This is one of the great things about this election – the actual facts can be checked by anyone on the web. Here is the text from Obama’s FY08 funding request:

Adler Planetarium, to support replacement of its projector and related equipment, $3,000,000 :

One of its most popular attractions and teaching tools at the Adler Planetarium is the Sky Theater. The projection equipment in this theater is 40 years old, and is no longer supported with parts or service by the manufacturer. It has begun to fail, leaving the theater dark and groups of school students and other interested museum-goers without this very valuable and exciting learning experience.

Sorry, but replacing 40 year old equipment at one of the leading science education facilities in this country (the Adler Planetarium is located in downtown Chicago and is the oldest planetarium in the Western Hemisphere in existence today) is one of the best investments in the future that I can think of. I’ve always equated planetariums with science education – an area where the US seems to be lacking. In fact, the state-funded university where I was an undergraduate had one and its projection equipment was less than 40 years old. In fact, when I was in the 4th grade, my class took a field trip to the McDonnell Planetarium in Forest Park. It was one of the coolest things I did in grade school (well, that and the trip to see the Egyptian mummies) and I remember it to this day.

I wonder what Senator McCain would say if Senator Obama had supported funding for a hockey arena instead.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Politics
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  • Levi

    I count my dad taking me to places like planetariums, museums, and especially the Exploratorium as some of the childhood experiences that made me the person I am today. A world without those resources would be a poor one indeed, and one with children far less interested in science!

  • Anon

    And funding for shooting wolves from helicopters.

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  • Dr M

    Isn’t this post taking what McCain said slightly out of context? Here is a fuller quote from the news item:

    He was asked about nearly $200 million in congressional pet projects Palin requested for 2009 for her state, despite her boasts that she opposes such projects and his claim that she didn’t ask for any. McCain responded by criticizing Obama for seeking more than $900 million in these earmarks, by one count.

    “That’s nearly a million every day, every working day he’s been in Congress,” McCain said. “And when you look at some of the planetariums and other foolishness that he asked for, he shouldn’t be saying anything about Governor Palin.”

    […]

    “The important thing is she’s vetoed a half a billion dollars in earmark projects — far, far in excess of her predecessor and she’s given money back to the taxpayers and she’s cut their taxes, so I’m happy with her record,” McCain said.

    So, what he was talking about wasn’t science, but earmarks in general, and that Obama really doesn’t have a case against Palin on that particular point. Furthermore, he says “some of the planetariums and other foolishness” (emphasis mine). He didn’t say (though he may of course think so) that planetariums in general are foolish. It is, however, perfectly reasonable to ask if such things should be funded by earmarks on the federal level. Those are the real issues here: pet projects and what does and does not belong on federal rather than state level. McCain isn’t discussing science here.

    As a general rule, it is not a good thing when details and specific local projects are regulated by a far-off governmental body. This is a very worrying trend we see in here in the EU, where more and more decisions are taken in Brussels instead of in the member countries, effectively separating the government from the governed even further. I am all for building planetariums and other science-education facilities both here in the UK and in my native Sweden, but decisions about and money for specific such projects should not take a detour via Brussels. I would oppose EU level engagement in specific pet project of one commissioner/MEP or another, but I might well encourage the exact same projects in Stockholm or London (or on even more local levels).

  • Stuart

    Dr M: you mean maybe Obama has a string of planetarium earmarks on his record, most of them foolish, and Adler is just one of the non-foolish planetaria he’s supported? :)

  • Tom

    Dr. M
    I do agree that one should always look at the context. It is foolishness not to.
    However, I have re-read the full McCain quote three times, and only when I do mental gyrations do I not hear the equating of planteriums with foolishness.
    I understand that he was not talking science. I think that is exactly what Joanne was saying. It is almost impossible to get non PC answers directly from politicians in general, so we must resort to reading between the lines. Dangerous, yes, but one of the only tools we are left with to uncover some patches of truth.

  • Bob Cavallo

    First off I have been in the planetarium and run and biked by it many time. It not only is a great science teaching facility but a beautiful building on our lake front, part of the museum campus in Downtown Chicago.
    It seems that the McCain camp is criticizing Obama for calling out Palin’s hypocrisy on earmarks by saying he has gotten them to. Obama is not the one making a political campaign of opposing earmarks, and lying about BTW. Yes Obama asked for help for the Adler Planetarium, that to me is what the gov’t should be doing with our money rather than foreign military adventures.

  • Adrian Burd

    Whilst the Adler Planetarium may indeed be the oldest planetarium located on the American continent, claiming that it is the “oldest in existence” is something of a stretch, as a cursory search of the inter-tubes will show.

  • JRQ

    Remember, McCain also thinks funding studies of grizzly bear populations is “pork barrel spending”

    http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=mccains-beef-with-bear

  • JRQ
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  • Michel

    McCain is not calling planetariums stupid but 3.3 million in earmarks for the planetarium stupid. McCain might be wrong on that but let’s call him out on exactly what he is wrong on.
    Also, do not think for one second that Obama is gaga over planetariums! He could care less.

    The board of trustees (4 out of 7) + members of the board + officers of the planetarium + other very closely related to the planetarium have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to his campaign BEFORE and after he declared his candidacy. Obama just wants their money. It’s like he said a fundraising event in Pennsylvania with Ed Rendell “We don’t need the people. We just need the checks”.

    http://obamaearmarks.com/2008/09/12/daily-obama-earmark-update-adler-planetarium/

  • vcspinner

    And why is refurbishing a Chicago planetarium a federal responsibility? It may be a great cause, but the fact is, it could have been paid for by private fundraising, city, county, or state funds. But why should they, if they can get the fed to pick up the tab?

  • Dr M

    Stuart: No, I mean that McCain is calling Obama’s earmarks foolish (for one reason or another, but presumably because he opposes earmarks in general). This time he happened to grab “planetariums” as one example out of the bunch of projects that Obama has wanted funded via earmarks.

    Tom: I appreciate the point of having to read between the lines, but doing so requires a certain carefulness. McCain opposes (rightly, in my opinion) earmarks. In the context of discussing earmarks in federal spending, he thinks that Obama has asked for foolish earmarks, for example planetariums. Does he also think that planetariums are foolish in and of themselves? Maybe, maybe not. It may be that he thinks building a planetarium is a foolish idea no matter how the project is performed and financed. It may also be that he thinks building a planetarium is a great idea, but that it should be done as a private enterprise. Or it may be that he thinks that building a planetarium is something that should be decided and financed by the city or state. Or it may be that he actually thinks using money from the federal budget for building a planetarium is okay, but that the federal budget should not contain earmarks for specific planetariums (the money instead being taken from some more general education post budget). Reading between the lines is fine, but we must be careful not to read something that isn’t there, or to take things out of context.

    If we agree that planetariums are a good thing on which to spend tax money, then how should that spending be administered? Personally, I think federal government (US) or commission (EU) should stay well away from deciding on details of specific projects.

  • http://www.metcaffeination.net thm

    I was raised in California but visited Chicago frequently during my childhood. The Adler Planetarium was absolutely one of my favorite places to visit. It is certainly one of the factors that gave me my interest in science–the physical sciences in particular–and that led me to pursue an education in science. And now I’m a government scientist.

    Of course, pretty much all science done in this country is funded by the government, whether it’s done by government employees or not. So in the sense that funding science is the government’s responsibility, recruiting scientists to do that work is as well. Amortize the cost to the government of this planetarium upgrade over its (40-year?) lifetime and on the scale of what it costs to buy scientific equipment and pay scientist salaries and so forth, the recruitment value here is a bargain.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    I get the sense that McCain is using the word “planetarium” as a euphemism for “pie in the sky.” It is still a regrettable use of words, for it suggests that anyone who’s sights are cast above the crass hypercommercialism of our age is being foolish.

    The big problem is that McCain is older and not in good health. A McCain win might mean we end up with a Palin Presidency. She is an exponent of the whole Christian dominionism idea that Christians need to start the next war to bring the Big-J back. If she becomes President my advise to everyone is to enroll in a gym and get working on those squats. You might need in on the great day we all have to kiss our ass goodbye.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    This is the same issue as the bear DNA studies, and McCain’s supporters are making the same mistake in his defense. Arguing against earmarks is fine; it’s a terrible system for funding important projects. But the way that you argue against earmarks is telling. If your rhetorical strategy is to just make fun of projects with sciencey-sounding names, it reveals an underlying anti-intellectual attitude that McCain has made a hallmark of his campaign.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/joanne/ JoAnne

    Adrian: Yes, of course. Adler was the first planetarium in the Western Hemisphere in existence today. The post is now corrected.

    Dr M: Yes, I only included part of the full quote, but I honestly think that one phrase speaks for itself. Either McCain thinks planetariums are foolish, or that it’s foolish for government to spend money on them. That is foolish thinking either way in my book.

  • Belizean

    Either McCain thinks planetariums are foolish, or that it’s foolish for government to spend money on them.

    Or McCain thinks it’s foolish for the federal government to spent money on a Chicago planetarium, which, of course, it is.

  • de-lurker

    There’s a cherry on top of this story that I think you may have missed:

    “That’s nearly a million every day, every working day he’s been in Congress,” McCain said. “And when you look at some of the planetariums and other foolishness that he asked for, he shouldn’t be saying anything about Governor Palin.”

    It actually comes out to $893,000 per working day for Obama. Palin, on the other hand, got $980,000 per working day. Old sayings about pots, kettles, stones and glass houses spring to mind, as do newer sayings about the McCain-Palin campaign and its relation with “truth.”

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122143893857134389.html

  • Bob Cavallo

    I’ll say it once again, its the hypocrisy stupid. Sarah Palin/John McCain are campaigning against earmarks. They both have pushed for and taken earmarks. Palin continues to say that she said no thanks to the “Bridge to Nowhere” money when she actually took the money and used it elsewhere. McCain continues to defend Palin on the Bridge to Nowhere. Where does McCain get off criticizing others on earmarks whether science or not.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B. ?

    I think less now of Obama since he said (reportedly) to workers/leaders at some aerospace industries that he would support continuation of the Moon/Mars mission plans (started by GW Bush) in some sense. We can’t afford that kind of expenditure considering our current debts and real Earth problems that need solving. Any big funding should go to another type of “Apollo project” – one designed to provide us with energy independence.

  • Dante
  • tony blose

    As a STEM Dean, hockey Dad, and former Planetarium Director, I certainly advocate supporting planetaria and “all things scientific” however we can afford to. The planetarium is a great method of getting young kids interested in science. It’s usually quite enlightening and inspiring compared with the worksheet stuff that passes for science ed. in the elementary schools. If we don’t get them early, they are “hardened criminals” by the time we have them in university classes. If we’re hanging our future on the scientific literacy of the young, we have to find a way to support these things.

  • http://aidanmaconachyblog.blogspot.com/ mac

    Dr M’s rationalizations are an attempt to present McCain as someone who actually parses these finer distinctions. McCain ain’t on that wavelength. He doesn’t give a toss about planetariums unless they serve his political designs, and anything that seems intellectual and nerdy-sounding (in Mac’s mind) that Obama cares about he will be certain to trash.

    McCain is instinctively anti-intellectual – a philistine at heart. This was a man who took great personal pride in graduating 894th out of a class of 899 at the naval academy.

    Dr M also stated:

    “So, what he was talking about wasn’t science, but earmarks in general, and that Obama really doesn’t have a case against Palin on that particular point.”

    Obama most certainly does have a case against Palin. She received special interest funding from congress to the tune of $453 million to fund a variety of projects in Alaska over the past two years. What about the $500 million in federal funds for the infamous bridge-to-oblivion … a cash cow if ever there was one … which Palin of course didn’t support … *ahem*. “Spin artist” is a polite term for Palin who by any other measure would be called a bare faced liar. Her story telling even extends to her travels – her “visit” to Ireland consisted of a refuelling stop.

    Part of the cashola she received went toward dubious projects. Around $5 million was earmarked for an airport on a Bering Sea island that serves 100 people … if.

  • jick

    This question is somewhat out of context, but does it really cost $3M to replace a planetarium equipment? That sounds too expensive… Could somebody enlighten me in this matter?

  • Dr M

    mac said:

    Dr M’s rationalizations are an attempt to present McCain as someone who actually parses these finer distinctions. McCain ain’t on that wavelength. He doesn’t give a toss about planetariums unless they serve his political designs, and anything that seems intellectual and nerdy-sounding (in Mac’s mind) that Obama cares about he will be certain to trash.

    Unfortunately, that statement is invariant under exchange of names (though in truth neither candidate is as dumb as a rock).

    As for Palin’s earmarks, well, I’m certainly no fan of Palin’s positions on a great many things, and I don’t know anything about what earmarks she did or did not ask for. I was trying to point out that McCain’s point is that Obama doesn’t have a case against Palin where earmarks are concerned (and it is in that context that we should understand his remarks here). I am not saying that McCain’s point holds up to scrutiny. That is a different discussion alltogether.

    JoAnne: I don’t like McCain’s choice of words any more than you do, but I don’t want to jump to conclusions from a remark that was about something completely different. Your reasoning is a case of false dichotomy, as Belizean pointed out.

  • http://avventureplanetarie.blogspot.com Paolo Amoroso

    3 million $? Dirty cheap.

    Replacing the 40 years old Zeiss IV projector at Hoepli Planetarium (Milan, Italy), with similar maintenance problems, would cost 10-15 million EUR.

  • Ben Cherian

    Regardless of whether or not you think that the use of earmarks is good, I think the main issue with McCain’s comments is the example he used to justify his derision of Obama. If he wanted to complain about earmarks there were numerous examples to choose from. The fact that he complained about planetariums is rather telling.

    In regards to the earmark process however, while I will agree that there is tons of abuse, it isn’t as big a problem as you might suspect. Removing all earmarks, even when going by the words’ most encompassing definition would only reduce the federal budget by about $20 billion. (Others say that earmarks only constitute $2 billion, apparently it depends on what exactly you consider to be an earmark.) With a deficit of over $400 billion, earmarks are not so terrible.

    Moreover, I would argue that earmarks are not necessarily evil. An entirely intelligent and benevolent congressperson (or senator) would know his or her own district better than other members of congress and would be able to judge the needs of that district better than the other members of congress. As an elected representative of that district he or she should be able to directly request funds for projects of local interest (e.g., a planetarium). Some might argue that the federal government shouldn’t be paying for local projects at all. You might have a point, but it is often the case that large projects require large amounts of capital which a local government might not have or might not be capable of raising. The federal government can provide this money.

  • Luke

    tony blose: You make a good contribution by using the correct word – planetaria, not planetariums. Someone should tell McCain that children might be listening to him speak and that he should set a good example by speaking properly.

    I have a question if anyone is still reading this. Does anyone know if the planetarium at the Discovery Museum in Sacramento is any good? Also, how old would a kid have to be to benefit from a planetarium visit? I have a four-year old niece that I would like to take there. Would she be old enough to benefit from a planetarium experience?

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  • teadrinker

    The planetarium in Springfield Mass is the oldest still
    operating one in the United States, started in 1937.

    I heard McCain is going to have it removed and Palin will then hunt it down and destroy it.

  • Tom McCann

    I’m 50 now One of my most vivid memories is when I was 13. The school trip was to the small but well presented planetarium in Armagh, Northern Ireland. As the lights went down and the commentary started, I was instantly in awe of the universe and our ability through science to reach it – in our minds at least. That visit has made a massive difference to my life.

    When I hear of John McCain describe it as foolishness, the phrase that springs to mind is “pearls before swine” (no lipstick necessary).

  • http://www.adamant.typepad.com Russell Seitz

    If the projector is kaput and the dome needs replacing too, I call on my fellow republicans to stage a terminal gala to raise funds to replace the Adler.

    Once the tickets enough to rebuild the planetarium are sold , we can settle in for an evening of indoor skeet and taking pot shots at the constellation Lupus without the risk attending Alaskan heli stalking.

    Should be great fun, especially if we can borrow that inflatable Bullwinkle form the Thanksgiving parade and invite Gov. Palin and that redoubtable Wyoming quail hot- shot the Vice President

  • maninalift

    Seems like the your “over-head projector” has been in the news again (most recent presidential debate).

    McCain’s right you know, it’s the planetariums that have crippled the American, nay, the world economy.

  • Summers

    Another important thing to keep in mind is that a large percentage of the earmark money that Obama has procured has gone to children’s hospitals, health clinics, etc. The website that McCain keeps sending people to lists all the earmarks granted in 2006 (or maybe 2007) and the first one with Obama’s name on it is a million dollars to replace aging equipment in the Chicago Children’s Hospital. Another one was to invest in mobile health clinics that could help service rural areas in Illinois, where the people were far away from the nearest hospitals. Not exactly a pet project to help inner-city Chicago.

    So even if you have something against planetaria for some reason and cherry-pick this one earmark he got, you can’t say that all the earmark spending he received for his constituents was wasteful. Unless you have something against sick children.

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  • John Edge

    Posting by Michael Tomasky of The Guardian looking at earmarks in general, and Planetariums in particular.

    Nice to see science and politics lining up so well!!

  • John Edge
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  • Virgil Hill

    This is late I know but just to further clarify; this is no ordinary “overhead projector” and the $3M was “seed” money in a sense. The actual cost of replacing the 40 y.o. equipment is $10-15M, the remainder was to be raised by local private sector contributions. Essentially the money was meant to be an indicator of the federal gov’t interest in promoting scientific education and inquiry.

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