This morning a friend shared a link with me regarding the “good” of science spending as measured against the “evil” of suffering (“With all the suffering…“).  Basically, why spend money on “exploration” when so many are starving and dying?  Spend money combating suffering instead of space exploration.

As answer or justification for spending on science the blogger offers a letter from Ernst Stuhlinger, then the Associate Director of Science at NASA (1970),–it’s long and he posts it in full.  It’s worth reading because it’s really amazingly low-level bullshit.

The answer?  Space Exploration cures suffering, sometime, somehow, somewhere, in the future, probably…

The proof?  The “scientific method,” applied to looking through ground glass, discovered germs…and microscopes are so awesome!  And also, funding for folks who come up with neat tools for exploration is really a great way to encourage “side effects” that cure things accidentally.

Also, governments are big and budgets are narrow and all real good must be done by stealth after the fact.  Oh, and economics are the most important consideration for “ROI” on anything.  And curing things really has proven nearly impossible so we should just fund bandaids because when you die you’re cured for good and the bandaid will serve in the interim.

(Once we reap the benefit of discovery–cholera transmitted via the water supply leads to “germ theory” confirmed by microscopic sight and scientific method–and apply that “advance,” the human species is able proliferate by force of mechanical prevention.  This is an overburdening of a natural equilibrium.

This leads to another contention that our “fixes” simply allow us to pile on the contaminants until they overflow the banks and make more disease needing cure.  And we might note that it is the impoverished, the weak, the non-academic, non-scientist, non-funded among us who suffer these diseases first and worst.)

Well, that’s not exactly what the post said, but I think that’s a fair paraphrase.

My favorite excuse for the “neutrality” of “science” is the same as that for protecting one’s right to shoot other people.  Scientific Method doesn’t kill people, people kill people.  Method is applied by people and people are motivated by who knows what.  See, that works with guns.  Lenin taught us that machines are a beneficent neutrality.  The railroad offers another lesson (see Thoreau on the “sleepers” in chapter 2 of Walden–paragraph 17 which I will post in full below as a kind of parry to the thrust of this kind of “science”), as does the automobile (see Tarkington, and Welles, depicting the alteration of life in The Magnificent Ambersons), as does the drone (that hovering, spying, moral neutrality of murderousness).

Now, “proof” or evidence or determinative causation (is that a real thing or did I make it up?)–does seem a valuable way to think about things so I’m not arguing that applying a particular method to your madness is wrong.  I’m simply saying that madness applies the method.  And I am determined always to focus on that madness as our reality and that method as our “beneficent” illusion.

The letter referred to above is indeed specious in many ways, but arguably, when a government functionary, a company man, a believer, takes on the task of explaining himself and his gods to the simple-minded what might one expect?

What was most laughable to me was this:

Indeed, I would not mind at all if my annual taxes were increased by a number of dollars for the purpose of feeding hungry children, wherever they may live.

I know that all of my friends feel the same way. However, we could not bring such a program to life merely by desisting from making plans for voyages to Mars. On the contrary, I even believe that by working for the space program I can make some contribution to the relief and eventual solution of such grave problems as poverty and hunger on earth. Basic to the hunger problem are two functions: the production of food and the distribution of food. Food production by agriculture, cattle ranching, ocean fishing and other large-scale operations is efficient in some parts of the world, but drastically deficient in many others. For example, large areas of land could be utilized far better if efficient methods of watershed control, fertilizer use, weather forecasting, fertility assessment, plantation programming, field selection, planting habits, timing of cultivation, crop survey and harvest planning were applied.

The best tool for the improvement of all these functions, undoubtedly, is the artificial earth satellite. Circling the globe at a high altitude, it can screen wide areas of land within a short time; it can observe and measure a large variety of factors indicating the status and condition of crops, soil, droughts, rainfall, snow cover, etc., and it can radio this information to ground stations for appropriate use. It has been estimated that even a modest system of earth satellites equipped with earth resources, sensors, working within a program for worldwide agricultural improvements, will increase the yearly crops by an equivalent of many billions of dollars.

That is easily the most asinine thing I’ve read in some time.  But it does us the service of being very clear as to why the greatest nation on earth has proven the primary catalyst and engine of destruction on this planet.  At BASF, we don’t make the food, we make it more abundant, less diverse (less “fit”), and less nutritious…and we feed it to cows and pigs instead of people (but that’s another story, or rather the same story but a different chapter).  I’ll take the Farmer’s Almanac over the great and beneficent orbiting machine any day.

It’s dispiriting that over 150 years ago Thoreau answers this contention from the Ernst Stuhlinger of his day, Arthur Young (doomed to repeat, yes?).  Young was a proponent for progressive machinery in agriculture with, primarily, greater and more efficient yields produced with less labor (ie, fewer people to pay), moving families off of plots that sustained them and into cities that made use of them.  Arthur Young would be leading the charge for school reform today–more machines, less labor, more yield…less humanity, less compassion, just plain less, but less particularly of meaning and being.  Tethers to nature are set adrift (to the stars!) and the human animal is lost.  Thoreau contends and proves for himself that there is a better way.

The next year I did better still, for I spaded up all the land which I required, about a third of an acre, and I learned from the experience of both years, not being in the least awed by many celebrated works on husbandry, Arthur Young among the rest, that if one would live simply and eat only the crop which he raised, and raise no more than he ate, and not exchange it for an insufficient quantity of more luxurious and expensive things, he would need to cultivate only a few rods of ground, and that it would be cheaper to spade up that than to use oxen to plow it, and to select a fresh spot from time to time than to manure the old, and he could do all his necessary farm work as it were with his left hand at odd hours in the summer; and thus he would not be tied to an ox, or horse, or cow, or pig, as at present. I desire to speak impartially on this point, and as one not interested in the success or failure of the present economical and social arrangements. I was more independent than any farmer in Concord, for I was not anchored to a house or farm, but could follow the bent of my genius, which is a very crooked one, every moment. Beside being better off than they already, if my house had been burned or my crops had failed, I should have been nearly as well off as before.

This blogger is a progressive.  A progressive believes in the unalloyed good of discovery as a means to “innovation” in “making.”  NOT as a good in itself.  Thoreau spent his life seeing–observing, and trying to capture the “is-ness” of life as it teemed and cycled and decayed and burst forth again.  His was the science that is a good.  Not that of the blinkered chemist.  Not that of the vasty space explorer.  Not that of the single-minded geologist drilling for oil.

We do learn or are most mindful by sight.  The greater the acuity–aided by microscope, telescope, spectrograph–the more information we receive.  This is not coincident with wisdom or understanding.  It is simply more that offers less.  (We might profitably compare this with Dick Cheney’s insistence on making policy decisions about “terrorism” by his own reading of raw intel.)  It is my contention that the more we see the less we understand.

But finally, we cannot seem to accept that we contain our doom.  We are death.  NASA is proof we hate this fact.  It is as if we have come to believe that this planet and all that it contains is simply the material, seasoned over millennia, to fuel our “evolution” and ascension to angelic host, believing, apparently, that Lucifer can fall upwards by simply always repeating his transgression.  As we do seem to always enact our fabulations, I liken this to the Calvinistic belief that there are only a finite number of elect and that’s that: the rest of us just props.

I do believe we can overcome our singular and particular end.  But not by becoming something other than human, other than animal.  Not by relegating all but the most wealthy, most powerful, most white, among us to the status of “human resource.”  But by Art.  By slow, deliberate, useless creation.

Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations – one desires
So much more than that. The day itself
Is simplified: a bowl of white,
Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
With nothing more than the carnations there.

Say even that this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than a world of white and snowy scents.

There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

Wallace Stevens, “The Poems of our Climate”


Thoreau on “improvements”–

17]    Still we live meanly, like ants; though the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into men; like pygmies we fight with cranes; it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness. Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion. Our life is like a German Confederacy, made up of petty states, with its boundary forever fluctuating, so that even a German cannot tell you how it is bounded at any moment. The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land; and the only cure for it, as for them, is in a rigid economy, a stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose. It lives too fast. Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain.If we do not get out sleepers, and forge rails, and devote days and nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build railroads? And if railroads are not built, how shall we get to heaven in season? But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon. And when they run over a man that is walking in his sleep, a supernumerary sleeper in the wrong position, and wake him up, they suddenly stop the cars, and make a hue and cry about it, as if this were an exception. I am glad to know that it takes a gang of men for every five miles to keep the sleepers down and level in their beds as it is, for this is a sign that they may sometime get up again.



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