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Ignoring Truth at Our Peril: Lessons From NASA

James Wanliss · Feb. 8, 2016

Thirty years ago, on January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger shattered out of existence.

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, the most famous member of the panel assigned to study the disaster, argued that the estimates of reliability offered by NASA management were wildly unrealistic, differing as much as a thousand times from the estimates of the engineers, who had called for the mission to abort due to extreme cold.

But management, determined to fly, ignored their advice, holding to fancy rather than facts.

Seven astronauts lost their lives — a physicist, five engineers and one school teacher.

Feynman observed, “For a successful technology reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

Thirty years later, little has changed at NASA. It exemplifies many problems we see in science and culture — an inability or, perhaps more accurately, a dangerous unwillingness to deal with reality and truth. Truth seekers examine the world for what it is rather than fixate on what they want it to be. Ignoring reality can be dangerous.

Scientists should know this. But an emphasis on models has shown that new generations of scientists are becoming astonishingly immune to such reasoning. Trained mainly on computer modeling rather than real-world observations, they self-consciously admit that they frequently fail to distinguish models from reality. They keep aggressively massaging actual data, trying to make them fit models.

Huge sums have been thrown at studying global warming, nowhere more than at NASA, whose annual budgets for that alone now tally in the billions. Given lavish funding to blame global warming on human carbon dioxide emissions, NASA has done just that.

The problem is that data don’t match the models. The alarming warming one hears about is more a figment of modelers' imagination than reality. Their climate models simulate two to three times the observed warming. And no models predicted that for about 20 years there’s been no warming apparent in NASA’s satellite records, the most reliable data source because it’s the least contaminated and least “adjusted.”

In 1958 NASA launched into existence with the National Aeronautics and Space Act. Its mission was, “To provide for research into problems of flight within and outside the earth’s atmosphere, and for other purposes.” Since then the mission has been updated more than a few times: “To understand and protect our home planet; To explore the Universe and search for life; To inspire the next generation of explorers … as only NASA can.”

Inspiration and E.T.? Look, if you want inspiration, you can get it for a few bucks from Star Trek or Starbucks. You can boldly go … across the road. And looking for extraterrestrial civilization is about as nebulous a vision as Superman opening his own security firm. What next — no alien left behind?

Well, sort of. A few years ago President Obama refocused the NASA mission: “to reach out to the Muslim world … to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math and engineering.”

It is difficult to see how making Muslims feel good about their worldview has anything to do with the science of going to space. But then, in our times, the pursuit of truth seems less important than thinking the correct political thoughts. Truth must bend the knee to other considerations. That there is no point beyond politics seems to be the point of NASAs reimagined vision.

When this modus operandi becomes the norm at the highest levels of a society, truth is only the first casualty. There is a loss to science via the useless diversion of valuable resources, a coarsening of the culture as people cynically begin to play the game, and eventually people die.

Models don’t match reality? No problem. Keep changing the data till they do. We even have a technical term for it now, drawn from the name of the government scientist behind last year’s attempt to erase the 18-year lack of warming by dodgy adjustments to already dodgy data: Karlization.

Shouldn’t genuine pursuit of truth prefer to modify models? Instead, some scientists alter “official” climate records when they don’t fit with their models. That is to prefer fancy over fact. It is tragic. And deadly.

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