One of the frustrating things about public opinion polls and political debate is the lack of nuance in them.
The potential positions on an issue are generally dichotomized into either a "for or against," or into two (and only two) different positions, usually one on the "left" and the other on the "right." And of course, it's always assumed that if you're not for one, then you must be for the other, though of course it means nothing of the kind, and ignores a third or fourth or fifth possibility that isn't even under discussion.
In addition, even poll results that have well-framed questions are often misinterpreted by the poll takers and pundits. As an example, consider the ever popular "presidential approval rating."
The question asks you how you think the president is doing. If asked, I would say that I don't approve of Mr. Bush's job performance--there are many problems I have with this administration in terms of overspending, incompetence and annoyance on the homeland security front, the "war" on (some) drugs, positions on cloning and research, etc. So simple-minded political analysts would therefore mistakenly conclude that I'd vote for his opponent if the election were held today. That is, of course, nonsense, because I know that his opponent would almost certainly be even worse in other ways.
The problem is particularly bad when it comes to (you knew I was getting to this, didn't you?) space policy.
There was an infuriating recent Gallup poll commissioned by CNN/USA Today on the future direction of the space program.
The first question was the usual, useless one--would you like to see more, less or the same amount of money spent on NASA? This, of course, ignores the issue of whether you approve of the way that NASA spends its money, so it would be hard for me to come up with an answer to that one. It also doesn't take into account that most people have no idea how much money we spend on NASA in the first place. Inform them first, both in absolute dollars and relative percentage of the federal budget, and you'll almost certainly get a different answer.
But the next question is the most problematic:
Some people feel the U.S. space program should concentrate on unmanned missions like Voyager 2, which send back information from space. Others say the U.S. should concentrate on maintaining a manned space program like the space shuttle. Which comes closer to your view?
Ummm....none of the above? The question sets up what logicians call a false choice, ignoring other viable options and implying that these are the only two possibilities--either send robots out to "explore space" (since space has no other purpose than to be "explored," right?) or continue to spend billions of taxpayer dollars sending a few government employees "exploring" low earth orbit.
Given the political vapidity of the questions, the results are encouraging for supporters of the status quo. Even in the wake of the loss of Columbia, support for the "manned space program" remains strong, and support for unmanned space exploration has increased from five years ago.
Of course, the poll is frustrating for those who'd like to see a new direction to our space activities, both because of the results, and the fact that the question of alternatives isn't even asked.
And as usual, the poll reflects the fact that the people who make space policy are similarly stuck in the same stale thought patterns. The usual dumb and pointless debate of robots versus astronauts has reawakened, with no discussion, useful or otherwise, about what we're actually trying to accomplish in space, because everyone assumes, mistakenly, that we already know that.
There was, however, one almost-interesting question. Not as interesting as it could have been, but it's one that was rarely asked a few years ago, before the flights of Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth. It was, "would you like to be a passenger in the Shuttle yourself"?
Not surprisingly, the desire for a shuttle ride has diminished somewhat since the nation saw seven astronauts incinerated in the skies over Texas three weeks ago, but it still remains high. Three out of 10 people would like a ride.
The question, of course, would have been much more interesting if it were more generic. "Would you like to take a ride into space?" "Would you like to visit a luxury resort in orbit?" "How about one on the moon?"
Here would be my biased poll questions:
"Do you think that NASA should be doing things that make these things possible, or continuing to squander billions sending a few civil servants in circles?"
"Do you want to send your hard-earned money to Washington so that robots can go out to Mars to have all the fun, or would you like to go see the Red Planet yourself, up close and personal?"
"Do you want a space program for robots and NASA astronauts, or do you want one for the rest of us"?
So far, it's clear that these are not the questions on the table in Washington right now. If they were, NASA wouldn't be talking about a multi-billion-dollar Orbital Space Plane (OSP) that will cost almost as much to operate as the shuttle. Instead, the discussion would be about how to develop a vibrant space transportation industry, that can expand and drop costs with an increasing market.
Until these are the kinds of questions that poll takers ask, and pundits and policy makers debate, we can't expect to break out of the space policy box that we've been in for the past half a century, and we'll continue to make very little progress in expanding humanity, and life itself, off the planet.
Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.