Thursday, February 09, 2006

Double Issue: New Spying Claims/NASA Science

Old Business:

There were two stories today relevant to the moral argument concerning the Bush Administration’s spying on Americans.

Story 1: The Administration released information today about a terrorist plan to hijack an airplane and fly it into the tallest sky scraper on the west coast, what was then Library Tower in Los Angeles. This was one of ten planned terrorist attacks that the Bush Administration is claiming to have stopped. Though no specifics were announced, we are certainly encouraged to think that some of these attacks would have occurred if not for the Administration’s suspension of the 4th Amendment to the Constitution.

Answer: Nobody is arguing that the Bush Administration should not eavesdrop on conversations between Americans and suspected terrorists. The question is whether there should be some sort of supervision to ensure that this President, or some future President, is not spying on others such as political opponents or members of the press. Though the administration claims that activities are limited to spying on terrorists, it also claimed for four years that even this form of spying required a warrant. Obviously, the administration lied. It is quite unreasonable to assume that an entity that has repeatedly been caught lying or distorting the truth has suddenly become truthful.

If Bush were to surround the nation of Pakistan, then go through the country and kill everybody there, chances are it will be able to turn over one or two bodies and be able to say, "See, it worked. We got ourselves a terrorist." It would certainly keep America safer. That does not make it right.

In fact, this Administration seems to think that not only are they above the law, but they are above morality, permissibly doing whatever it wants. With an administration like that, there is no telling what it will do that we simply do not yet know about, or who its victims may be.

Story 2: An AP-Ipsos poll (pdf) shows that the public is more supportive of the Bush Administration’s warrantless surveillance. The percentage of Americans saying that the Bush Administration that does not need a warrant has risen from 42 percent to 48 percent.

Answer: The pollsters continue to ask the wrong question. In this poll, the question asked was, “Should the Bush administration be required to get a warrant from a judge before monitoring phone and internet communications between American citizens in the United States and suspected terrorists, or should the government be allowed to monitor such communications without a warrant?”

If we know that this is a conversation between an American citizen and a suspected terrorist, then of course we want the government to be listening in on that conversation. Furthermore, the question allows the reader to assume that he is being asked whether the administration should get a warrant before it is allowed to listen. Of course we do not want the government to wait. This is why the FISA law does not require the government to get a warrant before listening, but within 72 hours after it starts.

More importantly, the poll assumes that the Administration is only listening in on conversations between American citizens and suspected terrorists. The very problem with the Executive Branch assuming this power is that, without oversight, we must trust the Administration to be honest about who it is spying on. We also must trust the Administration to have a reasonable definition of ‘suspected terrorist’. Their definition, like their definition of torture, might be so twisted that anybody who says anything bad about the President suddenly becomes a ‘suspected terrorist,’ in the same way that the Pentagon is sees anybody who speaks against the War in Iraq as a potential threat to national security.

Old Business: NASA's Bad Science

After respected NASA scientist, James E. Hansen, protested about Bush Administration censorship of his findings on global warming, and several other NASA officials reported pressure to change their results, the mess was charged to a mid-level bureaucrat, George Deutsch, who has since resigned.

As I wrote yesterday, we know that this pressure to rewrite scientific findings so that the support Administration policy extends far beyond NASA. It would be laughable to think that George Deutsch was responsible for it all and that with his resignation Bush Administration science reports will now be honest and reliable.

I strongly suspect that future generations of college professors will simply look through their students’ reports for any government science report written from 2001 through 2008 and say, "You can't use that. That's Bush science. Everybody knows that it is totally unreliable."

Scientists already have their own say of filtering the garbage out of science. It is the peer review process, where the people commenting on a finding are people who have actually studied and gained some credibility in the field that they are reviewing. Where the Bush Administration will give a science report to a lawyer to review it, scientists actually give their reports to other scientists to review.

Imagine that: assigning experts to the job of overseeing work being done in an area that they are experts in, rather than assigning campaign contributors and supporters to oversee areas of government that they know nothing about.

New Business: NASA's No Science

I wrote yesterday about how religious views are clouding the Administration’s judgment when it comes to evaluating science. One way that the Administration can prevent the people from learning things that the Administration does want them to learn is to censor that information. It is much easier to manipulate an ignorant population.

Another way to keep the population ignorant is to simply refuse to fund research that might produce results that the Administration wishes not to know.

Towards this end, it makes sense to learn that in NASA’s new budget projects that aim for the discovery of extraterrestrial life have been postponed.

(1) The Mars Sample Return Mission and Mars Telecommunications Orbiter have both been postponed indefinitely.

(2) The Europa exploration program has been cut. Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, is heated by tidal forces to the degree that it seems to have liquid water below a surface of ice. It is the second most likely place in the solar system other than Mars where one might find extraterrestrial life.

(3) The Space Interferometry Mission designed to help find earth-like planets around other stars by creating a telescope of exceptional power in space has been postponed until 2015 at the earliest.

(4) The Terrestrial Planet Finder, which would have the ability to actually take pictures of Earth-like planets around other stars, has been postponed indefinitely.

Of course, if somebody believes that God created Earth and put man upon it, that we are special, then it makes no sense to waste all sorts of money trying to find life elsewhere in the universe. It is not there.

In addition, consistent with the Bush Administration’s wish not to fund research that may produce results it does not like, Earth System Science and Sun-Earth Connection science (relevant to the global warming issue) will suffer a cut of $2.4 billion over the next five years.

In place of this, NASA is to concentrate on putting man back on the moon.

Now, I am not actually arguing that people should demand that these programs be reinstated and funding provided. I am personally disappointed in these decisions. I would really very much like to live long enough to witness the discovery of (good evidence for) life outside of our solar system. However, personal disappointment does not make for a moral argument.

There is a weak moral issue to be found in the possibility that this is another example where false religious assumptions result in misdirecting government research. It is yet another item on a long list of examples where policy decisions have been placed on bad science, because religious assumptions are being used to distinguish good science from bad. Yet, of all of the examples of this, the lack of honest research on issues such as teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, environmental poisons, global warming, and stem-cell research are far worse examples of bad policy based on bad science.

Also of moral relevance: if there is any moral imperative to keep the human race from becoming extinct, the odds of survival are better if we are scattered around the solar system than all gathered on one fragile planet.

Ultimately, I think that NASA could be spending its science research and development money far more efficiently than it has been. I would like to see what would happen if the government offered prize money for the results it seeks, rather than building and testing its own robotic missions.

For example, in place of a $650 million mission to the moon to bring back samples from the South Pole region (where ice may be present), I would recommend that NASA set up a set of prizes. For example, the government could set up a set of 10 prizes, ranging from $25 million to $125 million, to whoever can bring back samples that meet NASA requirements.

Companies that compete to claim the money can also do whatever they want to gain outside income from corporate sponsors or by bringing back additional lunar material and selling it on the open market.

The project would have a number of benefits including (1) creating an incentive for entrepreneurs to search for new cost-effective ways to develop space, (2) promote the commercial development of space, (3) attract private capital which can then be mixed with government money to promote space development, and (4) allow NASA to pay only for missions that succeed and never again pay out hundreds of millions of dollars for a mission that fails.

NASA could also spur research into the best ways to discover earth-like planets elsewhere in the universe simply by announcing a prize – say, of $100 million – to the first research team to provide evidence of an earth-sized planet with an oxygen atmosphere. Maybe large orbiting telescopes such as the Space Interferometry Mission or the Terrestrial Planet Finder are not the most efficient ways to go. Perhaps astronomers, with an eye on a prize, can come up with better options.


Anonymous said...

Good article, totaly agree, but needs editing :)

" Mars where one might find life extraterrestrial life."

"(3) The Space Interferometry Mission designed to help find earth-like planets around other stars by creating a power of exceptional power in space has been postponed until 2015 at the earliest."


PS sorry to be a nitpicker

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Yes, I am aware of the editing issue, and I do not mind the nitpicking.

I have too little time and, to be honest, I have this bad habit of completely rewriting my posts from top to bottom whenever I sit down to 'edit'.

If anybody wants to take it upon themselves to point out editing problems, feel free to take note of all that you find and email to me. I would love an opportunity to clean things up.

Hume's Ghost said...

Not many Americans have read Orwell, apparently. Bush is a fear-monger. They have raised the terror alert or announced some supposed terrorist plot on numerous occasions in order to deflect negative press for the administration.

An AP report said that the plot on LA was not far along and was not close to being ready to be implemented, and that at least one of possible hijackers had backed out after 9/11.

We have a sitting President who apparently decided by his fiat that he could violate the 4th Amendment rights of the entire nation and yet the public is not outraged. I am seriously worried about the state of democracy in this country.