Bad Astronomy

When It Comes to NASA, Polarized Politics Need Not Apply

… or we can all pull together.

Photo illustration by Phil Plait. Photos by Shutterstock and Andrey Popov/NASA.

A few days ago I got into an interesting conversation on Twitter.

As I posted Monday morning, NASA released a pretty amazing image, a mosaic of Pluto taken by the New Horizons spacecraft when it flew past the tiny world back in July 2015. Although the images were taken at the moment of closest approach, it’s taken a long time to download them; New Horizons is more than 5 billion kilometers away, and it’s not exactly connected by a fiber optic line to Earth. The bitrate is very slow, and we had to wait months to get all the high-res images back from the solar system’s suburbs, not to mention the time and expertise it takes to process and put the images together.

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Now, I know that (and now you do too!), but not everyone does. We live in an age where we come to expect instant downloads, instant gratification. If you’re not familiar with the process, it can be surprising how long it takes.

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So I wasn’t too surprised when I saw a tweet by Fox News Channel host Greta Van Susteren wondering why it took so long to get these images:

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There are a few things to parse here. One is that she didn’t know the process of getting the images back from New Horizons, which is understandable. OK, that’s fine. In general, I greatly prefer it when people look such things up (or ask an expert) instead of mulling aloud on social media, especially someone known for being a journalist. But I understand such moments of frustration, and I like to lean toward the principle of charity when I can.

Still, there’s an implied conspiratorial thinking there (or at least others and I inferred it), and the second line about taxes struck me as strongly implying a denigration of the competence of the people involved in the New Horizons mission. I generally stay out of Twitter spats—140 characters rarely allows for any subtlety—but I decided to step in:

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So yeah, testier than I might usually reply, I admit. But then this happened:

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Huh! I wasn’t expecting a reply (it’s pretty rare), but I took that as a really good sign. She also was clearly curious about what was going on. So I replied with two tweets, to clear things up:

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I felt better about this right away. She then replied:

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I’ve written about this many, many times, and I know what a mess NASA funding is. So:

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And again, I could see her curiosity and frustration with where we are today, especially with her reply:

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I was happy with this conversation—many don’t go nearly as well—but still … the replies from other people on Twitter, interjecting in the thread, were not surprisingly all over the place. Given that Van Susteren works for Fox, it was no shock to me that many of the replies from onlookers were of the “Obama ruined NASA” flavor. That, to be very clear, is baloney. I replied to a few people, linking to an article I’ve written about this very topic.

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To wit, President Obama has done a lot of good stuff for NASA, as well as made some decisions I consider very short-sighted when it comes to planetary science, but the GOP-held Congress has done far worse by greatly reducing funding for Earth science (due to NASA’s investigation of climate change, which they deny is real) and strangling the commercial space budget that, for example, helps fund SpaceX and other space startup endeavors. They do this in favor of funding the Space Launch System, which I am starting to think of as a massive boondoggle.

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Other Twitter repliers were climate change deniers who tossed about their usual baloney. Also jumping in were people who think NASA is a waste of money. These people are wrong.

Of course people being wrong on Twitter is like the air we breathe; always there and sometimes polluted. It’s worse when political motivation stifles rational thinking, honest inquiry, and a willingness to look at facts.

And mind you, I’m sure there’s a very long list of things on which Van Susteren and I disagree. But look what happened! Yes, that conversation started off rocky, but we both took a step back and a deep breath, then actually conversed even if only briefly on a topic we both felt strongly about, and, it turns out at least in general, one on which we agree.

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Early on in the back-and-forth, I saw a lot of people jumping on her, calling her “stupid,” accusing her of spinning her first comment, and so on. Besides in this case being unfair, what I have found is that such name-calling is worse than useless if you want to have a conversation; it tends to shut things down. If you’re trying to make a point, and not a dialogue, that’s different. Sometimes you have to call things as you see ‘em.

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But when it comes to changing minds one-on-one, whaddya know. Being nicer really does help.

Over the next few months the American election is no doubt going to bring out the worst of many. My opinions are public, and strong. And while I will not waver or back down when it comes to calling out nonsense, neither will I cross the line into dickery.

Do not confuse volume and vitriol with strength, nor restraint with weakness. We have a long, long way to go in this country when it comes to ensuring a more rational debate on any polarized topic, and actual communication will be a critical part of achieving it.

Postscript: My friend Emily Lakdawalla replied to Van Susteren as well with her personal expertise on the Pluto mission, and it’s worth reading. Vox also wrote an article about this.

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