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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Challenges to the Argument

Chapter 3F

Challenges to the Argument

In a survey the journal Science did in 1964 by, only 16% of the science Ph.D.s who responded agreed with President Kennedy’s decision to go to the Moon, while an overwhelming 64% disagreed. It was generally felt then that the Apollo Program was undertaken mainly for political reasons.[1] Ever since, many scientific and other critics have questioned the scientific value of space exploration.

The point is that my serendipity argument depends on a close connection between space exploration and science. If this connection is brought into question, my argument is also brought into question.

According to a second objection, it is not enough to show that the scientific exploration of space is serendipitous. We are still required to show that such exploration is likely to produce greater serendipity than competing activities, including other types of scientific exploration.

Let me describe these objections in greater detail.

1. Space exploration does not involve fundamental science in a significant way.

The first objection goes something like this: what my argument shows, strictly speaking, is that changes in fundamental science lead to a different panorama of problems, solutions and opportunities, hence the serendipity of science. Such changes have the desired effect because fundamental science gives us a way of viewing the universe and of interacting with it.

It is not clear, however, that applied or peripheral science would have similar effects. And to these critics it seems that the science done in the pursuit of space exploration is for the most part applied or peripheral.[2] This is not to say that space exploration is not likely to produce serendipity of some sort, for obviously it already has. The point is rather that the significance of what space exploration will accomplish is much less than I have made it out to be. Yes, we will have some interesting though marginal science and lots of gadgets, but no radical transformations of our main points of view.

Two considerations may tempt us to dismiss this objection summarily. The first is that it assumes too regal a status for fundamental or pure science as compared to applied science and technology. A moment’s thought makes us realize that “gadgets” have often driven revolutionary developments in fundamental or pure science: lasers are pivotal instruments in the study of fusion; personal computers have enabled the launching of hitherto undreamed-of theoretical work in many scientific disciplines, from mathematical physics to neuropsychology; and let us not forget the most famous influential gadget in the history of science, Galileo’s telescope, which was invented as a toy in Holland. It is clear, then, that transformations in technology and “applied science” can create a new panorama of problems and opportunities for the practice of fundamental science.

Nevertheless, I will not take the easy way out offered by this consideration. The science done in space exploration runs the gamut from the most applied to the most fundamental, as I hope to show in the rest of the book, and thus it brings out the deep practicality of science in its fullest sense.

The second consideration is that the critic who belittles the scientific value of space exploration is perhaps a bit of a straw man: space science is far more respectable now than in the days of President Kennedy. Three reasons, however, should keep us from deriving much reassurance from this consideration.

The first reason is that not all space science is now respectable, as we will see shortly. In any event, it is important to understand why that shift of perception took place in the fields of space science where it did.[3] The second reason is the need to address the nagging suspicion that some space research has gained prominence purely because the Government has thrown big money to support it. If this suspicion is correct, society's quest for space exploration has distorted the practice of science. The third reason is that even if, contrary to fact, most scientists did have a high opinion of most space science today, it would still be useful to state as bluntly as possible why someone might not agree. For in replying we stand to explain better why we ought to go into space.

Space science covers many fields, but for the purpose of this essay they can be subsumed under three main categories: planetary science, space physics and astronomy, and space biology. Let us see why their serendipity might seem questionable.

Take planetary science (under this rubric I am including comparative planetology and the scientific exploration of the solar system in general)[4]. Granted that by going into Earth orbit and looking down we can learn much about our own planet; but what can we learn about the Earth from looking at another planet? It would seem, as an early Greek might say, that if the other planet is different we are not learning about the Earth, and if it is like the Earth we should not waste effort going there when we might as well look at the Earth itself.[5]

As for space physics and space astronomy, how can they change our lives down here? It may be fascinating to find out what makes quasars burn; but, fascination aside, will that knowledge feed hungry children or at least make automobiles run more efficiently? We need to see how space physics and astronomy can come to be in a position similar to that of the revolution in physics that led to the laser and its use in medicine.

A critic might argue that lasers are built on fundamental principles of matter; on principles, furthermore, that apply right here on Earth. So there is no mystery why a revolution that gave us those principles had terrestrial applications. By going into deep space, by placing telescopes in orbit and all that, we might challenge our points of view and force them to change. But they are points of view about what is up there, not about what is down here. Or are they?

Space biology fares even worse, for many space scientists themselves see little value in it beyond the need to keep astronauts healthy. And since many of those scientists would prefer unmanned exploration, even this conditional value of space biology is in question. Such is a common verdict regarding the branch of space biology that investigates the behavior of terrestrial life in outer space. Another branch of space biology named exobiology (or “astrobiology”) presumably investigates extraterrestrial life. Under this rather cryptic description, exobiology became a target for critics who derided it, until the recent Mars meteorite controversy, on the grounds that, since we have never found extraterrestrial life, exobiology investigates nothing at all.[6]

I will provide replies in the next three chapters, one per field. It will become evident, however, that this division of space science is largely a matter of convenience, for there exist strong connections between the three fields. Indeed, the seeds for the answers to some of the questions pertaining to astronomy and biology will be planted in the discussion of planetary science.

2. The serendipity of space exploration need not be greater than that of other scientific enterprises.

If we are to support scientific exploration because its serendipity will reward us with the tools to improve life on Earth, are there no better candidates than space exploration? Consider oceanography, for example.[7] It is clear that the oceans play a crucial role in our climate and in the planets ability to sustain life. The benefits of understanding the oceans better thus seem quite direct. Shouldnt oceanography then have greater priority than space exploration?

I offer two replies. The first is that I have never argued that space is the only stage for scientific exploration. In a well-run world, space exploration would be one of the important tasks human beings undertake, and perhaps some other scientific tasks should have even greater priority.

The second reply is that the priority of space is likely to be very high anyway. Consider the example of oceanography again. Clearly, obtaining knowledge of the oceans is very important to us. But as we will see in the following chapter, success in securing that sort of knowledge will require, at least in part, a global approach to the study of the oceans and the other systems with which they interact – a global approach for which space technology is exceptionally well suited. My suggestion is, then, that the majority of serious “competitors” to space exploration will actually be more successful if done in conjunction with space exploration.

Of course, I do not wish to claim that all space exploration is scientific. As space activities become routine, more and more of them turn into industrial enterprises or financial investments (e.g., satellite communications). The aim of this chapter was to provide a philosophical case, via serendipity, to justify the heart of space exploration.

In overcoming the objections, supporters of space exploration will be able to appropriate Descartes' words when claiming, for example, that space biology will contribute to medicine and thus bring about "the preservation of health, which is without doubt the chief blessing and the foundation of all other blessings in this life."[8] And in addition they may proudly look forward to the new mastery of nature with which space science will reward their efforts. For that mastery will lead to "the invention of an infinity of arts and crafts which [will] enable us to enjoy without any trouble the fruits of the earth and all the good things which are to be found there."[9] To the fruits of the earth, the supporters will say, space exploration promises to add the bounty of the universe.


[1] Even some supporters of exploration agree. Ben Bova from the National Space Society writes in a letter to Science (Vol. 233, August 8, 1986, p. 610) that “The U.S. space program’s primary motivations are, and always have been, political and economic.” He also thinks that it is a myth “that the space program exists mainly for the purpose of scientific research.” I will have more to say on these views in Chapter 7.

[2] For an account of this attitude against space science, see my “Pecking Orders and the Rhetoric of Science,” Explorations in Knowledge, Vol. III, No. 2, 1986, reprinted in my Evolution and the Naked Truth, op. cit.

[3]. This attitude within science, as well as negative attitudes about science in the larger society, plays an important role in our evaluation of space policy and of specific proposals for funding space undertakings. This role is, however, seldom made explicit. We often have little more than a gut feeling about how priorities should be allocated. But would not a different idea of the nature of science – and of the nature of space science – influence our gut feeling?

[4] For an account of the low status the planetary sciences suffered until rather recently, see Stephen G. Brush, “Planetary Science: From Underground to Underdog,” Scientia, 1978, Vol. 113, p. 771. Brush demonstrates how the prejudice against planetary science was blind to the history of physics.

[5]. This might be the approach taken by a student of Xenophanes.

[6]. This popular opinion of the field has changed considerably since David McKay’s team’s analysis of a now famous Martian meteorite (ALH84001) suggested that there were traces of fossil life inside of it. NASA has capitalized on the public enthusiasm, even though most meteorite experts have been hostile to the hypothesis. This issue will be discussed in Chapter 6.

[7]. This point was suggested to me by Terry Parsons.

[8]. Descartes, Discourse on Method, Haldane and Ross, trans., op. cit., p. 120.

[9]. Ibid., p. 119.

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