A bird's-eye view of bullshit.
A bird's-eye view of bullshit.

Space Center & Me

Every clique has an "out" group that insiders make fun of. For stoners, it's kickers; for kickers, it's hipsters. When I was a research assistant during my brief stint as an astrophysics major, our whipping boys of choice were the UFO believers and perpetuators of the theory that aliens built the pyramids. Our views of these "pseudoscientists" varied from mild amusement to fear their wackiness could bring about the end of civilization.

Ironically, the first story I ever wrote for the Houston Press turned out to be on the Roswell exhibit at Space Center Houston. I had expected the alien angle to be simply a way to lure people in, at which point they would discuss NASA's search for microbes on Mars. What I found instead was the center's CEO calling the few informational plaques on display "wall candy," used to justify his latex masks and spaceships. He had no problem peddling NASA conspiracy; it was the science he took issue with.

The argument for privatizing Space Center was that the organization could become more efficient without compromising its original mission. Every compromise that followed has been excused as "what the people want." There was "Extreme Sports," then a tribute to farts and burps called "Grossology" (the least offensive, since it passed on real information about biology). But none could equal the Roswell exhibit -- until now.


"Crop Circles"

1601 NASA Rd. 1

Through January 5. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays through Sundays; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. $15.95, $11.95 for children. 281-244-2100.

It would not be possible to come up with an exhibit more at odds with everything a research institution like NASA stands for than "Crop Circles." A TV documentary -- which, scientists complained to The Dallas Morning News, creatively edits their "this is crap" answers to make them look like supporters of this kind of madness -- plays in the background. The walls display official-looking newspaper clippings, which use fancy terminology like "plasma" and "magnetic fields." Exactly two of them express what most scientists believe, which is that those groups that admitted to pressing down the cornstalks with boards weren't lying. They are adjacent to an article that says "scientists" are angry that these "hoaxters" trivialize the idea of alien origins. (No, scientists fear crop circles delegitimize honest scientific pursuits like SETI.)

Where have these articles appeared in print? Nowhere. They were written by the exhibit curator, taken mostly from the book Vital Signs, by Andy Thomas.

Among the quotes used to push the idea of alien creation is Carl Sagan's "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." What Space Center fails to mention is that Sagan devoted much of his career to debunking claims of UFO visitation. This particular quote is from Sagan's "Baloney Detection Kit"; it's given as an example of common logical fallacies pseudoscientists use to sell you a line of bullshit.

For Space Center, the mandate to "bring people in" has gone beyond movie tie-ins. They now feel obligated to trump up and sell ideas that NASA scientists give absolutely zero credence. And they're getting more visitors as a result. But understand: Space Center Houston has nothing to do with science. It's about selling tickets, even if they have to sell out NASA to do it.


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