Did NASA just tell us to pray?

Though I’m fine with NASA astronauts or officials asking us to pray for Astronauts in peril (which is any astronaut on an active mission), I’d be less excited if NASA adopted that as their working procedure, say, for quality control of reentry heat shields on spacecraft. The detailed procedures and manuals the space agency is famous for are probably more reliable than appeals to a higher power.

But at a hearing of the House Science Committee last week, NASA’s chief, Charles Bowden, suggested just that response to advance warning of an approaching asteroid large enough to destroy a city, according to Reuters. “From the information we have, we don’t know of an asteroid that will threaten the population of the United States. But if it’s coming in three weeks, pray.”

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Now, the discomfiting thing is that the information NASA has on asteroids about 165 feet in diameter, or thereabouts, is not very much. Less than 10% of that size are identified and tracked. (Larger asteroids are obviously easier to see, and we know about most of those, which is good, since their encounters with earth in the distant past seem to correspond to massive extinctions).

And even more discomfiting is the suggestion that given such short notice, we’d be left with no viable defense options. This is a problem. The concept of asteroid impact avoidance is not simple and there are few easy solutions (Russia’s recent talk about using nuclear weapons to “deflect” approaching asteroids might work, or might just as likely turn a shotgun slug into bird shot, potentially increasing the area impacted). We might consider a little more seriously funding research into systems that could save the entire planet. Just a thought, and I hope that’s what the Representatives took from the meeting. It’s certainly was Bowden’s main message.

But the appeal to a higher power by the chief administrator of the nation’s most visible science organization is disturbing as well, and unfortunate. And of course, it made headlines (religion always does in the US). NASA says to pray!

Bowden should have realized that there are people in this country (and probably in the House of Representatives) that would take “pray!” as a serious response, and some who would think it might even be better than actually trying to intervene. Some whackos will even think we should do nothing, and that an asteroid hitting Chicago, or unfortunate New Orleans, is just God’s way of saying that he opposes Gay Marriage. I understand Mr. Bowden meant his quip to underscore how unprepared we are, but surely there were better phrases to use.

Manuy Americans neither understand nor accept science as an evidence-based process distinct from, say, theology or astrology. Most Americans, heck, most people in government, don’t understand the difference between a hypothesis and a theory. Some states fund schools that teach creationism, either as an alternative theory (which it can’t be, as it doesn’t use an evidence-based process, though it pretends to in the form of intelligent design) or as the only explanation for how things are.

About half of Americans believe in the literal truth of the Bible (in spite of two different and contradictory creation myths and two different and also contradictory lineages for Jesus). For pete’s sake, Mr. Bowden, one poll suggested that 83% of American believe that God answers prayers. And you just suggested it as a good way to defend against asteroids! Do you think you might have chosen better words?

Scientists (and adminstrators of science organizations) who revert to talking about God, whether they mean a Higgs Boson, unified field theory, an impersonal universal life force, the physical parameters of the universe, or even as the dude with the white beard, gleefully killing people who masterbate or smell funny or occupy a piece of land he thinks some other people should occupy, really are not helping the already tenuous understanding of the difference between science and religion in the US. They should stop pandering to the masses and start using their moments in the spotlight to educate people about science, evidence, logic, and reality.

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