I mean who cares. Honestly: it’s completely unconnected to anything that really matters to us. Phenomenologically its one of the most boring experiences one can have, and you can’t even see it without special gear. Am I the only one who thinks the emperor has no clothes on this one?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m amazed and gratified to see there is a culture out there that can invest so much meaning out of so little — I am, after all, an anthropologist. And I only begrudge the astronomers their massive funding a little bit. What really bothers me is the screwed up priorities that make this sort of thing a media spectacle.
I understand that astronomers are deeply personally committed to goals which most people find incomprehensible and not worthwhile — all academics suffer from this problem. I understand that moving science forward is important and that there is, somewhere, down the road something useful that comes from much of the basic research that astronomers do. And I understand that we need science education that explains to people why this stuff is important and they should continue funding it.
But often this validation of disciplines like astronomy is made by delegitimizing disciplines like — wait for it — anthropology, which deal with topics which are extremely value relevant to most people. Hiding behind the transit of venus is a glorification of ‘hard science’ which goes hand in hand with the dismissal of the ‘soft’. Riding alongside it is media coverage telling people to spend a portion of their day thinking about the stars rather than whether austerity will actually lead to economic growth.
Anthropology is not like the dream of perfect pure knowledge that so many people aspire to (bench science isn’t either, but that’s another story). We just produce another kind of knowledge about things that matter here, today, and now to people. The transit of Venus will not come again in your lifetime. Neither will your child’s birthday, or the invasion of Iraq. These are the things that have concrete effects on our lives and matter deeply to us. Anthropologists study these moments because they matter — something that other scientists, socialized to pursue more remote goals, somehow look down on us for. I’ll never understand them and, apparently, vice versa.
I admit there’s a fair amount of ressentiment in this post, and maybe the astronomers out there will complain that social issues already get way more coverage than astronomical data. But just think: what if people took the time they spent observing the transit of venus and spent it learning about income inequality in their home town? Or if they learned about a place radically different from their home town? Or if they tried to figure out whether tax cuts do or do not stimulate the economy? Or if they took their photo album off their shelf, sat down with their children, and sharing their family history?
Social issues get covered widely in the media, it’s true. But social science often does not. And the disciplines that hit closest to home, the ethnographic ones, don’t deserve to be bumbled off the radar by the frickin’ transit of Venus.
Ok I’m done venting. I feel better now.