Astronaut Alan Bean talks at the University of Texas campus.

Astronaut Alan Bean talks at the University of Texas campus.

Last week author Nicky Drayden and I went to the University of Texas campus to hear astronaut Alan Bean talk about his life and work as a test pilot and astronaut and painter. (As Nicky pointed out, these opportunities are slipping away, to meet astronauts who walked on the moon)*.  It was incredibly inspiring. He was speaking primarily to students about following dreams but in a pragmatic kind of way — of doing good work, being a good leader and team member, finding a mentor and being a mentor. In looking back at his life, he was rather hard on himself, as he told stories about not always being a good team member or mentor, and I found that very brave. I think it’s helpful to look back at your life and, not necessarily castigate oneself, but take stock. Most of us do that, privately, but Bean laid it all out there.

What a grand adventure is space exploration. It takes knowledge and fortitude, determination, a willingness to work with a team of individuals who all share the same goal, a deep desire to understand and apply the laws of nature, to take on danger, to make mistakes and keep going.

And the current distrust and politicization surrounding all scientific disciplines, coming from politicians who want to make election-day hay, religious charlatans who claim that science is counter to God’s law, and the current crop of science fiction writers who write dystopic fiction based on science gone bad, is putting our real future in jeopardy.

Science is an easy scapegoat. It’s hard, it has rules, it requires math, and not everybody gets it. When climate-change deniers or proponents of creationism demand equal time for their viewpoints, they automatically corrupt scientific disciplines by association. By setting up a false equivalent — aided by sloppy journalism, which states that every side should be given their say — they give their own specious argument legitimacy and suck it away from science.

  • Climate change is happening, and it is accelerating, and it is caused by human-made dumping of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, which began in earnest at the turn of the last century.
  • Evolutionary theory is true, it is fact, and it is proven day after day, and there is overwhelming evidence supporting it.
  • Creationism is a belief system, and is not science. Calling it intelligent design doesn’t make it true.
  • Plenty of scientists believe in God and draw comfort and strength from their religion. Science and religion are not incompatible. **

Alan Bean said something interesting about that: Walking on the moon had this effect: the astronauts who believed in God (see! Astronauts! Scientists! with religious faith) found their faith strengthened. Astronauts who were atheists found their atheism confirmed. Astronauts who were ambivalent remained ambivalent.

For decades the US has been coasting on its reputation for scientific research and development. Not anymore. Science and technology are in a fight for their lives against the forces of ignorance (how’s that for a dystopic future? Are you having fun now?) Part of this is because we’ve lost ground in our schools, and part of it is that the US has splintered into affinity groups so that we no longer share a sense of community.

And part of it is that the insatiable need to fill news channels means that the outlying cults and conspiracy theorists who used to stay on the outside have now been moved to the forefront of our consciousness. We know more about other people’s weird shit because CNN and its ilk have to fill 24 hours with programming.

So what’s the solution? Well, we could all stop with the kitten videos maybe and read a damn nonfiction book about science. *** Or history. Or something. We might even read a newspaper, a real one, that talks about hard stuff.****

Will we do this? Probably not. Will we continue to forward each other stories about the other side which shows so clearly how insane and irrational “those people” are? Probably.

But it’s good to at least think a bit more critically about these issues, and try to do your best to stem the tide. *****


* I think probably we or some other nation will go back to the moon in 20 years or so, but for now, this is it.

** I’m not saying that there will be no conflict — there is a need to have a conversation about ethics in science, just as we should have conversations about ethics in everything, but these conversations should be respectful and based on a willingness to find common ground, not to sow fear and loathing.

*** Watching Nova or Through the Wormhole don’t count. No. They don’t. Especially the latter which is utter fantasy wrapped in pseudoscientific tech-speak.

**** Hint: HuffPo and Fox News are equal parts crap. As is The Daily Mail. Rawstory, or any other blog — same thing. Crap. Say what you like about big major media companies like Wall Street Journal and New York Times, despite it all, they still have journalistic standards.

***** This isn’t a rant. It’s commentary. A rant is a wild-eyed screed shouted out by a crazy man standing on a soapbox on a street corner. If you want your words taken seriously, don’t call them rants.


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