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Journalism professor slams NASA science fiction program as 'propaganda'

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A February 10, 2014 story in the Wall Street Journal about a NASA program that helps science fiction writers create scientifically accurate stories about future space exploration has caused a little controversy. Journalism professor Charles Seife expressed concern that the space agency is creating subtle propaganda.

“Getting a message across embedded in a narrative rather than as an overt ad or press release is a subtle way of trying to influence people’s minds. It makes me worry about propaganda.”

This statement brought a sharp rebuke from NASA Watch’s Keith Cowing.

“(Sigh) now NASA hater and journalism professor Charles Seife thinks NASA is mounting a "propaganda" effort via SciFi writers. With regard to bias and propaganda, I wonder how he'd describe his inaccurate rant from last week. Was he trying to sway people's opinions about NASA? Tsk tsk. Had he bothered to read the language of recent NASA authorization legislation - which is now signed into law - Seife would know that NASA is overtly and specifically prohibited from things such as propaganda, advertising, etc.”

Indeed there is nothing in the “NASA-Inspired Works of Fiction” program that suggests that the space agency is attempting to influence story lines, except to make sure that they are as scientifically accurate as possible. One novel written as a result of the program, “Pillar to the Sky” by William Forteschen, involves how a NASA project to create a “space elevator” is defunded by Congress only to be taken over by a Silicon Valley billionaire, suggesting that the “propaganda” involved commercial space rather than the government space agency.

One suspects, though, that most if not all of the works developed under the program will suggest that space travel is kind of cool and exciting, as well as essential for the future of humankind.

Seife is an enthusiastic critic of NASA, having recently compared it to a panda bear, cute but in danger of extinction.

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