One Size Fits All–Not Really
The current–May 23, 2009–issue of Science News is celebrating astronomy and the 400 years of the telescope. And they are all very enthusiastic about it over there at the magazine, so much so that a guest editorial by David H. DeVorkin, senior curator for astronomy and the space sciences at the National Air and Space Museum, is featured seriously promoting the idea that “every person on Earth should look at the night sky through a telescope in 2009, as Galileo did 400 years earlier.” This was a declaration put forth back in 2006, in all earnestness, by Rick Fienberg, former editor of Sky & Telescope magazine.
OK, it is a fine thing indeed that there are enthusiasts like Mr. Fienberg and Mr. DeVorkin in the field of astronomy, just as it is a fine thing indeed that there are enthusiasts in all the sciences and technologies human beings have embarked upon over the centuries. Except for one thing.
This is that such enthusiasts seem too often to convince themselves, without a scintilla of hesitation and skepticism, that everyone else must join them in their excitement about their field. This is a bit like those basketball or baseball or tennis fans who are convinced that their sport is the tops and people who don’t share this outlook must somehow be suffering from a serious blind spot.
It is folks like that, especially outside sports–which, after all, are normally understood as but forms of entertainment and tend to amount to a person’s idiosyncratic preference–who insist that what they are enthusiastic about everyone ought to support and, worst of all, be taxed to fund. These are the people who when a new president moves into the White House have already filled the mailbox there with letters insisting that it is absolutely vital that the object of their enthusiasm gain greater and greater public funding–i. e., get funded at other people’s expense.
So as to make this palatable, these folks will insist that what they are after is in the public interest, not anything for the benefit of private individuals or special interest groups. You wonder what nudges a country toward economic bankruptcy! It is this blindness, this belief that everyone’s object of enthusiasm is deserving of everyone else’s even unwilling support, never mind whether they share the enthusiasm.
No doubt much of what such enthusiasts are excited about is not only interesting but often enough useful, at least eventually. No doubt, too, that astronomy is a great field of study, as are hundreds of others that may just now bear little practical fruit. Nor is it the case that only what does bear such fruit is worth investigation.
But no enthusiast has any right, any moral authority, to compel the rest of us to share his or her choice for what is most vital in human life, in communities, in the world. If they cannot convinced others of the merits of their field of interest, enough so that it will gain material support as a matter of voluntary consent, then they have come to a dead end, morally and politically. Going on to insist that other people’s priorities ought to be subjugated to theirs, that they may dip into other people’s resources even if not welcomed to do so, that is not mere enthusiasm, devotion to a worthy cause. That is, quite simply, larcenous, the unjust expropriation of what belongs to others.
I know that when it comes to these noble goals, it isn’t supposed to matter that each of us has his or her own agenda, goals we value and want to back. Self-sacrifice is deemed to be so elevating, even if one doesn’t engage in it of one’s own free will but at the point of the government’s guns.
But that is simply false. So the enthusiasts need to learn how to go out and raise voluntary support or turn to other pursuits that they can afford and for which they do not need rob and steal from others.