January 22, 2020

Response to ‘Pale blue dot’

By
By Dylan Taylor and Frank White

There are a number of issues with Pale blue dot, the essay about the ‘overview effect’ that is currently on your website. Although The Monthly refers to it as an opinion piece, there are errors of fact that we could have addressed if we had been given the opportunity. It should be noted that Mr White exchanged several emails with the author in 2018 and introduced her to Mr Taylor. Mr White also answered a series of questions she posed, and the Q&A is now attached to this article.

The headline

The first issue lies with the headline, or subtitle, which calls the overview effect a “myth”. According to Google’s online dictionary, a myth is a “widely held but false belief or idea”. This headline biases the reader to believe that the overview effect is a false belief, whereas there is ample evidence that it is a valid concept. The headline would be more appropriate if it simply said, “The idea of ‘the overview effect’…”. The overview effect is, in fact, more than a phrase. It is a theory that has been validated by numerous astronaut interviews and other sources.

The origin of the theory

Early in the essay, there is a factually incorrect description of how the theory came about. Mr White did not “stumble” onto some astronauts’ descriptions of their experiences, begin interviewing them, and then coin the term “overview effect”. Rather, on a cross-country flight, he had the insight that people living permanently in outer space would have an “overview” of the Earth and would see it as a unified whole system in which everything is connected. That was when the term “overview effect” came to him. This was the hypothesis of the theory, and he then began reading what astronauts had written and began interviewing them to see if the hypothesis had any validity. It was not an idea that occurred to him after interviewing astronauts. The idea came first, then the interviews.

Speculation about the impact

The essay says we do not know, for certain, how a range of people from different cultures would react to seeing the Earth from a distance. The author notes that the 16 astronauts interviewed for the first edition of Mr White’s book, which was published 33 years ago, were all white males. This is true, but the current edition of the book includes a greater diversity of interviews, especially in terms of gender. Given the opportunity, Mr White could have told the author, if he had been so requested, that the astronauts whose interviews will appear in the fourth edition are even more diverse. In our opinion, it is not correct to argue that the overview effect is “bound to a white American male cultural context”, as the article asserts. Moreover, Mr White sent the author a study conducted at the University of British Columbia, which included quite a diverse sample of 125 subjects.

The essay challenges the idea that experiencing the overview effect makes the experiencers into better people. In fact, the notion that space fliers become better individuals is not part of the original hypothesis, though it does seem to happen for many astronauts.

Motives of NewSpace entrepreneurs

The essay suggests that many of the NewSpace entrepreneurs are using the idea of the overview effect to justify their goals. It may well be the case that many of them were inspired by the theory of the overview effect and they do believe that their work will benefit humanity.

The essay criticises Sir Richard Branson in particular because his firm, Virgin Galactic, is going to take the wealthy into space. As the third edition of Mr White’s book shows, Branson does not want to serve the wealthy alone. He is using the airline model to get to the point where large numbers of people have the opportunity to experience the overview effect. Initially, wealthier individuals will be those who are able to afford a ticket, but over time, the opportunity will become much more common.

Inaccuracies about Space for Humanity

In regard to Space for Humanity, there are several errors of fact. For example, Mr Taylor has not financially benefited from Space for Humanity in any way. He has made charitable gifts to the organisation and, in fact, donated his stock in World View Enterprises to charity before Space for Humanity signed an agreement with them to intentionally avoid any conflict of interest. Mr Taylor owns no equity in any entity that Space for Humanity does business with or intends to do business with.

In addition, Space for Humanity’s selection of citizen astronauts is linked to how they will create projects that impact the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The essay makes reference to something that was supposedly seen on a Space for Humanity website in 2017. We encourage readers to look at the current website, and indeed the entire public record with respect to the organisation. It will then become clear that nowhere in the application process does the organisation mention commercial space or its advocacy.

Other concerns

The essay includes a number of other points that could be refuted, but we hope our response has encouraged readers to examine the thesis of the essay with a critical eye.

In conclusion, we note that the essay quotes the American environmentalist Wendell Berry, who “once said that ‘people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love’. Anyone who says they love space should also want to defend it from being degraded and defined as nothing more than another site of extraction and exploitation.”

Toward the end of the essay, the author cites her hope that humanity does not repeat mistakes of the past as we expand into the rest of the solar system. These are reasonable concerns and Mr White has co-founded the Human Space Program to address these kinds of issues.

In addition, Mr Taylor created Space for Humanity because of his concern that access to space not be reserved for the wealthy and the privileged.

We are pointing to the possibility of humanity working together in a way that until now has been difficult to imagine. Perhaps instead of questioning the motives of space entrepreneurs, it is better to hope that they may be open to a new approach, in part because of the influence of the overview effect.

The spirit of the overview effect is one of cooperation and dialogue, not conflict. The author is a talented writer and she seemed to have contacted Mr White with that spirit in mind. We hope that this response provides the readers of The Monthly with a better understanding of the overview effect and its value to humanity.


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