This past week the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling that allows the government to nose farther into the private backgrounds of people who want to work for NASA. Mind you, this isn’t the nosing that people with security clearances need to endure. That’s an entirely different set of investigations for people with a Need to Know certain things.
No, this one applies just to scientists and other technical folk who work at NASA, specifically JPL. I don’t have the legal background to comment on ALL the merits of the case and this entry is not about those merits, although it does seem troubling that you must give up privacy rights to be a scientist (according to a read of the decision, which you can see here, if you wish: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/09-530.pdf). I did study law for a couple of semesters when I was in grad school, and part of that was an examination of such issues as right to privacy (particularly as it pertains to media), so I do know that privacy is not precisely enshrined in the Constitution of the United States, as such. So, there’s a little ambiguity there. And, the exploitation of that hole in our rights could result in some chilling practices.
What caught my eye in the decision is on page 31, wherein Justice Scalia (writing notes concurring in judgment) notes “Respondents do not even attempt to argue that the claim at issue in this case passes that test, perhaps recognizing the farcical nature of a contention that a right deeply rooted in our history and tradition bars the Government from ensuring that the Hubble Telescope is not used by recovering drug addicts.”
And this gave me pause for thought. The first thing that entered my mind is what’s the issue with a recovering drug addict? If they’re recovering, that means they’re not using drugs anymore. And if they’re not using drugs and are a good scientist, the drugs are in the past and the brilliant science part is NOW. Does the Justice (in his mean-spirited-looking way) mean to imply that people lose their right to a job or privacy or a chance because they’re recovering from a drug dependency? If so, and using the logic implied in the Justice’s sarcastic flippancy, can we please also see the drug dependency backgrounds of ALL federal employees, including the Justices and their clerks? I mean, fair’s fair. If this is what the Justice is hinting at, then we wouldn’t want a recovering drug addict (including alcoholics) to be writing legal opinions or affecting the monetary policy of this country, for example. And, by drugs and drug addicts to which the Justice infers, then I would infer we should include alcohol and other addictive substances and activities, since, by implication, those are also bad, right?
And, this brings up other questions, like what drugs is Mr. Justice Scalia thinking of? I mean, what if you ARE a recovering alcoholic? Or used to be addicted to sleeping pills? Or uppers? Are those socially more acceptable to the Justice than some drug like meth that a person may be recovering from? How long before the Justice decides that the government needs to know who you sleep with before you can be allowed to work at JPL? Or what religion you belong to? Or who you associate with socially? Shades of McCarthyism here, and apparently Mr. Justice Scalia doesn’t recognize the camel’s nose sneaking inside the tent.
The other big question that popped into my mind is this: since when did ignorant sarcasm become a staple in Supreme Court decisions? Mr. Justice Scalia employs it in an effort to get a point across, and fails because he uses an example he clearly hasn’t researched. Which looks somewhat unprofessional in someone who was touted by his appointing president as a “fine legal mind”.
It’s pretty clear that the Justice doesn’t know how HST gets used or what the process is for using it. Given his “fine legal mind,” I’m quite surprised that neither he nor his clerks bothered to look up the process (or heck, call STScI in Baltimore, and ask what the process is for getting to use HST) before throwing out a sarcastic comment in an otherwise staid-looking opinion. I’m no fan of Justice Scalia, but even if I was, I’d be raising my eyebrows at an opinion comment that is so clearly ignorant. You’d think “fine legal minds” would be sticklers for accuracy, particularly in cases where people’s rights and dignity are at stake. But, I’m guessing that he used sarcasm because he didn’t have anything else to fall back on (like knowledge). I don’t know about you, but if the Supreme Court justices in this country are going to rule on things like this, it behooves them to at least find out what’s involved in science before commenting scathingly about it. Otherwise, to use a word that Mr. Justice Scalia loves to use, the SC Justices show an absurdly low level of knowledge of professions outside of their own.
So, Mr. Justice Scalia, since you’re clearly not in the know about how science gets done (particularly with HST) this one’s for you. May you and your low-level clerks get it right the next time before you spout off using ignorant sarcasm in a judgment.
How Astronomers Get to Use HST
If you’re an astronomer with an idea about a cosmic object to study, first of all, you’re probably part of a big team of astronomers. You’ve probably studied for years to get to the point where you can even think about putting in a proposal. Or, you may be a graduate student who has spent more hours in front of a computer analyzing data than you care to think about, and using that experience to move up to the next step in research (usually with permission and guidance from your much older advisor). You’re not usually a drug abuser because you wouldn’t have gotten to where you are if you were. You’re also not a lone wolf strolling up to the control center and ‘jacking the scope when nobody’s looking.
No, you are a professional researcher and you have to put in a proposal, outlining the scientific justification for using the Hubble Space Telescope. Generally, you are writing it up with the members of your team. You have to be precise and persuasive about just why — scientifically — you should have your object looked at with HST.
That proposal goes through a LOT of review before it gets sent to a time allocation committee that reviews the merits of the work and decides whether or not to allow use of the telescope.
Once a proposal is accepted for time on HST, it goes into a pipeline of activity that includes dozens of people who work on scheduling the time and getting the observation programmed into the telescope’s computer systems. (I’m paraphrasing here — there’s a lot of technical work that has to be done to get a winning proposal into the pipeline, more details than I have room to go into here — but you can find out by simply asking somebody at STScI or one of the science teams about it — it’s not a secret, so far as I know.) No ONE person gets to run the telescope. It is done as part of a team of scientists who then rely on a team of controllers and technical staff to get the observation done for them. Just like any other NASA mission, like most other science projects. It’s just NOT like a Supreme Court justice (who should be dealing in facts as they relate to law) imagines.
How do I know this? Back when I was in graduate school, one of my jobs was to work on team requests to use the telescope. At no point did anybody’s personal life come into play. It just wasn’t relevant to the SCIENCE being done. If anybody was a recovering drug addict — an irrelevant personal problem and we didn’t ask a scientist wanting time “Hey did you used to use drugs?” as a prerequisite to be answered before we could talk science — we didn’t know it. Nor did we care who they were sleeping with. Or what church they went to. In a team situation, we were focused on the science to be done. That’s what we were paid to do – not sniff into people’s personal lives. I also know about how it works because (with co-author Jack Brandt) I wrote a book about HST science and how it gets done. That means I asked questions about how it gets done — something Mr. Justice Scalia (or his minions) could also have done.
So, if you’re had the same idea Mr. Justice Scalia did and think that anybody can just walk up and use the HST, I hope I’ve shown you that it doesn’t work that way. Teams of human beings work together to program HST and bring back the amazing data and images each day. I’m glad it works this way: I just wish Mr. Justice Scalia had bothered to ask before employing the witlessness of sarcasm in his concurring opinion. It leaves me questioning his “fine legal mind” even more. If he doesn’t bother to get THIS right, what else isn’t he getting right? And I’d ask that question of anybody of any political persuasion who showed so little regard for getting the facts straight about how science works. Double that for anybody in a science job who did NO research and made witless comments based on what they “thought” it might be. Science has no place for such ignorance. I used to think law didn’t either… but now I wonder.