The Inexcusability of Poor Reading Comprehension

When i was a science geek growing up in the 1970s and 80s, I used to wait expectantly every month for the arrival of a magazine which promised insights into fascinating aspects of the universe across a wide range of scientific disciplines – opening up the universe for me and exposing me to great insights and discoveries that were truly awe-inspiring.

When Scientific American would fall through our mail slot, i would gleefully rip off the brown paper wrapper, go sit under a lamp in my room and start reading, savoring one article at a time over the course of the month – chemistry, physics, biology, neurology, it didn’t matter.  Sometimes it would be way over my head, others would have me stretching for understanding, but all kept me wanting more…

In the 1990s, when i started working in the Space Industry, i was disappointed to find that, much like J Geils’ song about the childhood sweetheart turned centerfold, my cherished SciAm had devolved into a fancier version of… Popular Science.  Its pages were being filled with nonsensical articles about the coming space age that, as an “insider” and non Kool-Aid drinker, I knew to be utter [insert expletive here].  Which made me start to wonder about all of the other articles in the magazine, from disciplines that were not my forte.  Were experts in those fields (chemists, physicists, etc) reading articles in their areas of specialty and similarly rolling their eyes in exasperation..?

So I suppose it is no surprise that they would publish this:

The Inexcusable Jingoism of American Spaceflight Rhetoric

One hardly knows where to begin in explaining how poorly written this piece is.

But i’ll give it a shot.

Clearly, one would not be remiss in assuming that Dr Linda* has an issue with space development or settlement, as she has clearly stated exactly that in her own writings on her blog.

The idea of establishing a permanent and expanding human presence in space makes me queasy.

So it should come as no surprise that she would write an entire essay attacking the Space Frontier Foundation – an organization that I will in full disclosure admit I am an Advocate of, although long-lapsed as I have not paid dues in years since I more or less gave up on the commercial and government space industry ever changing for reasons that we have blogged about many times in various places here.

What is also no longer surprising, for reasons described above about the quality of Scientific American’s publications, is that they published it.

What was surprising to me is that the entire missive pivoted around a glaring example of poor reading comprehension on her part that was shown in the very first paragraph of her essay – and all that she said afterwards hinges on that mistaken inference.

Take, for example, the credo of the Space Frontier Foundation, an American nonprofit advocacy group “dedicated to opening the Space Frontier to human settlement as rapidly as possible … creating a freer and more prosperous life for each generation by using the unlimited energy and material resources of space.” Such rhetoric reveals an ideology of human spaceflight—a set of beliefs about the nation’s right to expand its boundaries, colonize other lands and exploit their resources.

Where her tragic flaw is revealed is in the bolded section – she makes a giant leap from the (true) position of the Foundation about wanting to open the space frontier to the (false) position that the Foundation is about America expanding to take over the universe.

The truth is that the Foundation is made up of people from many different national backgrounds.  Of COURSE it is an American not-for-profit – that is a reality of any corporation or organization (it has to have a country that it is based in), but so what?

The real issue that Dr Linda appears to have is with ANY human settlement or development of space.  I believe she would prefer that humanity take the long nap and let the universe progress without our descendants around to witness its majesty and wonders and discover other life that (I certainly believe) is out there.  And she is certainly entitled to that opinion if that is the case.  But to dress up her personal beliefs in such a poorly written attack on an organization that does good works (Teachers in Space, anyone?) is just mean, and should be beneath her.

More than 30 years of my own observations, along with results from public opinion surveys over at least as many years, indicate that the community of American human exploration advocates is predominantly white and male. The rhetoric of frontier conquest and exploitation may appeal to this demographic, but I doubt it has much allure more broadly.

First off, this author is not white – and space has long had an allure for me (even if the current commercial industry no longer does). As it does for many non-white people (last I checked, the two most aspiring space nations – both nonwhite, by the way –  represent over 2.5 BILLION human beings… roughly 8x the population of the United States).  Why don’t you ask the Chinese or the Indians how they feel about developing resources in space?  You might be surprised.

At a time when the U.S. needs to be building sustainable partnerships with other nations to continue exploring space, “USA, Number One!” is not a good way to start productive conversations.

Again, neither the SFF nor NASA can be accused of this sort of rhetoric, even if that is precisely what Dr Linda is insinuating (I won’t even bother to comment on her ridiculous attempts to link all of this to the Tea Party).   To be clear – the US has to build other partnerships for a very simple reason – we are unwilling to spend the $ required to maintain our own presence in space, and now must rely on partners to share the bill.  This is a failure of leadership that goes back decades – and begins with the saddling of the US with the Congressionally-designed and poorly thought out STS model for space access.  All that has happened since then stems from decisions made in the post-Apollo age.  Read the extremely well-written book “This New Ocean” if you need a primer.  The $100 BILLION boondoggle known as the Space Station is the vile offspring of that poor decision – sold on a lie to Congress that has been demonstrated after 2 decades to be just that. With, of course, no repercussions for the ones who told the lie.

Disagree, if you will, with the mission of the Foundation and of people who advocate for human expansion to the stars.  Freedom of expression is one of the things that does make America great.  And i’ll defend your right to disagree with the Foundation every day – i certainly have from time to time.

Just don’t take cheap, and patently false, shots in the process.

The Founding Cynic

*note – I refer to her as “Dr Linda” not to be disrespectful, but as that is how she chooses to refer to herself on her blog:

8 thoughts on “The Inexcusability of Poor Reading Comprehension

  1. True enough, Linda Billings’ slap at the SFF was misguided, but it didn’t strike that was here actual target. The SFF’s “sin” was to have defined space settlment, which gave her an excuse to leap on jingoistic American politicans, from the President down to Congressmen who can’t mention NASA or outer space without prattling of “leadership” or “American exceptionialism”.

    This does get tiresome, I admit, although it strikes me that the real issue isn’t space. This is simply American political rhetoric, and the typical American politician is as prone to acclaim the size and odor of his morning bowel movement as to speak well of any NASA spacecraft or local post office building or high school graduating class. Think of Lake Woebegon, and you’ve got the idea. NOTHING that America produces is below average!

    And I supect it’s this sort of thing that makes Dr. Linda a non-Spacer. Colonize the planets, and sooner or later, no matter what you start with, they’ll be filled up with stupid, jingoistic, male chauvinistic, gay bashing, ultra religious, right wing white trash. Colonizing the stars won’t be any improvement, since it’s just in the nature of things for humans to be disappointing and to make things worse. If there’s any hope at all, it’s in keeping things on a small scale — leave the planets alone, find cures for a few more diseases, clean up our environment, do a better job of educating people, persuade people to feel embarassment when they tote guns about, spay a few more dogs and homeless cats, fight to control carbon dioxide. There’s just any number of worthy things to accomplish if we don’t get distracted by silliness like building lunar colonies!

    Not my sentiments, but it seems pointless to argue. I don’t think she’s winning a bunch of converts.

  2. To paraphrase the indispensible Mark Steyn, the future of space will belong to those who show up for it. If those who show up prove to be disproportionately white, male and American then that will be the dominant future demographic of space. Being myself a person who falls into all three of these categories, I have no problem with that. YMMV

  3. most usamericans dont give a toss about space. you won the moon thing and thats good enough.

    it does break my heart to scan what sci am has become. but you see theyve evolved to suit their market…the same usamericans to whom i just made ref. aka idiocracy

  4. It’s a crying shame what’s become of Scientific American but everything’s going to hell in a hand-basket. For me the bellweather is 60 Minutes, about 5 years ago it started to become unwatchable. If 60 Minutes suck then everything else will probably follow. Movies aren’t any good anymore, magazines are becoming bland(and very light), TV shows aren’t any good so we all watch Seinfeld 3 times a day(at least I do lol). I can only take so many five minute commercials while watching an unnecessary two hours of American Ninja Warrior(this was too a good show just a couple of years ago. Now? notsomuch). I used to be an NFL fan(for “only” 40 years!) but now I can’t tolerate the endless TV timeouts for insulting commercials OVER AND OVER AGAIN.

    I dunno I guess Video Games are great but I grew out of them a long time ago. They’re the last bastion of good entertainment. Them and Discover Magazine and if Discover Magazine goes to crap then God help us all.

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