Last week, The Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye accepted an invitation by NASA Administrator nominee Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) to join him as his guest at the State of the Union (SOTU) address. We anticipated this would be a controversial decision, and we were right.
This post incorporates some of the discussion I've had with Planetary Society members (and many non-members) who wrote to express their concern or support about this decision. I've greatly appreciated the feedback we've had from our members, they hold us accountable to our decisions and challenge us to think through and consider our actions. This is the sign of a healthy, active membership, and it is one of the great benefits of being here at The Planetary Society.
So right up front, I want to restate the fact that attending the SOTU as Bridenstine's guest does not mean that either Bill Nye or The Planetary Society is endorsing his nomination. The Society does not make endorsements for NASA Administrator nominees—we are committed to working with whomever serves in that position.
Bill will also spend the day before the SOTU meeting with Senators and Representatives from both sides of the aisle to talk about important space, science, and exploration issues. Our Washington, D.C.-based policy team will join him at these meetings as well.
Our relationship with Bridenstine and his office goes back years due to his involvement in the House Space Subcommittee, which has oversight over NASA. The Society makes an effort to engage with every legislator directly involved on NASA issues regardless of their party or ideology, and I firmly believe we most effectively represent the members of The Planetary Society by doing so. Just in my personal experience with him and his office, we've found them to be thoughtful and open to taking advice and ideas from people willing to engage with them.
Space exploration is one of the few areas of politics that still offers significant opportunities for bipartisan rapprochement. A shared passion for space can lay the groundwork for a relationship between individuals of very different political beliefs. This can help build trust and mutual respect between them, and potentially allow them to engage on more contentious issues that would otherwise be immediately dismissed or ignored. The current lack of mutual trust between the parties has been identified as one of the threats to a functioning democracy, and space provides a rare opportunity to try and reverse that trend.
This is not a new idea. Back in the late 1980s, The Planetary Society worked hard to support a Mars exploration program between the United States and the Soviet Union, which had the explicit goal of reducing tensions between the two superpowers by having them work together on a common goal. The International Space Station ultimately served (and still serves) a similar purpose in the post-Soviet era. We now find ourselves in the unfortunate reality of relying on space to serve a similar purpose in our Congress.
Another critique surrounding the participation was Jim Bridenstine's previous stances on climate change. To his credit Bridenstine testified before the Senate that he accepts the climate is changing and that humans play a role in that. Compared to previous (and erroneous) statements on the issue, this represents a greatly improved public stance. The Senate will determine if this is enough to be the NASA Administrator, but the fact remains he did publicly change his mind to a more pro-science position.
Changing one's mind is never easy, in fact, our own brains resist doing so all of the time. Considering this, I believe it is critical for the scientific community to support legislators (or anyone) who publicly adopts stances that better align with established scientific understanding. If other politicians watching from the sidelines see no practical value in changing their previous positions to more pro-science ones, they will not do so. And by refusing to accept new statements over old, an advocacy community essentially closes the means to build a broad coalition of support for important scientific policy issues. If pro-science activists want to see their policies succeed, by definition they will have to gain new supporters, and in so doing they will have to change people's minds—and embrace it when it happens. Obviously some politicians very clearly act in bad faith with regards to scientific matters, but where possible, we should strive to act in good faith and work to engage instead of purely condemn.
I strongly believe we must not write off people with whom we deeply disagree, either as individuals and especially not as an organization. That is the messy, unsatisfying, difficult essence of a functioning democracy. Treating people as apostates is not a path to changing their minds, it will only ossify them in opposition. It may not always work, but our ideals demand that we try.
The scientific process, in many ways, is radically optimistic: it assumes a chaotic-seeming world is actually governed by patterns, and that humans, with all of our fallibility and deficits, are capable of deciphering these patterns if enough of us work carefully to figure them out. It turns out this radical assumption is true, and it has led to the greatest improvement of the human condition in our species' 200,000 year history. It is in that optimistic spirit of science that we support Bill's presence at the State of the Union address: to engage where possible, to disagree when necessary, and to attempt to change the world for the better.
Note: This essay first appeared on the Planetary Society website on January 30, 2018.