Go Read Phil.

By Julianne Dalcanton | March 24, 2009 1:21 pm

Phil Plait has a righteous takedown of a recent editorial by Amitai Etzioni in the Huffington Post. Etzioni argues that Obama needs to knock NASA down a peg or two because…um…well….because he thinks oceans are more interesting than planets, and because NASA’s publicity machine runs towards hyperbole. More or less.

Take it away Phil:

Dude. Seriously? The question of whether we are alone in the Universe, and even if there are other planets capable of sustaining life, is certainly deeply ingrained in our minds. This is one of the biggest remaining unanswered philosophical questions in science! For Etzioni to poopoo it is not only insulting, but so egregiously wrong-headed that it boggles my own mind.

A second bright spot (beyond watching Phil vivisect one of “the top 100 American intellectuals“) is the comment thread, which is much more sensible and well-reasoned than the original article.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society, Space
  • Ian

    Especially my comments!

  • Giotis

    These debates on funding between scientists often resemble fights between five-year-old children in a kindergarten.

    “Our field is more important than yours.”

    “No! our field is more important than yours.”

  • Jeff

    Not sure why we need to pit the oceanographers against the astronomers. Both are doing important work. While the US Treasury is hemorraging trillions, why not spare a dime for both astronomy and oceanography? It’s chump change compared to the bailouts.

    P.S. How about more money for the xeno-oceanographers! We need to map the methane seas of Titan!

    P.P.S Julianne, did you just use an apostrophe to form the plural of “ocean”? Bloggers need copy-editors (and copy-editors need new jobs, RIP Seattle P-I). [Yes Jeff, I did! And I am heartily ashamed of myself! — fixed. JD]

  • Ando

    While I don’t agree with Etzioni’s rhetorical strategy, is it not valid to step back and do a cost/benefit analysis on our research priorities from time to time? Further, I’m rather reluctant to prioritize using public science funding for the investigation of “philosophical questions” unless the tangible and practical benefits can also be demonstrated. I understand that mine is not a popular opinion.

  • Julianne

    Giotis — This is not the fight you described. Amitai (who is not a scientist) is the one arguing that oceans > space. Phil’s point (and I agree) is that in the intellectual exploration of new scientific terrain, we can both walk and chew gum at the same time.

    Ando — I think doing such analyses are a great idea, both within a field, and from field-to-field. The original editorial, however, rose nowhere to the level of “analysis”.

  • Tod R. Lauer

    It was hard for me to pay too much attention to Etzioni after he confused Kepler with Copernicus. The rest of his essay reflects a profound incuriosity with space exploration of any kind.

  • http://telescoper.wordpress.com Peter Coles

    I never thought America had 100 top intellectuals.

    Now I know it’s true.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy Phil Plait

    Wow, thanks Julianne! This really means a lot to me. Funny, I had no idea he was a”Top Intellectual” when I wrote the piece. I just knew what he said was stupid, damaging, and dangerous.

    How does one apply to be a Top Intellectual? Maybe I need to write a screed with lots of hyphenation and post-modernistic solutions to abject-concrete neomorphisms.

  • Giotis

    Phil, if you want to be one of the “top intellectuals” the first rule is not to call the other top intellectuals, “Dudes”.

    So I guess you missed your chance.

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    Didn’t NASA just launch a climate satellite into the deep southern ocean? What more does this guy want?

  • SLC

    Dr. Etzioni bashes the wrong thing over at NASA. If we really want to improve the science produced by NASA, we should take the advice of Profs. Bob Park and Steven Weinberg and scale back the manned space program which produces very little scientific discovery as a function of the expenditures on it. But of course, according to Dr. Plait, Park and Weinberg don’t know what they are talking about.

  • Ian Curtis

    Dude. Seriously?

    “The question of whether we are alone in the Universe, and even if there are other planets capable of sustaining life”

    How much of NASA’s budget is devoted to this question, and how much is devoted to braindead space shuttle space station nonsense that has nothing to do with science and everything to do with bread and circuses? Get a grip.

  • CJA

    That list of public intellectuals is now hilarious in retrospect. Not only for who is on it, but for the times article which notes that it includes the amount of hits on “Google, a popular internet search engine.” Also, compare the number of hits recorded in the article vs. what you get today (Albert Camus at 32,370 then, vs. 3M today, depending on how you type it).

  • uncle sam

    I wish Amitai was more savvy at sci/tech, but he is an important general commentator. Etzioni’s communitarianism is a useful socio-political philosophy and practice. It wouldn’t be smart to overlook him as a thinker on the basis of just what he says about this subject.

    I didn’t read either his article or the critique, so this is my own two cents: Instead of pitting “space” against Earth science per se, how about the advantage of unmanned over manned space study? (c.f. Ando above.) The expense of going back (!) to the Moon and to Mars are staggering. I suggest Obama ditch those big projects (but keep some low-Earth-orbit option) that and concentrate on probes, telescopes etc. We should spend the saved billions on energy, infrastructure, health care, etc.

  • TDoc

    While we’re here arguing which way to go for NASA, there’s one man who really has a final say… and he has yet to even give the agency a leader…

    See: http://www.newsy.com/videos/obama_calling_come_in_nasa_3

  • SLC

    Re TDoc

    I nominate Bob Park to head up NASA.

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    NASA projects are like financial institutions. The flagship programs are ‘too big to fail’, so the well-run, mid-sized programs get shafted in order to bail out the over-ambitious, billion dollar meltdowns.

    Kepler is an on-time, on-budget, mid-sized mission- of all the things NASA does, it seems like a very odd target.

  • Sili

    NASA has a very effective propaganda machine. Whatever modest little mission it pursues, it frames as if it was of grand importance not merely to the United States but to the human race. The most recent example is the launch of a telescope which costs a ‘mere’ six hundred million dollars, the immodestly labeled ‘Kepler’ mission.

    And if they didn’t publicise their missions, he’d likely accuse them of being secretive, out of touch and uninterested in informing the taxpayers what they’ve paid for.

    Can’t win.


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