Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Lunacy and Lunar Missions: Lessons in the Shortcomings of Media Claims

Less than a century ago, the institution promising "all the news that's fit to print" offered a written excoriation of Professor Goddard and his dreams of reaching the moon, the cornerstone of which was "knowledge ladled out daily in high schools" about thermodynamics. The New York Times' author wrote that "[t]o claim that it would be [feasible to steer rockets in space] would be do deny a fundamental law of dynamics, and only Dr. Einstein and his chosen dozen, so few and fit, are licensed to do that."

The 1920 editorial, not only made after the realization of the law of conservation but actually citing it as support, seemed both to require special certifications before one could observe phenomenon in nature, and to overlook that a craft expelling accelerated exhaust would necessarily realize a change in its vector, lest the departing and just-accelerated high-speed exhaust particles create a net change in momentum of the system that includes the craft and its fuel.

The fact that respected news organizations can be so utterly wrong on what seems a point of basic science, to the point of issuing a public recantation one generation later when the folly has become laughable, should be noted by those of us who rely on the authority of a speaker's credentials rather than on the authority of the evidence in deciding how public resources might best be spent. After all, The New York Times' recantation of its 1920 editorial contained only this explanation for its retraction:
Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Issac Newton in the 17th Century and it is not definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.
That a 1920 author purported to cite Einstein as an authority (whose speeches against space flight, if any, are unknown to me) is appalling enough without his ignoring or misunderstanding Newton to reach his erroneous conclusion.

So when media outlets confidently issue pronouncements on more complex interactions than those involved in space flight -- say, in the debate on man-made planet warming, an idea with great currency in Washington, D.C. but which has been dismissed in Tokyo as "ancient astrology" -- one does well to look at the evidence rather than the claims.

There could be another retraction coming in a generation or so.

No comments: