One of my pet peeves is the contention that conservatives and Republicans are “anti-science” while liberals and Democrats are “pro-science”. Having been in the field for twenty years, I’ve observed little difference in how well science is funded under the two parties, with a slight bias in favor of Republicans. And while it’s true that Republicans are more dubious of science on the big topics du jour — global warming and evolution — that doesn’t mean they are more anti-science in general. When it comes to GMOs, vaccines or nuclear power, the Left is way more anti-science.
My dislike of this meme is embodied in the person of Algore, who has a reputation as this great scientific mind but has always crossed me as a poser: someone who pretends to be a friend of science because he wants to look smart (and, in his case, wants to advance a big government agenda). He wrote a well-praised book — Earth in the Balance — that was shredded in P.J. O’Rourke in All The Trouble in the World and proved to be massively wrong on many issues. He touted a plan to move the United States to alternative energy within ten years that was total science fiction. His advocacy on global warming — hypocritical advocacy — touted doomsday scenarios and marginal studies. It was ultimately a disservice to the climate debate.
But if you want Algore in a nutshell, I give you the Triana satellite, a version of which was launched today. Triana started with this crackpot idea of Gore’s to have a satellite launched which would sit in the L1 Lagrange point and take pictures of the Earth. That’s it. It would take pictures of the Earth to “raise awareness” of our climate. NASA devoted $100 million to this boondoggle, without any peer review, and desperately tried to get scientists to find some use for it. The best they could come up with measuring Earth’s albedo and cloud patterns, although Triana was not what you would have designed with that science program in mind. When the SOHO spacecraft was having trouble, they came up with a plan to put instruments on it to measure solar activity, since the L1 point is good for that.
Triana was mothballed after Bush won the White House but was resurrected by Obama. The satellite — now named DSCOVR — has been revamped so that its primary mission is to measure solar storms and provide and early warning of space weather. The Earth picture thing is an afterthought. Notice that’s NASA’s video doesn’t mention Algore’s original Triana mission at all.
If anyone other than Algore had proposed Triana, burned $100 million on it and had NASA scramble to find an actual scientific use for it, they would have been laughingstock. But today the press is filled with stories about how this is Algore’s “dream” even though his original proposal had nothing to do with DSCOVR’s primary mission.
DSCOVR is a good mission and I’m glad it launched today. I’m even gladder that it was launched by SpaceX. Space weather is a serious issue and we desperately need to address the impact that a severe solar storm could have on our planet (think about a world-wide power grid meltdown to get the picture). But let’s not pretend this has anything to do with Algore. This is NASA making some very good lemonade from a $100 million lemon.