Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Breaking Windows

Some of the greatest words ever written are by Carl Sagan in his Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space:
Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar", every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The picture that inspired the poetry was taken by Voyager 1 some four billion miles away.

I open this post because I want everyone to know I am not passionless about understanding space or our place in the universe. Indeed, I find exploration to be one of humanity's greatest enduring tasks. On that note, I want to draw attention to a comment I heard during my the Public Choice Society meeting I just got back from. The comment, which was made in response to my paper presentation on NASA, is one I've sadly heard often: "If NASA didn't exist, then the private sector wouldn't have the technology they created."

This is a bit like saying that its a good thing you own the clothes you're wearing otherwise you'll be naked. Just because the world emerges in one way does not mean it can't emerge in a similar way through a different method. If I didn't own these clothes, I'd be wearing something else. If NASA didn't make a technology, it's quite likely some other institution would have.

The other problem is the statement is a broken window fallacy (in that it ignores what is not seen) because it implies that this outcome is the best possible outcome. For if NASA did not exist and we never had the Mercury missions, Apollo, all that technology or the picture of that "pale blue dot," then society would have something else. Would it be better? Hard to say. It could be little more than a few dozen art museums. Or it could have been a cure for a deadly disease. Hard to tell, but they all stir the soul.

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