17 June 2010

The “Man on the Moon” Fallacy

The Thinker | Jeffrey Ellis | Fallacty of the Day: The “Man on the Moon” Fallacy

Whenever someone says, “If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we do ,” they are guilty of the “man on the moon” fallacy. I just invented it.

It is related to the false analogy fallacy and perhaps the non sequitur as well. But it is so ubiquitous — and so wrong — that I think it deserves to be highlighted as a unique fallacy all its own.
Thank you. I am so, so sick of people doing that.

Ellis was inspired by Transterrestrial Musings:
Putting a man on the moon was a remarkable achievement, but it was a straightforward well-defined engineering challenge, and a problem susceptible to having huge bales of money thrown at it, which is exactly how it was done…

But most of the other problems for which people have pled for a solution, using Apollo as an example, were, and are, less amenable to being solved by a massive public expenditure. We may in fact cure cancer, and have made great strides over the past four decades in doing so, but it’s a different kind of problem, involving science and research on the most complex machine ever built — the human body. It isn’t a problem for which one can simply set a goal and time table and put the engineers to work on it, as Apollo was. Similarly, ending world hunger and achieving world peace are socio-political problems, not technological ones (though technology has made great strides in improving food production, which makes the problem easier to solve for governments that are competent and not corrupt). So most of the uses of the phrase never really made much sense, often being non sequiturs.
The other thing to keep in mind is that the space program soaked up — and actually continues to soak up — a dominant proportion of the public research budget. Yes, we managed the (largely symbolic) acheivement of getting a man on the moon, but at the cost of diverting resources from a bunch of other problems.

The Manhattan Project, the other government science project that people always point to in the "If we could do ______ why can't we ______" formulation, was even worse. Yes, we invented The Bomb, but it required almost every man hour of our domestic mathematical and science output for half a decade. Everything else was put on hold.  Are you willing to make that sort of sacrifice in order to get your project on the front burner?  And even if you are, do you trust Washington to put the right project at the fore and everything else on standby?

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