To the Editors;
You published an essay in the pages of your magazine in the August, 2015, issue with the title, “The Inexcusable Jingoism of American Spaceflight Rhetoric” by Dr. Linda Ball, a science communications researcher. (Source: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-inexcusable-jingoism-of-american-spaceflight-rhetoric/)
As a long-term reader, I would like to respond.
While Dr. Ball is entitled to her opinion, her point of view is deeply one-sided, her accusation that the space frontier is only of interest to white males appears factually incorrect based on even cursory attempts at independent polling, and her cavalier dismissal of this demographic group (male, white) is extraordinarily ironic given the impact this demographic had on the 2016 election, making it crucial to any coalition which seeks to obtain greater funding for science and space.
I’ll take each point in turn.
As a science communication professional, Dr. Ball almost certainly understands that words matter. If you string up a series of negative words and phrases – ‘conquest’, ‘colonize other lands’, ‘exploit their resources’, ‘exploitation’, ‘claim staking’ – and if you systematically associate these words to previous eras of colonization in which indigenous people were victimized, you can certainly make a strong, emotionally evocative case against something, anything in fact.
But are these analogies referencing the sins of the past valid when it comes to the future of the space frontier? Are these words fair or balanced?
There are no indigenous societies at risk in our solar system. There are no people to displace. The choice of rhetoric simply does not hold. Dr. Ball would know that, of course, but still chose to create her line of argument with the most pejorative analogies and associations foremost. Communicating a point of view that is intentionally one-sided and that leverages the most harmful metaphors possible is extreme to a fault. There is another word for this. It’s called propaganda.
Characterizing the rhetoric of the space frontier as something that only appeals to white males also appears factually incorrect. My own polling using Survey Monkey, albeit not professional, asks simple questions to gauge support for developing a space frontier that leads to jobs, growth, and higher wages in our economy and it finds large majorities of Americans (male and female) are supportive. Men are more supportive than women, but the difference is 75% vs. 65% depending on the question. One could argue that men are far more likely statistically to support a space frontier than women – and that would be true – but it comes at the cost of missing the larger point that an overwhelming majority of women are also supportive of the idea of using the resources of space to create jobs and economic growth that will benefit us here on Earth. My polling is not professionally supported, but it is reasonable and reasonably objective.
Finally, Dr. Ball’s essay holds an enormous irony. In an election year (2016) in which both sides of the political spectrum were in search of language and policies that appeal to an alienated white working class and white males in particular, Dr. Ball effectively is saying the space frontier is a theme that would have resonated and will so in the future as well. My data suggests this is true as well. Any politician seeking higher office has a winning theme with the space frontier. I do not think Dr. Ball was attempting to make this point. She was attempting to suggest that white males are a marginal, extreme group that can and should be written off. In fact, they remain a core constituency for which politicians are desperately seeking resonant messages to connect and they remain a demographic group that can determine an election. Ironic, to say the least
At the end of the day, Dr. Ball is entitled to her opinion and to be truthful, I found her point of view very helpful as a counterpoint to my own thinking and in the development of my own arguments in support of a vastly expanded effort to develop the space frontier.
However, there is another issue that I would like to address: The choice to characterize the rhetoric of the space frontier as ‘inexcusable’ and ‘jingoistic.’
Jingoism refers to extreme nationalism and is a term typically associated with fascists and warmongers, Nazis and extremists. What is most shocking about the use of this terminology in an otherwise reputable and serious journal of science is that the choice of this wording apparently does not come from Dr. Ball, but from the editors of Scientific American, themselves. That goes beyond one person’s point of view to tell us something about the state of thinking within the science community today.
If true, then as an editorial team, I believe what you are channeling in your choice of editorial decisions is a real fear that the growing excitement created by firms like SpaceX and Planetary Resources for the potential of a space frontier is deeply threatening to the science community because it assumes resources will not be forthcoming for future science-focused missions or will get downgraded in favor of missions to grab asteroids.
You are assuming a win-lose competition for funding.
In fact, the opposite may be true. It is my assertion in a forthcoming essay that funding for a space frontier will be vastly larger than anything considered today for space exploration. This may not be a win-lose game that science will lose. The truth is we are going to need a LOT more science and exploration to have a real go at making a mass break-out into Near Earth Space economically sustainable. We may be on the verge of a Golden Era in space-related funding IF we can shift our governing vision from science and exploration to the development of an economically self-sustaining frontier in space which, in turn, unleashes a much larger flow of funding to that cause.
As an editorial team that represents the science community to the public, I would encourage you to reconsider the possibilities for science funding if NASA were not constrained by its current limited budget, but was given a dramatic increase as part of a significant effort to build an economically sustainable frontier in space. That is the hope and possibility of the space frontier.
Nor is discussion of the frontier ‘jingoistic’ in the sense that the benefits are intended for Americans only. If we can truly catalyze a prosperous and economically self-sustaining economy in space, then there is an economic surplus that can be shared with all nations and that can benefit all of humanity. There are benefits for Americans, true. These must be articulated first and foremost if American public funding is going to be rallied at scale, something our allies and partners will need to understand. But the potential economic benefits are much broader. They may benefit all of humanity and every nation.
I have heard no advocates of the space frontier using language as incendiary as that used by political candidates for higher office in 2016. To portray it as such crosses a line from opinion and analysis to slander and propaganda.
Words matter. If you choose to characterize something as ‘exploitive’, imply it is racially motivated or limited, and draw direct parallels to a period of western colonization of lands with indigenous populations, then you are choosing to demonize rather than explain. A science communications researcher would know how to use such words and shape them to achieve a desired emotional response in their target audience. That is what communications professionals do – for good or ill. I cannot fault Dr. Ball. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and should be free to make their case as strongly as possible. But an editorial team’s decision to promote and represent something this one-sided – and to amplify it with a title this inflammatory – is the one thing that is truly ‘inexcusable’.
As a subscriber, I expect more from the magazine that I am a subscriber to and fan of.
Scott Phillips, Portland, Oregon