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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Questionable Ethics

There's an interesting article in the Austin American Statesman today about a University of Texas at Austin astronomy professor, John Lacy, quitting work on a NASA project that seeks to "determine the chemical makeup of objects light years away." His problem? The instrument Lacy developed, along with a telescope, are afixed to a modified Boeing 747 that will be flying about four times a week between 8 - 12 hours each time, according to the article. It's too much pollution for Lacy.

It's true, those who travel by jet are serious Co2 emitters; scientists attribute "up to 3 percent of all carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming to plane engines." Planes are specifically troubling to GW proponents because their deposits of pollution in the upper atmosphere have a more severe warming effect. (To the rich, who've taken up GW as their cause: stop flying around telling us that the planet has a fever! What's next, I visit restaurants, chain-smoking, telling people about the horrors of second hand smoke?)

Anyway, Lacy's out. Of course he's been supported (publically) by other scientists, though curiously with luke warm language. Nicholas Veronico, head of the project, gave his obligatory plaudits to Lacy in the article, then pointed out that there's an average of 28,537 commercial flights handled by air traffic control each day. The effect, he says, will be minimal. That's an understatement, Mr. Veronico.

Lacy's argument seems a little like a scientist who refuses to perform research on developing better prosthetic limbs because it requires use of a certain non-degrading plastic compound. Sounds pretty ethically first-rate, perhaps, until one realizes that the compound is used in thousands of other projects and products, and the percentage of the total amount used for improving prosthetics is miniscule. Or, insert your favorite argument here.

As much as fellow scientists said kind things about Mr. Lacy, I think most reasonable people should be skeptical of the value of his decision. I hope I don't hear that he's flying home for Christmas any time soon.

2 comments:

mijopo said...

Based on your description, I agree it sounds a little silly, although the prosthetic limbs comparison isn't completely apt. That seems to present a more direct and concrete benefit to the world than does Lacy's project.

Erik said...

I was hoping folks would catch this. It is, just as you say, not completely apt. But it gets it in the ballpark perhaps. The exact mismatch depends on just how practically fruitful determining "the chemical makeup of objects light years away" turns out to be.