The Man On the Moon Fallacy

Sunday Night Journal — June 20, 2010

I caught only the last few words of Mr. Obama’s Tuesday night speech on the Gulf Coast oil spill, and have just now tracked down the text and read it (you can find it here). As you may have heard, the speech was not especially well received, even by his admirers. Here are two examples snagged in about 90 seconds of searching: Robert Reich calls it “ vapid,” and Kevin Drum (in Mother Jones, no less) says “This speech felt entirely by-the-numbers to me....It felt like he was reading off a PowerPoint deck.”

I have been very, very tempted to blast Obama’s handling of the spill, but have resisted the temptation. In fact I don’t think Obama has done such a terrible job, though I think it could have been better, and in any event the initial response was really not his direct responsibility. I will say that he didn’t seem to treat it with the needed level of urgency and decision until it had already been under way for some weeks.

The big temptation for me comes from resentment of the difference between the way the media at large treated Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina and Obama’s handling of the oil spill. Within a few days of Katrina, most of the media had reached a consensus that Bush’s responsibility for the disaster stopped only at the question of whether he had personally created and directed the storm, and even this sometimes seemed to be an open question. Years later, Katrina is still mentioned in the same breath as the Iraq War as a massive failure of the Bush administration. This is vastly, vastly unfair. And however disappointed Obama’s supporters in the media (which includes almost everyone apart from Fox News and talk radio) may have been with his response to the BP spill, they will never hang it around his neck as a permanent badge of shame as they did with Bush and Katrina.

But that’s business as usual. Hardly a day goes by, and never a week, that there isn’t something in the news that makes me think If a Republican said or did that.... And I try not to let myself fall into the reactionary cycle that seems to drive most political commentary.

So back to the speech: there are a lot of relatively small things to pick at—for instance, the assertion that an energy bill passed by the House last fall “finally makes clean energy the profitable kind of energy for America's businesses.” Really? How, exactly, can mere legislation make something profitable, except by some manipulative combination of subsidies and taxes which might or might not bear any relationship to its real costs and benefits?

Most striking, though, is the enormous fallacy which appears as the climax of the speech, the summit of its ambition to solve the problem in both its immediate and long-term aspects. It’s what I think of as the man-on-the-moon fallacy (and I’m far from the only one to remark on it): it usually takes the form of “If we can put a man on the moon, we can [insert whatever problem the speaker is interested in].”

Well, maybe we can, and maybe we can’t. It all depends on the nature of the problem to be solved. I first heard this fallacy pointed out many years ago by my father (who, as it happens, was involved in the space program for a while in the 1960s). It was during the first energy crisis, or perhaps I should say the first recognition of the ongoing energy crisis, in the mid-1970s. He and one of my uncles were discussing the oil shortage, and my uncle wanted to know why the government couldn’t just call together the nation’s most gifted scientists and engineers and solve the problem—develop some kind of new energy source. “If we can put a man on the moon...” he said.

But no, my father explained. It doesn’t work that way. The problem of putting a man on the moon and the problem of finding a new source of cheap energy are not the same sort of problem. In the first case all the physical principles were well known, and at the time President Kennedy made the commitment to accomplish it by the end of the 1960s a fair amount of the engineering work had been done, enough to verify that the basic ideas were workable. It is no disparagement of the eventual achievement to say that the project involved no scientific breakthrough, but rather the heroic development of known ideas. Whereas—my father continued—a solution to the energy problem requires an engineering or scientific breakthrough: either a radically new approach to some known process or material that would get vastly more energy out of it, or, even further afield, a theoretical breakthrough, the discovery of an entirely new method of generating energy safely, reliably, and at reasonable cost. And—this was his last point—you can’t produce a breakthrough on demand. You can put a lot of people to work looking for one, but you can’t guarantee that they’ll find anything.

Ever since then, I’ve seen the question of “alternative” energy in the light of that conversation. Around the time of that exchange, we began to hear the appeals and promises for alternative energy sources that we’ve heard steadily ever since, and that Mr. Obama repeats in his address, exhorting us to a more zealous commitment to their development, ending with not just the man-on-the-moon fallacy but two of its frequent companions: the Manhattan Project and the industrial output of the United States during World War II. The Manhattan Project was (I think) more doubtful than the moon project, in that its theoretical principles were less settled and there could be no incremental experimentation comparable to what could be done with small unmanned rockets in relation to space flight—no little bombs. Still, the scientists were pretty sure about where they were trying to go, and it was essentially a matter of engineering to get there.

And the comparison to World War II industrialism is almost completely irrelevant. We knew how to build airplanes and ships, we only needed to assemble the resources required to build lots more of them. But the problem with, for instance, wind power is not that the supply of turbines is inadequate, but that the amount of electricity they can produce is so small that we would have to cover vast reaches of land with them to make a serious dent in our consumption of oil and coal. The problem with solar power (well, one of the problems) is that the materials which can convert solar power to electricity are expensive and inefficient. The problem with electric cars is that since most of our electricity comes from coal they are in essence coal-powered cars.

And so on. I’m not an expert in this field by any means, but as far as I can tell the situation with regard to alternative energy has not changed dramatically since that conversation between my father and my uncle thirty-five years ago. Even if wind, solar, etc., were widely implemented they would bring their own forms of pollution and other environmental damage with them.

Mr. Obama has not given us the difficult truth, any more than his predecessors have. There is no green-energy fairy who is going to wave a wand and give us all the environmentally-friendly inexpensive energy we want. Nuclear power, which the president did not mention, may—may—come nearest, and although as it’s been implemented in this country it’s been very safe, it carries the risk of doing far more damage with one failure than most other forms of energy production (though I have to say I’m not sure a nuclear plant could do more widespread damage than this oil spill).

There’s no free lunch. There’s no silver bullet. There’s no Santa Claus. Choose your aphorism: the fact is that, absent some breakthrough which can’t be commanded or even foreseen, we can’t “solve” the energy problem in any way that does not leave us with some combination of danger, pollution, and expense in which the levels of at least one of those factors is greater than we as a nation are currently willing to accept. I don’t know whether Mr. Obama realizes this or not. But if he does, and chose not to say it (perhaps for fear of seeming like another Jimmy Carter), he may have done his immediate interests as well as the nation’s future a disservice. It’s just possible that such honesty would have been better received by both his supporters and his detractors. It’s just possible that the American public is ready to hear some realistic discussion of realistic limits.

But then I’m not sure I would bet on that, and maybe Obama didn’t want to, either.

More specifics on the obstacles in the way of massively reducing of our oil and coal consumption by Robert J. Samuelson here.


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It's very interesting what you say about the 'energy problem' requiring an invention, not just more progress down the same lines.

When we moved to the USA in 1963 my father (an engineer) was asked to comment on the 'energy problem' and said, 'you are burning too much petrol. I can smell it.' His interlocutors were genuinely surprised.

Not many people saw that back then. Your father was one of a few. I believe the guy who formulated the "peak oil" idea (that the limited supply of oil means that at some point we will have passed peak production levels) did so back in the '50s. Nobody paid much attention--gasoline was, as my father also said, "almost free." A phrase like "the energy problem" was definitely not part of the average person's vocabulary.

Of course one reason he smelled it is that cars were way more polluting than now.

Yes, I'm sure cars were cheerfully exuding pollutants in the early 1960s; but at the same time, they must have been burning more in the US than in England for my father to notice. The thing was, only if you didn't have that smell round you all the time did one notice.

Oh, I have no doubt we were burning way more than the UK per capita. Already in 1963 it was pretty much the norm for middle-class families to have multiple cars, which I'm pretty sure was not the case in many other countries, if any. Not to mention the fact that our cars were bigger and more powerful. You probably didn't have that many V8s in the UK then.

I don't know what a V8 is. I have to learn to drive this summer - I'm moving to Indiana in December. I sent off for the provisional driving license (which you need before you can have lessons) over a month ago. A few weeks later they sent it back and said I had forgotten to include the cheque. So I sent it with the cheque. Two days ago they sent it back again and said the photo was wrong. They didn't what was wrong with it, but I'm geussing it's that I've got a beret on the back of my head. We can't say they just didn't notice the photo the 1st time round, because they'd glued it into position on the form when it came back for the cheque.

V8 = big motor, suffice to say.

I've been wondering if your move to the States was definite. You should invite your friends to watch you learn to drive, or maybe just have someone follow with a video camera. I know someone else who has recently learned to drive as an adult and has found it somewhat daunting.

I've officially accepted the position at UND, but it was formally announced about two weeks ago. When they first told me I didn't realise it was all hush hush, so I was telling the world via facebook etc. They told me to put a stopper in it until the formal announcement. I don't have a visa yet, so I have not yet formally resigned here, though everyone knows informally that I am leaving in December.

There's no 'but' - I don't know how that got in there except for that friends took me to an early (and oft to be repeated) go away lunch which included a lot of wine.

Congratulations on the new job, and I hope you do have many more such lunches. You're certainly getting an early start on them.


Congratulations. If you are going to be teaching undergrads, perhaps my son (who is interested in theology) will be able to take your course.

Also, you will probably want to consider going to the Center for Ethics and Culture conference each November. It is a great conference. If you do go, you'll see me there. Too bad you won't be here this November.

Given that in 1963 the most famous car in Britain was the mini . . .

And congratulations on the position, Francesca!

Congratulations, Francesca! My daughter will be starting at Notre Dame this autumn. I will tell her to look for you (especially when crossing the street ;-) ).

Thanks for all the congrats!

I'm coming late, but my congratulations to you as well, Francesca. I have a good friend who is in the graduate program in theology at UND. I can't remember who his supervisor is right now.

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