Sunday, March 26, 2006

Junk Science Junk Mail

In the latest Harper's I had to marvel at the following e-mail message from a digital rhetoric standpoint, which was sent on October 17th of 2005 by administration appointee George Deutsch, who -- it was later revealed -- had lied on his résumé about having received a college degree. The recipient was web designer Flint Wild, who was creating presentations for middle school students about Albert Einstein.

Okay, Flint, we've got a slight problem here.
I like these pieces, they're interesting, but they refer to the "big bang" as if it were a law. As you know, the theory that the universe was created by a "big bang" is just that -- a theory. It is not a proven fact; it is opinion. Yes, the scientific community by and large may share this opion, but that doesn't make it correct.
Two things. First of all, this is AP style as written in the latest Associated Press Stylebook. The "big bang theory" is listed beside the oscillating stheory and the steady-state theory. The common denominator here is the word "theory."
Seconday, it is not NASA's place, nor should it be, to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator. I know the particular context of these pieces doesn't lend itself to getting into this particular debate, and that's fine with me. But we, as NASA, must be diligent here, because this is more than just a science issue, it is a religious issue. And I would hate to think that young people would be getting only one half of this debate from NASA. That would mean we had failed to properly educate the very people who rely on us for factual information the most.
Sorry to get on a soapbox here; I don't mean to. Please edit these stories to reflect that the big bang is but one theory on how the universe began.

I'd argue that Deutsch makes many gaffes in the e-mail genre. He uses a fake cinematic talkiness with his "Okay, Flint" opening that eschews the traditional "Dear Flint" or at least "Hi Flint" beginning. The e-mail also makes gestures at the memo format by telling us there are "two things" for this employee to be aware of, but it also chucks the respect for audience that bureaucratic prose at least implies. Deutsch also uses print authority (of the AP Stylebook) in a totally inappropriate way.

NASA's e-mail communication problems may be most famously represented by the missives relevant to the Columbia shuttle crash, but according to a New York Times story from earlier this year, "NASA Chief Backs Openness," regrettable e-mails that enforce electronic political obedience extend beyond the Wild case.

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