Saturday, 29 November 2008

Stop sending stuff to Mars


I watched another episode of "Real Time w/ Bill Maher" yesterday, it's a topical discussion show that includes journalists, politicians and politically aware people from showbiz.

Ashton Kutcher was on in the last episode I watched, and I wasn't expecting much from him but he actually said something that resonated with me more vividly than anything else that was said. He was complaining about the amount of money that is being invested in sending stuff to Mars. Those around him recognised what he was saying to be true, but I think this should be a much bigger deal in public consciousness than it's given credit for.

A while ago, the comedian Steven Wright made the point that money invested in the military could have been put into the arts, or museums. This is true, of course. But lets say actually we do need the money invested in the military for national security. I don't believe that, but lets say that that's the case. Do we really need to send stuff to Mars? You can blast a little rocket into outer space, it goes up there and touches a rock. A bunch of people at NASA give each other a high 5, but besides that who gives a shit? I have a second cousin who set up a charity to fund a guy who is apparently making brilliant breakthroughs in treating cancer. He needs a charity?! Similarly, Malaria is the number one killer of refugees in Africa, all they need is mosquito nets, which cost about £6.50 each. How many lives could be traded in for a piece of rock from Mars? What does that rock tell us that we need to know?

Perhaps activists haven't made such a big deal out of this because NASA isn't perceived as an enemy or an oppressive force. They don't seem like one - but as far as I can tell, their draining money from the economy for something that's completely useless.

7 comments:

Karen said...

I think we should discover the universe we live in. The latest i heard on Mars last week was that scientists were looking into whether certain "rock masses" were evidence of glaciers. That would tell us if there was ever water on Mars. That, in turn, would tell us volumes about climate change and the relation the axis of a plantet towards the sun has on our climate...

Paul Taberham said...

In a very direct and pragmatic way, money can be used to save human life. That's a priority. Once that is taken care of then discovering the universe we live in is a wonderful thing to do. But not essential right now

Sergio said...

Paul:
It's not a case of either/or...

NASA's research isn't something "completely useless". I'm sure you don't believe that.

But you do believe that it isn't a priority.

Well, there's plenty of money sent to Africa. The problem with the "refugees in Africa" isn't that the money is lacking. It's just that the funds are swerved instead of used to develop African countries - the only long-term solution to end poverty.

Paul Taberham said...

Sergio - yes, you can send money to both, which is what they do. But to some people out there who were in mortal danger, it was a question of starvation/ malaria/ insufficient health care in favour of moon rocks. I don't think a penny should be spent on the abstract ideal of discovering the universe around us or pushing human achievement when there are more pragmatic things that need money.

I guess my comment that it's completely useless is coming from a position of ignorance. But if you can direct me to anything that explains how that money is worth the human life that has been lost then I will be swayed.

By your use of the word "plenty" I'm reading the word "sufficient". I've heard that money and resources is being swerved. Horrible. At any rate, I gather this site provides mosquito nets are pretty dependable: http://www.nothingbutnets.net/

Sergio said...

I insist: not a question of either/or...

It's certainly not a "question of starvation/ malaria/ insufficient health care in favour of moon rocks" since you are comparing the financing of a national (American) agency with international aid. This argument isn't sound.

But even if you entertain the idea that the US should cancel NASA's research in favour of helping Africa, you end up begging some questions.

Given that you also talked about medical research, it's clear that you aren't establishing a hierarchy of priorities but that there are only two options ("how that money is worth the human life that has been lost": either/or...). Pressing matters, you say. It's a radical and ultimately indefensible position - at least, for me.

Why just NASA then? A reductio ad absurdum of your argument would make, for example, Arts and Humanities research grants secondary, superfluous, redundant (even "immoral"). Should we scrap them?

Paul Taberham said...

hm. Well, you could talk me round on this Sergio - I'm willing to change my opinion on this one. But your note states that my argument isn't sound, brings up new questions, and is radical and indefensible. All of which may be true, but I need you to explain why. We can perhaps talk it out on campus some time if you can't be bothered to type it up...

Hierarchy of priorities - well, I haven't rigorously broken it down. It's a broad statement but as long as I'm coming from a privelaged position, then I feel like I can't justifiably claim that resources are better spent on moon rocks OR arts and humanities research grants than on people who are in need.

Incidentally, I still live within the university system as a film scholar. But it is a privelaged position and I'm aware that in a more just world, I probably wouldn't have this option.

Sergio said...

Yes, we can discuss this. I understand your comments about privilege.

I thought I was clear about why the argument isn't sound. You're comparing NASA's budget (national - US) with an amount that would be allocated to another place (international - Africa). They're clearly not comparable.

Now if you were talking about the distribution of money within the United Nations... (This is my exactly point: there's no "money" in abstract, but money from different sources that can be used for different purposes.)