McCain's planetariophobia

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Oct. 8 2008 4:21 PM

McCain's planetariophobia

So a little while back, John McCain made an ill-advised crack about planetaria (that's the plural of planetarium), calling them "foolishness". It was ill advised because it raised the hackles of lots of science-loving folks, including those who want to -- gasp, horror! -- educate kids about astronomy and science.

At the time I suspected it was just a wedge in which to attack Barack Obama, but his use of the word foolishness really caught my attention. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, but does he really dislike such things?

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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Well, last night removed any doubt, when McCain -- twice -- used Obama's requested earmark of three million dollars for Adler planetarium as a bludgeon, trying to pin Obama as another pork-barrel politician. He disdainfully said the money was for an "overhead projector". Those are his exact words. Here's what he said:

While we were working to eliminate these pork barrel earmarks he [Senator Obama, or "that one"] voted for nearly $1 billion in pork barrel earmark projects. Including $3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago, Illinois. My friends, do we need to spend that kind of money?

Well, shock of shocks -- it turns out McCain's characterization of this was all wrong. In fact, I would call it a lie. He knows it wasn't for an overhead projector, a piece of classroom equipment that costs a couple of hundred dollars. That money was for Adler's Zeiss Mark VI star projector: a venerable piece of precision fabricated equipment that projects the stars, constellations, and other objects inside the planetarium dome. Adler's Zeiss is 40 years old, and desperately needs replacing. These machines are pricey, and replacing them difficult.

Adler needed money to do this. They asked local politicians, and eventually were able to get a request in a budget submitted by Obama. However, Obama never even voted on that budget, and Adler never got that money -- thus making, again, McCain a liar.

Needless to say, Adler wasn't thrilled with this characterization of their beloved Zeiss. They issued a statement to that effect. You can also get opinions all over the place: Universe Today, SpaceWriter, Davin Flateau, Discovery Space, Wonkette, the Chicago Tribune, even NPR.

I have posted about this before (just last night, in fact). The comments on my statements have been all over the place, from support to some fairly ridiculous complaints. My favorites have involved something along the line of, "Where in the Constitution does it say the federal government has to send money to planetaria?"

Good question. But where does it say the government will repair roads, provide clean water, create public schools, fund the space program?

Look: there are some things the government does for the greater good. This is where libertarians and I part company. Government isn't always bad. In many cases, it takes the money it gets in taxes and does fantastic things with it, like sending probes to Mercury and funding autism research. It makes the roads drivable, and makes sure companies don't pollute our air (well, it used to do that). You can complain all you want that earmarks get abused -- and they certainly do -- but they also get used to fund projects that are starved for cash, and that richly deserve to have life breathed into them.

I disagree with McCain here as well. He wants no earmarks at all. I think that's ridiculous. It would be far better to have regulation of them, instead of the laissez-faire attitude the government has now. Or, if not overt regulation, some sort of throttle on them, instead of them being free passes to bridges to nowhere.

And finally, I want to reiterate what I said in my first post on this topic: I love planetaria. Love love love. They educate kids. That is among the finest and most honorable goals anyone can have. People who work at planetaria across the country and the world do it because they love it. They don't get rich doing it, they don't get fame doing it, they hardly even get accolades doing it. But we owe so much to them! Kids learn in planetaria-- and not just about the stars over their heads on a given night; planetaria are evolving into the digital age, bringing incredible programs to the public (I know what I'm talking about here). And it's not even just astronomy. The projectors can give all kinds of lessons: biology, history, local lore... anything you can create digitally can be projected in a planetarium, and kids can learn.

For McCain to use this as a political zinger is insulting, and for him to call it foolishness is beyond the pale. The honorable thing for him to do now is to admit he was wrong, admit he mischaracterized both the planetarium and Obama's stance, and then issue a public apology to planetarians and science-lovers across the country.

The next debate is in one week. I bet a lot more pro-science folks will be watching, too. Closely.

TODAY IN SLATE

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