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« OK, One More Beating Up On The Frogs Post... | Main | It's A Dog »

False Choices

One of the frustrating things about public opinion polls and political debate is the lack of nuance in them.

The potential positions on an issue are generally dichotomized into either a "for or against," or into two (and only two) different positions, usually one on the "left" and the other on the "right." And of course, it's always assumed that if you're not for one, then you must be for the other, though of course it means nothing of the kind, and ignores a third or fourth or fifth possibility that isn't even under discussion.

In addition, even poll results that have well-framed questions are often misinterpreted by the poll takers and pundits. As an example, consider the ever popular "presidential approval rating." The question asks how you think the president is doing. If asked, I would say that I don't approve of Mr. Bush's job performance--there are many problems I have with this administration in terms of overspending, incompetence and annoyance on the homeland security front, the War on (Some) Drugs, positions on cloning and research, etc. So simple-minded political analysts would therefore mistakenly conclude that I'd vote for his opponent if the election were held today, which is, of course, nonsense, because I know that his opponent would almost certainly be even worse in other ways.

The problem is particularly bad when it comes to (you knew I was getting to this, didn't you?) space policy.

There was an infuriating recent Gallup poll commissioned by CNN/USA Today on the future direction of the space program.

The first question was the usual, useless one--would you like to see more, less or the same amount of money spent on NASA? This of course, ignores the issue of whether you approve of the way that NASA spends its money, so it would be hard for me to come up with an answer to that one. It also doesn't take into account that most people have no idea how much money we spend on NASA in the first place. Inform them first, both in absolute dollars and relative percentage of the federal budget, and you'll almost certainly get a different answer.

But the next question is the most problematic:

Some people feel the U.S. space program should concentrate on unmanned missions like Voyager 2, which send back information from space. Others say the U.S. should concentrate on maintaining a manned space program like the space shuttle. Which comes closer to your view?

Ummm....none of the above? The question sets up what logicians call a false choice, ignoring other viable options and implying that these are the only two possibilities--either send robots out to "explore space" (since space has no other purpose than to be "explored," right?) or continue to spend billions of taxpayer dollars sending a few government employees "exploring" low earth orbit.

Given the political vapidity of the questions, the results are encouraging for supporters of the status quo. Even in the wake of the loss of Columbia, support for the "manned space program" remains strong, and support for unmanned space exploration has increased from five years ago.

Of course, the poll is frustrating for those who'd like to see a new direction to our space activities, both because of the results, and the fact that the question of alternatives isn't even asked.

And as usual, the poll reflects the fact that the people who make space policy are similarly stuck in the same stale thought patterns. The usual dumb and pointless debate of robots versus astronauts has reawakened, with no discussion, useful or otherwise, about what we're actually trying to accomplish in space, because everyone assumes, mistakenly, that we already know that.

There was, however, one almost-interesting question. Not as interesting as it could have been, but it's one that was rarely asked a few years ago, before the flights of Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth. It was, "would you like to be a passenger in the Shuttle yourself"?

Not surprisingly, the desire for a Shuttle ride has diminished somewhat since the nation saw seven astronauts incinerated in the skies over Texas three weeks ago, but it still remains high. Three out of ten people would like a ride.

The question, of course, would have been much more interesting if it were more generic. "Would you like to take a ride into space?" "Would you like to visit a luxury resort in orbit?" "How about one on the Moon?"

Here would be my biased poll questions:

"Do you think that NASA should be doing things that make these things possible, or continuing to squander billions sending a few civil servants in circles?"

"Do you want to send your hard-earned money to Washington so that robots can go out to Mars to have all the fun, or would you like to go see the Red Planet yourself, up close and personal?"

"Do you want a space program for robots and NASA astronauts, or do you want one for the rest of us?"

So far, it's clear that these are not the questions on the table in Washington right now. If they were, NASA wouldn't be talking about a multi-billion-dollar Orbital Space Plane (OSP) that will cost almost as much to operate as the Shuttle. Instead, the discussion would be about how to develop a vibrant space transportation industry, that can expand and drop costs with an increasing market.

Until these are the kinds of questions that poll takers ask, and pundits and policy makers debate, we can't expect to break out of the space policy box that we've been in for the past half a century, and we'll continue to make very little progress in expanding humanity, and life itself, off the planet.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 20, 2003 08:12 AM
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I want to go to Mars and dig around in the hillside these guys are so excited about.

Posted by Kevin McGehee at February 20, 2003 09:12 AM

It seems to me that most "pollsters" are in fact aligned with the questioners in a very incestuous way. Thats why the questions always read like, "are you still beating your wife. The questions are never written or asked so an honest answer can be given.

Example: When we were in the midst of the Dole/Boles fight here in NC, I actually had a phone poller ask me, "...if you really needed something from the goverment would you expect the Republicans or the Democrats to provide it faster". Well the answer is obvious, however I DON"T GO TO THE GOVERNMENT when I need things.

The entire debate over current poll numbers comes down to the old axiom, figures don't lie, but liars can figure.

Posted by Steve at February 20, 2003 09:21 AM

I want to go to the moon and setup a pizza joint and microbrewery in a lava tube. From there I can expand the franchise into the space stations and the belt...

Posted by Michael Mealling at February 20, 2003 09:40 AM

To hell with exploration, set us up a colony. I care not how primitive or dangerous the living conditions, if I had a chance to help spread humanity outside of our home planet, I'd jump in a heartbeat.

Perhaps that's why I'm confused about NASA and the debates over what we should be doing in space. I thought it was obvious. I thought the eventual goal was to find and spread to other viable planets. I mean, if we're not planning on moving out there, what is the point of either robotic or manned exploration? Seems to me, if we're just going to be window shopping, then there isn't much point in it.

Posted by Celeste at February 20, 2003 10:33 AM

Yes, the polls are highly suspect in cases like this. Most people don't have even a passing familiarty with the topic. That's one of the reasons why positions like "spend space funding ($15B/year) on health care ($1.4 trillion/year) or education ($373B/year, K-12 only)" aren't greeted with hilarious laughter.

But this kind of failure can be laid at our feet as well. We've been at this business of trying to influence the public since the mid 70s. What do we have to show for it? And how can we improve our results?

Posted by Chuck Divine at February 20, 2003 10:35 AM

Here's my modest proposal:

1) Burn NASA. Bureaucrats must be useful for something, even if it's only bulk caloric output.

2) We need a military space program, for ballistic missile defense, navigation/guidance, orbital weapons platforms, surveilance etc. Give that function to a branch of the military that's used to getting results. (which may rule out the zoomies, maybe the marines would take it)

3) Get the goverment out of the way and let private industry colonize space. Sattelite launch should be fully privatized. Funding for purely scientific sattelites may still need government funding, but that can be handled through NSF.

4) Burn NASA.

Posted by Sherman Lemay at February 20, 2003 10:49 AM

As for the first question (more/less/same money) - lacking proper context information (as you point out), it still provides useful info. For those who are relatively unaware of the realities of our space program, it indicates a desire from the populace - "more stuff should be going on in this sector" vs. "no, I don't give a rats ass about space/science/new economies/etc., give it to the poor!". Assuming more of the former, it can be a useful statistic for non-governmental companies looking for capital, but I don't know if anyone will use it that way.

Rand, you've been riling everyone up about this subject for a long while, triply so post-Columbia. WHAT DO WE DO NOW? Is there a lobbying group (or something else) that has a chance in hell of making a difference that I can donate to? IMHO, so many of the newsgroup or "space society" folks seem to be engaged in so much navel-gazing about what policy should be without thinking about the realistic steps needed to get there. Personally, "The Man Who Sold The Moon" sold me on the whole idea many years ago. :) Despite the very cogent arguments given here, the OSP seems to be closer and closer to a reality.

Rand, you've convinced us (those who needed it) - where do we go from here?

Posted by Matthew Picioccio at February 20, 2003 12:13 PM

I'd say that the Space Frontier Foundation and the Space Access Society are probably the two organizations most useful for promoting these ideas. The Planetary Society is too focused on exploration, and the National Space Society is dominated by too many people who think that NASA will get us into space, if only we give them enough money.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 20, 2003 12:53 PM

I recently joined the SFF and also uncovered their blog which has some interesting articles that aren't repeats of everyone elses. I'll also be attempting to get a personal appointment with my representatives while I'm in DC next week.

Beyond that I think the best thing we can all do is learn everything you can about business and begin applying it. Help people like XCOR make the case to investors that they're worth investing in. Get rich yourself so you can a) invest in them and b) afford their products. Start saving up the cash so you can fly on a ZeroG flight. Get some Armadillo loot.

In other words: figure out how you can either provide a product or buy one....

Sorry... damn soap box keeps sneaking up under there....

Posted by Michael Mealling at February 20, 2003 01:27 PM

I'll second Rand's comment above.

But there's still an additional point to be made.

When some of us started this stuff back in the 1970s, we optimistically hoped we'd be living in an O'Neill colony by now -- or at least somebody would. Three people in LEO isn't an O'Neill colony.

OK, along the way it became apparent (at least to some of us) that it was going to take longer than that -- for whatever reason.

What concerns me at this point (perhaps wrongly) is the state of the space advocacy community. Just how much new blood is coming in? Have we set ourselves up in some sort of long term mode?

I just briefly reviewed the history of the Sierra Club. While they had a few early successes, for a long time they were a fairly minor group working on, for the time, fairly minor issues. They did, however, come up with a formula for sustaining themselves and promoting slow growth.

Will there even be a Space Frontier Foundation in 30 years? Or even the NSS? Or Mars Society?

This is an issue I think we must address.

Michael Meall's post is also a damned good one. I'll second that and suggest this is at least a partial solution to the problem I've stated. But I think we need to start learning from the early years of the Sierra Club as well.

Posted by Chuck Divine at February 20, 2003 01:51 PM

I'll second what Chuck just said. I spent several years running local Libertarian groups. I learned a lot about all volunteer organizations and how to keep them motivated. One of the earliest things I learned was that no matter what your capacity was within the organization your number one priority was to find and train your successor.

I've been working with the Artemis/Moon Societies for a few years now and while I've seen a trickle of young folks coming through, by and large its just a bunch of us old farts. Heck, I'm 33 and I'm the youngest person I know who's actively involved in this stuff. The place I see the most enthusiasm from kids is hobby/amateur rocketry. You can get a kid hooked hard on space by helping them build their first high powered rocket. Kids have gotten jaded on the Estes stuff. Shake 'em in their shoes with a big rocket on a K550....

Posted by Michael Mealling at February 20, 2003 02:18 PM

Yes, amateur rocketry can be a good entre--until the Department of Homeland Security makes it illegal...

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 20, 2003 03:08 PM

There's something very valuable waiting in space, that small private startups cant do by themseleves.
Thats Power sats. people believe they are able to do it, but i think they are up against hard currents. NASA has several times said out loud that its technically impossible.
People outside NASA claim otherwise. Whom are the investors going to believe ?

Posted by at February 20, 2003 11:35 PM

Could XCOR-like liquid rockets with safe fuels overcome HPR restrictions ?
People are saying that hobby rocketry communityis currently pro-solids only, and heavily biased against anything hybrid or liquid. But XCOR has demonstrated that liquids can be safe and reliable, and SMALL. Some hybrids are even in production by model rocketry manufacturers.
The ban could work two ways, either the hobby dies, or safe fuels will boom ?

Posted by at February 20, 2003 11:39 PM

Let me put in plug for amateur astronomy as well as hobby rockets.

The NJ suburb where I grew up was no place to launch rockets (possibly illegal under the fireworks laws enforced back then). But astronomy was open to all.

Astronomy was one of the things that got me hooked on space. And, for what it's worth, I didn't become a Carl Sagan worshipper. The thing that really hooked me as an adult was O'Neill's work.

Posted by Chuck Divine at February 21, 2003 06:33 AM

A handfull of responses:

1) Powersats do need some legislation changes in both liability and in the power industry. I think the biggest problem powersats are going to have is the incorrect fear of a problem causing irradiation of bystanders. Here's a question to think about: is there an intermediary step for powersats? Beamed power to other satellites?

2) Yes, the restrictions currently being fought are for things like ammonium perchlorate, et al. And yes, the HPR community is very much pro-solids. But many people seperate HPR from amateur/experimental. The AM/EX crowd has been doing all sorts of liquid, hybrid, monoprops, biprops, etc for years. Yes many still prefer solids but simply because the ISP is higher as a ratio to the cost. The HPR community really isn't going to be launching anything bigger than it already is. The costs of getting bigger/faster/better are outside the budgets of most HPR flyers. Hybrids require a pretty extensive little ground support setup. Nitrous is not an easy thing to deal with.

3) Yep. Forgot about amateur astronomy. I just wish prices on good telescopes would come down. That aluminum tube with a magnifying class in it just turned me off when I was a kid. We couldn't afford anything better.

Posted by Michael Mealling at February 21, 2003 07:06 AM

" just wish prices on good telescopes would come down."

Get yourself a nice little Dobsonian reflector. I love my Orion XT6 and only paid about $350 for it. They have smaller 4 1/2 inch tubes for $200. They make good planetary scopes (watched the shadow of Io race across jupiter, can see valleys of Mars, and can zoom onto individual craters of the Moon). Its also good at deep field study of bright nebulas and galaxies. One of the best things about a Dob is that the mount is ready to go -- no tubes to load on a tripod, no counter weights to set. It takes less then 5 minutes to get setup and start sky watching.

Some pictures I took through my Orion XT6 using my Canon c-700 ultra zoom

Some good starter scopes at Orion

And remember you don't really need a telescope to enjoy sky watching. I do a lot of sky watching with a good star chart and my naked eye. Maybe a pair of 10x binoculars to soak up the light from faint celestial objects. The most important thing is to find an area with extremely dark skies. Give your eyes about 30 minutes to adjust to the dark and then let the photons of the universe hit your retina and enjoy.

Posted by Hefty at February 21, 2003 10:40 AM

One action you can take right now to help get humanity off this planet, is to sign up for March Storm 2003. March Storm is an event organized by ProSpace in D.C. on March 8-12. It does require you to get out of your armchair and do some work instead of just writing a check to some non-profit, but it is also far more effective. March Storm does require participants to be respectful and presentable when they are in meetings with representatives and staffers.

Posted by Matt Wronkiewicz at February 21, 2003 11:11 AM

URL for March Storm?

Posted by Rick C at February 21, 2003 07:56 PM

Google is your friend. ;-)

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 21, 2003 08:18 PM

One thing to remember about space exploration (ok, a few things to remember):

Yes, it is good to get people into "grass roots" astronomy groups. Especially the up-and-coming-techies who are going to become the next generation to ACCOMPLISH something.

But I, and most of the people I know, aren't those people. But I, and most of the people I know, ARE the ones who understand the basic GOOD of space exploration. Who understand that space is the NEXT FRONTIER. Who understand that space exploration represents HUMAN ENDEAVOR.

I may not have an opinion that jells into: X dollars to Y program over Z program. I don't think I necessarily NEED to form such an opinion (i.e, I admit that I don't have the expertise to intelligently voice an opinion on specifics).

What needs to get onto the radar of the mass populace is that mankind NEEDS space exploration. Just as it needed seafaring exploration, and Marco Polo's explorations, and scientific explorations into basic biomedicine. It is our lifeblood. I sincerely believe that.

For some reason, that general philosophical treatise seems to have fallen by the wayside, and is being waylaid by: "OH, but our highways have POTHOLES, and shouldn't tax money go there instead!!"

The space program needs a JFK to amass mass opinion to the worthiness of the general concept. Because from what I read in Hokum State Tribune-Dispatch, that sentiment isn't there.

Then all you techie guys REALLY need to WORK OUT THE BULLSHIT PROBLEMS as if the life of the program depends on it. Because it does. My general perception is -- there are too many bureaucrats in the system.

Rand, you need to run for state senator -- put it on the national radar!

Posted by cj at February 24, 2003 10:00 PM

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