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State Science, State Truth

January 6, 2000

Tags U.S. HistoryBig GovernmentU.S. Economy

When NASA's Polar Lander--scheduled to arrive on Mars on December
3rd--disappeared, there was reason for hope. Perhaps the incompetence of
state-funded science would finally become obvious.

After all, the fiasco
followed NASA's loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter less than three months
before. To paraphrase the comment made by one of Oscar Wilde's characters
to an orphaned man: "To lose one parent is a misfortune. Losing two smacks
of carelessness." This is especially true when one of the missing probes
went astray due to the human failure to convert some measurements into
metric units. The two Mars probes were worth a cumulative $327.5 million.
At this, they were cheap. NASA didn't want to repeat the embarrassment of
losing another billion dollar craft, like Mars Observer in 1993.

Incredibly, NASA ended 1999 on what CNN called "an up note." Namely,
the seven-member crew of the space shuttle Discovery returned safely to
Earth after repairing the Hubble Space Telescope. Yet the Hubble
itself represents a boondoggle. Launched in 1990, Hubble's main mirror had
been polished to the wrong parameters and required expensive repair to
render photographs significantly more useful than those obtained from Earth.

NASA is the ultimate government-funded science. Critics excoriate its
pathetic record and bloated spending, but they rarely raise a more
fundamental question: does governmental funding benefit science? This
question is nontrivial to those who believe that governmental interference
in other areas of human endeavor hinders progress.

Is science--unlike
economics or the arts--the one field in which government is a benefactor?
Or has government dominated research so long (through its funding since
WWII) that we no longer have a clear concept of science that can function
otherwise?

State control (i.e. funding) devastates science as surely as it does in any
other exploration for truth. Money is never given to "science" but always
to particular doctrines, theories, or individuals. The State cannot afford
to put every scientist and every doctrine on the dole. Who, then, decides?
The many (the people) or the few (the elite)? It is no answer to reply,
"those with sufficient scientific knowledge will decide" because this
merely raises another question. Which scientists will be selected and who
will apply which standard in doing so?--the many or the few?

The history of science demonstrates that an intellectual revolution is
usually necessary for a radically new doctrine to break through the
"established" truth of an old one. The many--even when science was
relatively understandable to the layperson--rarely back intellectual
revolutions. The elite few have even more of an investment in maintaining
the "status quo" from which they draw salaries and prestige. Government has
a vested interest in reducing science to the role of hand-maiden. Hence, the
Manhattan Project during WWII. Hence, NASA during the Cold War race against
the Russians into space.

Yet, anyone who questions the subordination of science to politics is
dismissed with the words, "Without government, the Internet would not
exist." It is true that the current system sprang from the government
funded ARPANET, designed to allow certain scientists to share data via
linked computers. It is not true that a similar phenomenon would not have
occurred spontaneously in the free market. Connecting computers to share
data was nothing new. And the private sector was already working out a
detailed vision of an Internet.

For example, computer guru Ted Nelson used
the term "hypertext" in 1965. His 1974 book "Dream Machines"
spelled out the mechanics of hypertext, which became the basic building
block of the World Wide Web.

What Nelson could not envision was the explosive popularity of the
Internet. This phenomenon was made possible by a later and purely
commercial invention: the microprocessor by Intel. The microprocessor
reduced the entire control process of a computer to a single integrated
chip. Computers became affordable to individuals. Of course, government has
taken credit for a system that would have originated anyway and
spontaneously through the private sector.

Indeed, since the market place would not have banned commercial
content, as the government originally did, the system would have probably
developed more quickly and at lower cost. Instead of "the many" or "the few"
deciding the particulars of the Internet, "the one" would have chosen.

That
is, the Internet would have sprung from the collective and uncoordinated
choices of individuals who used their own time and money to support the
choices most useful to them. It would have evolved from far-seeing
visionaries, like Nelson, who were disadvantaged by having to compete with
government-funded entities.

Despite its incredible incompetence, NASA has a mystique even among
those who generally scoff at State-sponsored truth. In reality, it is the
largest obstacle to space exploration. It disadvantages the competing
private sector by drawing on "free money." Of course, the money is not
free, but stolen through taxes. Thus, companies and individuals are
stripped of funds that could be directed into science they believed in. But
individuals are not allowed to pursue private choices in science on the
same level as they do with literature or music.

NASA is not only a governmental expression of contempt for the
individual, it is bad science.

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Wendy McElroy is author of many books, among them The Reasonable Woman, and many articles for Mises.org.


Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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