Lessons on science, politics and ourselves
Google News highlighted an interview that it thought I would like related to the Oumuamua (pronounced “oh moo ah moo ah”) interstellar object that was detected in 2017, passed through our solar system, and then sped away unexpectedly quickly. It was predictable that I would be interested. I have read many articles about the mysterious visitor that might have been an alien light-sail spacecraft, or an oddly-shaped and behaving hunk of rock, hydrogen, or some other natural phenomenon that we do not understand yet.
Space has fascinated me from a young age. I grew up a math and science nerd. My bedroom contained a mural of Saturn covering one wall, the solar system spanned my ceiling, and I made an annual summer pilgrimage to Huntsville, Alabama to the US Space & Rocket Center for Space Camp and Space Academy to train as an astronaut, which was my dream and intention as a career. Yes, the same Space Camp as in the 1986 movie set at their Florida campus. Sadly, I was never mistakenly launched into space.
I am not writing about this as a stargazer but rather because of what the Oumuamua mystery can teach us about the state of science and academia, and our politics. (If you are intrigued about Oumuamua, check out this, this, this, and this. Is it just me, or does the rendering above look more like a rocky Millennium Falcon than a pancake? This is the first of two Star Wars references in this post; you’re welcome)
We don’t have a picture of Oumuamua
It surprises me that researchers spend very little time and money on the search for extraterrestrial life despite intense public interest. Avi Loeb, a Harvard astronomer, has a theory about why more resources aren’t being invested in this area versus other subjects, like dark matter:
“I think the reason is because [dark matter is] less relevant to our lives. When something is close to home and affects you emotionally, that causes some distress. People prefer not to have that. They prefer to live in peace and be happy.
The point about reality is that it doesn’t care about how uneasy you are with the notion. Reality is whatever it is. By ignoring it, you maintain your ignorance.
When the philosophers didn’t look through Galileo’s telescope, they were happy, because they thought the sun surrounded the Earth and they maintained their philosophical and religious beliefs that we are at the center of the universe. But that was temporary. It only maintained their ignorance for a little while. Eventually, we realized that the Earth moves around the sun. The fact that they put Galileo in house arrest didn’t change anything. The number of likes on Twitter or whatever we give each other, awards, or put someone in house arrest or anything, that only affects our relation with each other. Reality is whatever it is. By ignoring it, we don’t gain anything, we just lose because we are more ignorant.
So my point is, the way to make progress is not to stick to your notions and maintain a prejudice. Of course, that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you say, I don’t need to search, I know the answer, I don’t need to look through Galileo’s telescope, of course, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. You will never find that you’re wrong because you bully people that will do this kind of search, and you don’t fund the research in that direction. It’s like stepping on the grass and saying, look, it doesn’t grow. Science is not about that, science is about finding the truth.”
If we were more interested in this research, then we would have been ready to take a picture of Oumuamua and we would know more about it.
Loeb holds up a mirror for his profession
He concluded the interview with commentary on academia:
“[T]he scientific culture should change and be more open-minded to change. I’m sorry to say, but the commercial sector — companies have had much more open-mindedness, much more blue-sky research than the academic world these days.
There are companies like Google or SpaceX or Blue Origins — originally it was IBM — that had a lot of innovations in them. That is surprising to me. It should be the academic world that carries the torch of innovation because it has, in principle, the tenure system that allows people to explore without any risk for their jobs. Unfortunately, many practitioners in academia worry more about their image and their honors, and so forth, and engage much less in risk-taking and in thinking independently and looking for evidence than intellectual gymnastics that demonstrate how smart they are.”
I agree with his assessment. There’s a lot to fix in higher education and research institutions, and I am sure I will write more about it later.
What does this have to do with politics?
I believe we avoid things that make us uncomfortable and not just in scientific research. For instance, I avoid uncomfortable feelings by focusing on low-stakes tasks that give me a sense of accomplishment while avoiding more important projects. This blog is a form of therapy to overcome that tendency.
We avoid politics for the same reason. Thinking about and discussing politics is uncomfortable. It’s awkward to disagree with people about it and impolite to bring it up in most settings. As Loeb said, “When something is close to home and affects you emotionally, that causes some distress. People prefer not to have that. They prefer to live in peace and be happy.” He’s right.
I’ve been fascinated to observe the early reactions to my posts about baldness and civil society. The baldness post elicited a higher degree of public interactions with likes and comments (it’s still a small number since I have never sought an audience). Those interactions have been safe, supportive, and gratifying. There has been little vulnerability in the responses, which is understandable because vulnerability causes distress as I can attest while writing and publishing the post.
The civil society post response has been much different. The public interactions have been tepid. There has been one share on LinkedIn, and one share and supportive commenter on Facebook; whereas, I received dozens of direct messages and some were quite poignant and vulnerable. I get it — I am scared to discuss politics publicly too. I am grateful that so many have reached out privately since it reassures me that the piece had some impact. Ideally, I would not care so much about the outcomes but I do.
In order for us to make progress in politics, more of us need to be willing to put ourselves on the hook. Public discourse and the political system are dominated by the most extreme among us. Those are the ones shouting about their outrage, giving money, and volunteering their time. As Palpatine said:
“I can feel your anger. It gives you focus, makes you stronger.”
I am reminded of this quote while watching cable news or when discussing politics, and I respond with revulsion. Hate is a powerful motivator and really scary. I think about what force could motivate others to speak up, give money, and volunteer their time in service of a loving vision.
If we continue to avoid politics then the discourse, parties, elections, and elected officials will continue to be beholden to the most vitriolic citizens. The path we are on is dire and we do not have the luxury to live in ignorant peace and happiness.