Vox Guarding the Henhouse

April 29

I’m not sure the new online news site Vox defines itself as data journalism. It also seems to see itself as a explainer of news. I wish them well. But a recent entry on humans colonizing Mars, while admirably including the usually-left-out information about the colossal technical and cost problems of the idea, still managed to hit a bad nerve with me. What they wrote about the “why” part of going to Mars wasn’t data and wasn’t a good explanation either.

First off they frame the question as “Why do we want to send people to Mars?” Who is this we? I don’t want to “send” anyone to Mars. If someone wants to go and can figure out a way to get there with their own money, have at it! But the question ought to be “Does it make any sense for the US government to fund a human Mars mission.

Anyway, after having asked the wrong question, they proceed with a gigantic bias in the way they frame the answer. It isn’t Pros and Cons. The two sides are presented as “The cynical answer” and the “The inspirational answer.” Which side do YOU want to be on when it’s put that way? The “cynical” side includes “Unmanned probes like Curiosity can explore it way more effectively than humans for a fraction of the cost.” What exactly is the ‘cynical’ part of that? I would call it straight-up rationality. I would also call it an open-and-shut case for effective policy.

The “inspirational” side includes the usual shopworn bromides about humans wanting to explore, and the next frontier, etc. just entirely ignoring that past exploration was overwhelmingly driven by resource and information seeking, neither of which applies to sending humans to Mars, or anywhere else in space. And it closes with a breathtaking example of complete illogic. “It would give us firsthand knowledge of the planet most like Earth — and open up the possibility that we might someday be able to colonize it, in case Earth’s environment is irrevocably damaged.” Why is this illogical? Because there is NO posited scenario of any sort by anyone which predicts a future Earth becoming as catastrophically unsuitable for supporting humans as any part of Mars is now or will ever be. Yes, I know, Vox is just summarizing what people ‘say.’ But why frame up popular nonsense to look like a meaningful position?

If Vox plans to be a fresh new voice of fact-based explanation, I would ask that they not fall into dishing up the same tired conventional narratives as the old media they hope to improve upon.

Tom Toles is the editorial cartoonist for The Post and writes the Tom Toles blog.
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Tom Toles · April 28