Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Empty Space

When I created my blog, I chose a statement for the masthead: “A once-great nation being crushed under its own weight.” I have often written here that I believe that my generation has lived in the best times man has had, and ever will have, on this planet. I also believe that our nation, which has always been the beacon for the world in innovation and leadership, due to a combination complacency and hebetude, is poised for a headlong race to the bottom.

One symptom on which I base my pessimism about our future is that our nation’s self-vision of greatness appears to me mostly based on reminiscence. Our position in the global scheme as innovators and leaders in the advancement of humanity has been replaced by short term fixation on personal and individual material security. I fear this mindset will doom to failure our 200 year “experiment in democracy”.

I recently came across two videos; one an interview by Bill Moyers with author Isaac Asimov done in 1988. The other video; the testimony of scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson made before Senate Science Committee, March 7, 2012.

In the 1988 video interview with journalist, Bill Moyers, Asimov says:
"The decline in America's world power is, in part, brought about by our diminishing status as a world science leader.”

"Yes, we're still probably up there technologically... but what margins we do have are slimmer, narrower, and we're being overtaken."

"The most damaging statement the United States has ever been subjected to is the phrase 'Yankee Know-How". You get the feeling, somehow, that Americans, just by the fact they're Americans, are somehow more smarter and more ingenious than other people.

"… there is this feeling that somehow because we have a... decent economic system, freedom, free enterprise, which I am all in favor of, that alone will do it for us, and I admit that helps us out in some ways, [but] not if we're lazy about it. It’s not going to do it for us if we don't DO anything.”
In other words, even back in 1988 Asimov was warning that America’s decline in advancing science and technology was already noticeable. It was apparent, even back then, that we could not rely solely on our reputation in the past as innovators alone, to continue to carry us through to the future.

This year Neil deGrasse Tyson published his new book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, in which he continues the point made by Asimov: that the engines that drive American innovation, and more importantly, stimulate and grow our ECONOMY, are founded in our ability to envision the future. Tyson points directly to the decline of the Space Program and diversion of funding from NASA and other scientific research.

In his testimony before the Senate committee, Tyson said:
“If all you do is coast, you slow down until others eventually catch up and pass you by. We have symptoms in society today; we’re going broke, we’re mired in debt, we don’t have as many scientists we want or need, and jobs are going overseas. I assert that these are not isolated problems; that they’re the collective consequence of the absence of ambition that consumes you when you stop having dreams."
Tyson was trying to promote the idea that increased funding for NASA has proven far greater benefits by driving a culture of innovation that is responsible for overall economic growth "…. innovations take place, patents are granted, products are developed. Everyone feels like tomorrow they want to invent and bring into the present."

Americans have often held a slightly myopic view of the basis for our Yankee Know-how. The truth is that much of our past brain power has been actually imported:
“The atomic bomb was invtned and brought to fruition by a bunch of European refugees; you go down the list of names, that's the [supposedly] 'Yankee know-how" - Asimov

… most of the principle scientists behind the Manhattan project… were foreign nationals. All educated in European countries… Once we developed that infrastructure here… we became the target for people to become educated from all around the world. That became a boon to our country because we were getting the smartest people in the world. My great fear is that we now educate them and they go back their home countries and we would lose the contributions they would have made had they stayed.” - Tyson
China, India and other countries which used to send almost all of their best students to the US for education are now building their own universities and research facilities at home.

Meanwhile in the US, the final Space Shuttle was hangared last year; there currently is no replacement program in place and we must now depend on our former enemy, Russia, for our meager manned program needs. The percentage of US citizens who believe in Biological Evolution show we are at the bottom of the list of developed countries, way down there with Turkey. The Tennessee legislature last month passed a law requiring that Creationism be taught in schools along with Evolution. We are in the process of selecting the leader of the Free World based on whether or not these men feel women should have access to birth control or not. These are not encouraging indicators of a strong nation retaining it's status on the globe as a champion of innovation, leadership and progress.

When asked what could be done to restore our nation’s national standing, Neil deGrasse Tyson suggested that merely increasing the money allocated to NASA by one-half-cent of the national budget would provide remarkable return on investment toward rebuilding our economy. Tyson went on to add:
“… without this we just move back to the caves because that is where we’re going to end up anyway as the rest of the world passes us by."
I would urge you to invest the time to watch both videos linked below:

1. Bill Moyers interview with Isaac Asimov. Originally aired in 1988 (runtime 5:57)
2. Neil deGrasse Tyson Testifies Before Senate Science Committee, March 7, 2012 (runtime 25:49) (Listen particularly to the question and answer period following Tyson's official testimony.)


billy pilgrim said...

i agree about our generation having a standard of living that will be difficult to match for the foreseeable future. if nothing else the ratio of retired people to the workforce is going to place a huge burden on the coming generations. we've also strip mined all the cheap resources with little regard to the enviroment. combine this with the increasingly short term vision of our politicians and it looks like a tough row to hoe for our grandchildren.

Elisabeth said...

It's hard to say, Robert. I can understand your pessimism, and some of the things you say about america apply here in Australia. Shortsightedness has been a problem since time began, hopefully some innovations sneak through to save the day. I tend to be optimistic about the future. I need to be so for my grandchildren.

Paul said...

Robert, we as a nation have rested on our laurels too long. I agree. A " headlong race to the bottom " is indeed possible. We need science and technology yo progress. Those buffoons in Washington are more interested in their reelection that the good of the nation !

Cognitive Dissenter said...

It telling, and not in a flattering way, that US presidential elections are won and lost on wedge issues such as abortion, female contraception, gay rights, abstinence-only sex "eduction," and the "right" to teach school children that the earth was created in 7 days by an Invisible Sky Daddy -- the one they must be allowed to pray to in public schools or that meanie demon, Satan, is going to take over the world.

Sometimes it feels like there must be a secret plot to turn Americans into disempowered uneducated moronic drones.

Because when the biggest issues facing our country revolve around the economy, affordable access to health care, substandard education, and the widening chasm between rich and poor-- how else does one explain the raging debate over a woman's access to the pill? It's absurd.

Jono said...

We make education more difficult to attain and we manufacture fewer things than we used to. We don't take care of each other as well as most Western cultures. I used to think we were in a slow decline. I no longer think it is slow.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Billy I like the quote from Sir David Attenborough who said: "Anyone who believes we can have continued growth on a planet with finite resources is either mad or an economist."

Elisabeth I have one daughter who has chosen not to have children, I know of others who have made the same choice. There are some compelling reasons to believe that is a wise choice.

From what little we Americans know what goes on outside our borders, I understand that Australia too fights these battles between Conservative and Liberal viewpoints... and not with the optimal outcome.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Paul I agree, but also consider that those buffoons in Washington were placed there by the voters. Many elected officials are concerned that the inordinate amount of time and money they need to spend on their reelection undermines, or even subverts, the democratic process. I agree with that as well.

Dissenter "
Sometimes it feels like there must be a secret plot to turn Americans into disempowered uneducated moronic drones."
I think what Tyson was suggesting is that it is not so much a 'plot' as instead complacency; we have had things too easy for so long - be it a skewed standard of living through our sucking up 20% of the world's resources, or our cultural isolationsim that insulates us from what occurs outside our borders.

Take the health care issue you suggest; almost every developed country has found a way to somewhat efficiently provide health care for it's citizens. The US, on the other hand, has the highest medical delivery costs in that same sphere. Are we more stupid than our other developed country counterparts or do we just suffer from selfish short-sightedness? Perhaps both.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Jono You have hit the nail on the head: Michael Moore's film "Bowling for Columbine" underscores the heart of the American psyche - we are all in this alone! We pursue our national penchant for individualism at a cost; the reality is that we need each other, we accomplish more through cooperation than individual effort. But if we view and segregate others as 'undeserving' we are doomed to failure. As I have said before,

Americans are absolutely TERRIFIED that somebody will get something they don't feel is earned or that they have deserved. This is how people with the supposedly Christian Ethic feel justified in denying health care or education to others. It is the source of these cries of "Sharing the Wealth" and other myopic views. I got mine... you go get your own! We will suffer greatly for this.

Antares Cryptos said...

Preaching to the converted, unfortunately.

It's frustrating to know that other countries had the foresight to invest in future technology and financially rewarding patents.

Thank you for the links.

alwaysinthebackrow said...

Although I haven't watched the videos, I agree with you, Robert and see the slide to the bottom gaining speed each day. There is an attitude not only of "Yankee know-how" will win in the end, but that if we can't do it, we can buy someone who can. That is what we did for many of the big "innovations". And, of course, as the economy pushes more money to the top,only a few individuals or corporations will be able to bid on the most sought after scientists and mathematicians, no matter where they have been born or educated. It is all so overwhelmingly idiotic, avoidable, and frustrating that I have had to try not to think about it too much.

Murr Brewster said...

Do you get the idea that our dumbing-down is a deliberate ploy by people who could not ascend to power if the people were more discerning?

Robert the Skeptic said...

Cryptos Well the other countries are all "Socialist"... what the hell do they know!

BackRow I guess Tyson was trying to say we 'could' be that country again, but we need to stop reminiscing and reinvest in our future... on just the next quater's profit.

Murr Yes, I do believe that. George Carlin in one of his final, and most eloquent videos, said precisely that!

John Myste said...

Sorry to deviate from the gist of your post, as I am focusing on a single statement, but part of being skeptical is being skeptical of the skeptics skepticism at some level also.

The debate, creationism or evolution, is misguided. Creationism is a religious concept and should never be treated as something else.

Evolution is dual scientific concept, part theory and part fact.

That things evolve has been shown. Natural selection happens. The earth is much older than the theists believe. It has been proven. Humankind has primitive non-human ancestors. It has really be proven or close enough.

That sentience developed from non-sentient substances on planet earth has not been proven and should not be taught as a scientific reality. It is a philosophical view of a scientific hypothesis that hasn't been answered, and it should be taught as such.

Scientists cannot explain sentient life, so they say “evolution explains it.” If the theist protests, the scientists says: “Then how do you explain it? Some magical God, laughable.” To which the theist responds: “Your idea is illogical and absurd. If not God, then how do you explain life on earth?” They are making the same arrogant mistake. It is OK to lack an answer in the absence of enough data to answer the question. There is no legitimate shame in not knowing.

I know that there is no such thing as a God that performs miracles, or a being that is omniscient, omnipotent, all loving, or perfect, or all anything. Therefore, as an atheist, I am perfectly ready to accept a reasonable scientific solution to explain sentient life on earth; and I will, as soon as I hear one.

Robert the Skeptic said...

John You and I are entirely on the same page. The statement in my blog is a brief reference to a recent anti-science bill passed by the Tennessee legislature . I say 'recent' as in, this never seems to end and our country is in decline as a world power in part because of this stupidity.

Heidrun Khokhar said...

While I too believe a decline is happening I believe that funding science as a whole is vital. With the world population growing at speeds that are enormous I envision a huge food and water shortage. No amount of wealth can depopulate the world but funds to find ways to manage the world's growth issues might be better than a NASA thing. We have missed some window of opportunity during our great lifetime. No matter how much better those eastern nations become they have the worst population growth control and will be stuck faster in that food and water struggle. The plan to avoid it? Nothing much.
The US is allowing all sorts of farming initiatives turning dead city land into green belts and growing local food. That may be smarter than NASA funding.
But as the world gets warmer what difference will any of this make? When all the ice has melted then what? We will have no more natural cooling system. It will become too hot for any of us. The science we have learned doesn't allow us to alter that yet.

tattytiara said...

It boggles my mind when people decry the value of space exploration on the grounds that they don't know of anything of value we could be finding there. When did exploration - the very foundation of knowledge and intelligence - cease to have inherent value?

Robert the Skeptic said...

Heidrun As of this writing there is yet another group of "experts" who claim that global climate change is not happening or not human-caused. Of course, none of these experts have their expertise in climate science.

Tatty The important part of Tyson's message is not that space exploration or funding NASA should be done for 'romantic' reasons, (ie. "because it's There!) but that there are compelling and significant economic benefits for doing so. He is trying to get the attention of people who are focused only on making money, trying to convince them that there is money to be had by pursuing this.

tattytiara said...

Yes I did understand Tyson's message, thanks. I don't personally conceptualize the pursuit of new knowledge as a romantic venture, but as one intrinsically important for the intellectual development of our species. It wasn't attempting to rephrase Tyson's specific point, I was sharing my related and supporting view on the general issue.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Tatty Yes, I understand and I agree with you wholeheartedly regarding the intrinsic value of pursuing intellectual development. I have no doubt that Tyson supports the pursuit of knowledge for those reasons as well. I think in his testimony before the Senate (and in his book) that he is taking a more "earthly" approach with people who hold purse strings, a level that these people can relate to, that there are other tangible benefits to funding and supporting what he views at the engine of innovation.

Thank you for commenting, by the way, and welcome.

Tommykey said...

One symptom on which I base my pessimism about our future is that our nation’s self-vision of greatness appears to me mostly based on reminiscence.

Reminds me of a line from the U2 song God Part II:

"You glorify your past when your future dries up."

A line I've seen Sarah Palin and some other right wing figures use was "Barack Obama wants to transform America. We want to restore it." A couple of years ago, CNN was interviewing some Tea Party guy when they were having their really in Washington, DC. The CNN newscaster asked the guy what the Tea Party movement wanted. He answered "We want to take this country back to where it was 100 years ago."

These people traffic in the belief that there was some magical period in American history where everything was just right, and all we need to do is go back to that period.

But history doesn't work that way, because the world around you is changing too, so you can't retreat into some utopian past. The Chinese tried that in the 19th century in the face of European encroachment. They tried the Restoration path. The Japanese, on the other hand, tried the Transformative path. The results were clear to see in the Sino-Japanese War, when the Chinese got their clocks cleaned.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Tommykey Yes, this longing for a past that never really was. I recall during the the Reagan administration when 'light bulb changing' jokes were the rage. One in particular:

Q: "How many Republicans does it take to change a light bulb?"
A: "Four; one to change the bulb and three to reminisce about how good the old bulb was."

Mel said...

Your blog and your perspective is very refreshing. I hope you don't decide to stop blogging, since I just found your voice out here. I'm one of the voices in the choir.

I am a geographer, and I've always been fascinated with the big picture, and I think, sadly, most of my fellow countrymen don't see past the end of their nose, let alone down the street or across the ocean. We're becoming a country that scares me, and I believe that our dumbing down as a population is the most frightening aspect. I just left a job at community college in the second largest city in Illinois, assessing math and reading levels for incoming students, and placing in GED classes the minions of High School dropouts. It was woeful. I'm still shocked that the reading level cut off for the EMT, Phlebotomist and CNA programs was 61%, or 8th grade reading level. I can't fathom that we have fallen so far, and I'm afraid that the data on our performance in math and science as a nation is biased high. Things appear much worse to me than the reports. I have watched with incredulity my children's curriculum and text books teach them nothing but skimmed information. So very sad.

If I were supreme ruler queen for a day, I'd reform the political process first to take money out of the equation and then work on education. Maybe I'd create reeducation internment camps and force feed information, then knowledge and reasoning skills on the masses, so we might have some hope. But alas, I will never be queen for a day. I just watch and wonder how to begin to make a difference.

Sorry to rant, you struck a nerve, and I'm always glad to meet other intelligent, like minded bloggers here. Also, thank you for the word hebetude. How the heck did I miss that one?

Robert the Skeptic said...

Mel Yes, I have always been a "big picture" sort of person as well; not being detail oriented has it's drawbacks times. There are SO MANY issues; you mention education as one - the fact that we close our schools for two or more months a year so our entire population of kids can help our entire population of adults harvest the crops! [sheesh] Compare our children's math and science scores against those of children in other developed countries. I just found out that my grand kids schools do not have art or music programs AT ALL... NONE!

One issue that recenlty came to light is the statistic that the USA has the highest percentage of our population in prison than ANY other country; developed or despot. We are also the ONLY country that has privately run "for-profit" prisons. Tell me there isn't a cost benefit to our corporate culture at the expense to our citizens?

Or the War on Drugs: Police budgets now depend on this financial life-blood to maintain their men and equipment; the alcohol industry lobbies for it... it just goes on and on. The question for me at the moment is: can I?