Apparently Astronomy is Un-American

By Sean Carroll | February 27, 2009 4:26 pm

John McCain has a twitter account. Yes, that’s horrifying enough, but then there’s the actual content of what he writes. At least he is using in creative and productive ways! No, he isn’t. Yesterday he announced:

Tmr I am gonna tweet the TOP TEN PORKIEST PROJECTS in theOmnibus Spending bill the Congress is about to pass

Love it when Senators play cool. Love it. So today is the big list, and guess what comes in at number two?

#2. $2 million “for the promotion of astronomy” in Hawaii – because nothing says new jobs for average Americans like investing in astronomy

Sure, earmarks are dumb, and it would be nice to have a rational way to decide how best to prioritize federal spending. But don’t deny the obvious: when Republicans hear “science,” they think “something to be mocked in the service of burnishing our just-folks credentials.” Ask Bobby Jindal. Or, for that matter, John McCain.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Internet, Science and Politics
  • Janiece

    You ask Bobby Jindal.

    Talking to him gives me hives.

  • Christopher

    I wonder if Sen. McCain knows that astronomy brought over a quarter of a billion dollars into his *own state* just in 2006 alone:

  • Bee

    You sure it’s not a fake? Can one really be so dumb?

  • Moth Eyes

    Ok, I think the Republican party needs a new logo. No way they’d be interested in elephants…

  • onymous

    Shorter John McCain: Science funding is funny! Utah and Montana don’t deserve any money!

  • Lean Ham

    Well, if its “for the promotion of astronomy” and not actual astronomy, then I do have to wonder if the taxpayer should be fitting the bill. I mean, aren’t there enough selfish…oops, selfless promoters of astronomy?

  • Joel Thorarinson

    I all we do is invest in “average” America, then that is exactly what we will get.

  • James

    I agree with Lean Ham, if this was 2 million for a something at Mauna Kea Observatories or for ‘education’ I would be all for it, but ‘promotion’? A few flyers and a big fat wallet for a printing company is ‘promotion’.

  • James

    of course, McCain isn’t bitching because it’s promotion, he’s bitching because astronomy isn’t something the ‘average’ American isn’t interested in. Whew, so glad I’m not average. I spent last night staring at Lulin rather than the t.v.

  • Lean Ham

    I thought this was cool, I haven’t seen more recent numbers, but here is the return on federal tax dollar by state:

    I’m thinking that Jindal should just keep his mouth shut

  • Lean Ham

    Northeast -58,275
    Midwest -33,473
    South 120,400
    West -28,653

    You have to wonder how the the south has managed to suck $120B a year from the rest of the country

  • ccpetersen

    I wrote about this on my blog (see link on my name) and brought up the fact that in John McCain’s own state, one of the premiere planetariums and science centers (Flandrau) is shutting down for good. They may reopen in a few years in a new location (maybe), and were expected to stay open until the new place opened, but due to budget cuts, etc. (foisted on us by GOPers), Flandrau is closing sooner.

    Perhaps Twitter John could take a look at his own state before he starts trumpeting about other places. Arizona also takes in more federal tax money than it pays out in taxes, which means that people in New York and Massachusetts and other places are paying for Arizona and other states who are the recipients of federal largesse. Take all that away, as the GOPs would like to imagine we should do and all the Red states (southern mostly but also some western states) would lose millions and millions. And their loudmouth GOP reps would be singing a whole different tune!

  • a grad student

    there’s also the fact that those is physical science (maybe not chemistry as much) have made piss poor arguments as to why they deserve money or are worthwhile versus say those in biology

    to the average joe (who doesn’t understand the grad students/equipment/post docs etc that will be purchased with the funding) this seems like an enormous waste of money—especially when they find out the end product is an attempt to research say pulsar radiation, a particular sulfate on the surface of Europa or the CMB—to the average american who will be burdened by debt in the future because of spending (and im not excusing money spent on frivolous wars either) why shouldn’t they be skeptical about spending money on research on seemingly obscure topics when it can instead be spent on something that may cure a disease, or on infrastructure spending which is labor intensive or when it can give a small business a tax credit in a time where we have ballooning unemployment and a recession?

    Now if we’re talking bogus support of creationism then I”m on board, but there’s been an arrogant and ridiculous silence over the fact that we haven’t articulated why our areas are important—its why jindal can rant about ‘volcano research’ or mccain can chastise a ‘projector’ and it largely resonates when it shouldn’t.

    And the original post is a perfect example of the demagoguery and hubris with respect to this issue. McCain’s criticism was that astronomy isn’t worth throwing money at if we’re looking to create ‘jobs for average americans’ (a fairly understandable concern considering our economic situation). The original poster (which says quite a bit about their motives) tried to falsely conflate that with ‘anti-americanism’ when in fact its a fairly valid point. Grad Students, post docs and researchers are probably not viable options in terms of occupations for many of the americans who have lost their jobs or are looking for jobs right now. Even the purchase and operation of equipment doesn’t satisfy the type of labor intensive investments which were encouraged as counter cyclical efforts by Keynes.

    By the way, this is also absolutely pork–the actual appropriation was for the ‘promotion of astronomy’ at the Imiloa Astronomy Center. The term doesn’t really help specify what exactly the money will go to, but I can absolutely see legitimate arguments that those 2 million would be better served directed towards something else. We live in a time when both candidates campaigned on the promise to tighten our belts during a budget. That will happen even if we have a stimulus now–Americans are a different breed from their cousins across the ocean and aren’t as open to significant increases in taxes. If we want to be taken seriously in terms of securing funding we either need to make stronger arguments to the public (regardless of if you think they’re a bunch of slack jawed yokels) or need to re-examine in what context we should be prioritizing certain types of science funding.

  • a grad student

    a couple things

    ‘promotion of astronomy’ is a fairly amorphous term–it could mean increased education initiatives or a reduction in prices of tickets for school aged children–i don’t think its simply money for marketing

    with respect to the comments ridiculing the average american–their is that arrogance again

    what exactly are we entitled to? The country doesn’t exist simply for the purpose of achieving greater scientific progress. Its primary concern (and rightfully so) should be for its average citizen regardless of whether they waste most their time watching american idol, cmt or bet or whatever. And we should be clamoring for money aimed for general education initiatives in the sciences aimed at the ‘average’. That will in turn lead to a more flexible and educated workforce which handle downturns in a better way and who will also be more open to spending for science because they will understand the merit in its pursuit.

    finally, i imagine southern states get better returns in terms of federal tax dollars because they are poorer–our country (or at least some politicians), again quite rightfully so, tends to try to use federal money to help those who are disadvantaged

  • educate McCain

    I don’t know the details of this astronomy promotion stimulus money, or where I might look to discover any facts about it. But Phil Plait, couldn’t you find out? Past promoters of ignorance, like McCain, shouldn’t have their new claims go unscrutinized.

    There ought to be more promotion and public understanding of astronomy in Hawaii, and the United States, and worldwide. A great many telescope projects have been successful examples of international scientific and diplomatic cooperation. Astronomers make critical contributions not only to profound questions in physics and astronomy, but are often drivers of technical advances in a wide range of fields, such as computing, optics and cold-matter physics. Similar to an education in other sciences, I doubt you could go far wrong in the job world with a masters or PhD in Astronomy: even if you can’t get an astronomy related job, skills in advanced math, physics, computers and critical thinking are much in demand in all kinds of fields. There is every reason to wish that more young people dream of being astronomers!

    The tmt, should it be built, may go in Hawaii (btw: have you blogged about the tmt yet Phil Plait?), or it may go in Chile: how astronomy is perceived outside the realm of professional astronomers could actually play a large part in any final decision.

    Mauna Kea summit is an extremely sacred, irreplaceable native Hawaiian site. And in Hawaii generally, native Hawaiian land and cultural interests have been badly served by the federal government and the legal system. There is a lot of resentment. Outreach and education efforts form a part, I think, of most of the telescope projects on Mauna Kea: but much more needs to be invested federally in Hawaii in the not-strictly-science side of astronomy (restitution, dialog, education and formal procedures of involvement of native Hawaiian and other Hawaiian citizens).

    The more everyone knows about astronomy, the better they can make informed decisions about its future. The next few decades promise to be a golden age for astronomy: there is the possibility of tmt, alma, ska, the elt, and the webb telescopes. It would be a shame if Americans were like McCain and just had a reaction: “pfft, astronomy”, or like Jindal “pfft, volcanology” or like Palin “pfft, fruitfly biology”. {oh, oh — I see a pattern here}

    (I’m just an interested Canadian layman.)

  • Paul

    a grad student says, “finally, i imagine southern states get better returns in terms of federal tax dollars because they are poorer–our country (or at least some politicians), again quite rightfully so, tends to try to use federal money to help those who are disadvantaged”

    I wouldn’t be too concerned about helping the poor South if it weren’t for the fact that they seem to be hell-bent on dragging the rest of this country into third-world status.

  • Ben

    Don’t know what “promotion of astronomy in Hawaii” is actually an earmark for. There are long simmering conflicts between astronomers and (some of) the indigenous Hawaiian community that basically have to do with (a) power, and (b) outsiders coming in and building large obvious structures on top of Mauna Kea. Both sides have right and wrong in their arguments, but that’s not the issue I wish to address. It is likely that this earmark has something to do with astronomy education and outreach in Hawaii, which has a strong component of attempting to defuse astronomer-Hawaiian conflicts. It’s not at all a stupid, crooked, or selfish thing to spend money on.

  • miller

    Since everyone seems to be taking it for granted, I would like to see the obvious proof that this is really McCain.

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  • No. 9

    Count me as one who needs more evidence that “promotion of astronomy in Hawaii” will help stimulate the economy. Also count me as one who needs more evidence that a two million dollar expenditure in a gazillions spending bill is worthy of a press release by one of America’s leading Senators.

  • Yvette

    I dunno if this is real, guys. Sounds like an awful lot of big words for someone who said he didn’t know how to use the Internet during his campaign.

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  • Joseph

    The twitter account looks legit to me. If some of the entries seem a little flippant, I think you need to keep in mind that McCain almost certainly isn’t writing these things himself.

    So, which is more likely:
    (1) John McCain thinks this $2 million item for “promotion of astronomy in Hawaii” is pork because he hates astronomy and astronomers, thinks physics post-Aristotle is evil and sinful, and wants Americans everywhere to believe in good, old-fashioned, flat-earthed geocentrism like they do in the Old Testament.

    (2) John McCain saw a line item for “promotion of astronomy in Hawaii” in the bill with no other explanation and assumed that this was for tour buses and television commercials like half the people commenting here.


    Un-American? Please! You americans have made a lot of scientific discoveries in the past and now it’s apparently un-american?

  • zman14u

    It is unfortunate that there are too many who grew up not being able to learn astronomy correctly. Classes today spend a very short period to teach only the very basic. The big question is how the money will be used. If the money is used correctly and not just for administration costs than a lot can be learned through education. It is very hard to understand that what we learn today will have value in the future.But all things do have value at a time and place.

    To fairly judge the bill John McCain feels is pork, need to know how the money will be used.

  • a grad student

    “A great many telescope projects have been successful examples of international scientific and diplomatic cooperation. Astronomers make critical contributions not only to profound questions in physics and astronomy, but are often drivers of technical advances in a wide range of fields, such as computing, optics and cold-matter physics. ”

    This is a pretty compelling argument–especially the second part. Does anyone think the average american knows how research by astronomers has eventually contributed to the ccd’s they see in what have now become every day objects? Hell, I doubt Jindal and McCain know. The republican party (or at least a good chunk [I don’t want to generalize too much]) have an understanding of science that seems to be equivalent to that of the average citizen. And as long as they remain a resonant party w/a significant part of the country (even if its barely enough to form a legitimate opposition right now) we have to try to educate them along with the rest of the country. I don’t know how to do that (I can barely stumble through a radiate processes textbook) but I know there are smarter people in the astronomy/physics community that can at least put together some ideas.

    “Similar to an education in other sciences, I doubt you could go far wrong in the job world with a masters or PhD in Astronomy: even if you can’t get an astronomy related job, skills in advanced math, physics, computers and critical thinking are much in demand in all kinds of fields. There is every reason to wish that more young people dream of being astronomers!”

    I certainly hope the first part is true so that I’ll have something to do when I get my degree! In any event I obviously agree that an advanced degree in a quantitative field is a plus in any job market. The issue however is making people believe that not only is it a plus but that it is preferable to other options that may also seek some of the education/science funding. As a thought exercise let’s replace ‘astronomy’ with ‘microbiology’ or ‘materials engineering’ or something in that bit McCain put out–I can’t imagine that the McCain staffer who put out the quip would be as ready to include it if that was the case. We’re all going to eventually be fighting for a piece of the pie of funding for science—we should be trying to either make the case our piece should be bigger or that our subject is so productive that it merits enlarging the pie.

  • Bernard HP Gilroy

    One also wonders if this is truly an “earmark” (a request by a member of Congress for a project that would not otherwise be funded) or if this passed muster through the review and priority process of whatever agency will be disbursing the money…

  • why

    In the same argument that people can be patriotic and question the government / war i would argue that somebody can be for science and at the same time question the need for government funding of potentially frivolous research projects

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  • Brian

    None among us seems to know what, in this instance, “promotion of astronomy” means. My guess is that neither does John McCain or whoever posts on his twitter account. What I find somewhat disturbing is that the writer evidently thought that, in the absence of further clarification, the designation “promotion of astronomy” would sound like probable pork to a lot of readers. A sizeable segment of the American population seems inimical to basic science, probably the same segment averse to any group described as “intellectual elite.”

  • Spiv

    wow, 10.45 million out of 787 billion? So the top 10 worst things about the bill account for 0.0013% of the bill? I think he might actually be saying this is the most efficient bill to ever come out of congress.

  • Sam

    And McCain even takes it to the Senate floor …

    See todays “Washington Sketch” by Dana Milbank

    “He went after Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the 84-year-old chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. ‘We’re going to spend $2 million for the promotion of astronomy in Hawaii,’ McCain said with disgust, glancing at Inouye. ‘I ask the senator from Hawaii: Why do we need $2 million to promote astronomy in Hawaii when unemployment is going up and the stock market is tanking?’ ”

    Well, it’s pretty clear, as a previous poster noted. We should be spending that $2M to promote it in Arizona!

    But really, astronomy has become, for John McCain, a convenient example of earmarking run wild. It’s a tiny amount, but it’s like Joe the Plumber for the middle class. It’s a triviality, but hugely memorable.

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  • Alan McCright

    Anyone interested may view my take on this at:

    Astronomy and space sciences are important to the economies of both Arizona and Hawaii.

  • Sean

    “A great many telescope projects have been successful examples of international scientific and diplomatic cooperation. Astronomers make critical contributions not only to profound questions in physics and astronomy, but are often drivers of technical advances in a wide range of fields, such as computing, optics and cold-matter physics.”

    This is not a compelling argument at all. It is the old ‘NASA is worthwhile because of velcro’ argument, and nobody rational still believes it. Yes, there are often unexpected ancillary benefits to wasting money. That doesn’t mean we should waste our money.

  • AJ

    It is not clear exactly what is meant by the “promotion of astronomy in Hawaii”. (1) Are we talking about an ad campaign to convince people in Hawaii that astronomy is cool and they should continue to support it with their tax dollars? Or (2) a campaign to convince youngsters that astronomy is cool and they should develop their math/science skills in school so that they can aspire to astro careers? Or (3), does “promotion of astronomy” simply mean more government money for astronomical research?

    Without knowing specifically what the money in the bill would be spent on, it seems premature to criticize/ridicule McCain on this. Of course McCain also did a great disservice with his “one liner” that does not explain what the money would be used for or why he finds this objectionable.

    I am specifically against (2) because in my own experience astronomy offers such a punishing and insecure career path that I would not want to put anyone else through the career frustration, lost time, and depression that I’ve experienced in graduate school. Yes, astronomy is fascinating, and I believe that our society should continue to support astronomical research at a reasonable level. However, I think we have to be realistic in our expectations; only a very small number of people (few thousand at most) in our country will be able to have long-term full-time jobs in astronomy, and a handful of astronomy/astrophysics graduate programs at the top-tier institutions are fully capable of educating enough astronomers/astrophysicists to fill ALL the jobs available for PhD-level researchers working in this field. The surplus PhDs will be discarded by the research enterprise after a few years and these people will struggle to compete for technical/engineering type jobs that they are overqualified for. Since we are already drowning in engineers (both our own citizens and the foreigners that we bring in to fill the perpetually proclaimed and forever nonexistent science/engineering labor “shortage”), there is no need for engineering firms to look beyond those with engineering degrees when they are searching for employees.

    Preparing an excessive number of students for careers in astronomical research is a significant mis-allocation of educational funds and intellectual talent when these bright people could be making valuable contributions in other areas with greater economic benefit to themselves and society.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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