Rethinking “Rethinking the Overview Effect”

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Introduction

Jordan Bimm, a historian of science, technology, and medicine, with a particular focus on the human and biological aspects of space exploration, recently presented his thoughts on the Overview Effect on YouTube, wrote a paper about it, and has been featured in a few articles on the same topic. 

The Overview Effect is a hypothesis and a theory developed by the author of this paper, Frank White, and while research, debate, and discourse are always encouraged, constructive dialogue and critique should also be well researched and factual. Jordan has made several erroneous assumptions about the Overview Effect, and in a bid to address the circulation of false narratives, and to preserve the essence of the original idea, the author presents a position paper, addressing Jordan’s points and clarifies his own ideas in relation to them. 

The purpose of this position paper is twofold. 1) To  respond to Jordan’s opinion, as he has responded to the Overview Effect theory. 2) To engage in, and welcome, meaningful discourse around the Overview Effect theory. 

Hypotheses, Theories, and Evidence

Having been trained as a social scientist, I enjoy exposing social patterns and systems; accordingly, the Overview Effect is actually a systems theory as well as the foundation of a philosophy of space exploration. The essence of “rethinking the Overview Effect” is to question the epistemological basis of the Overview Effect; therefore it is important to approach this discussion from the perspective of empirical inquiry and consider what it means to advance a theory.

The terms “hypothesis” and “theory” are often conflated and confused with one another, but are quite distinct. The whole idea of science, whether physical science (astrophysics, for example) or social science (sociology, for example), is that one develops a hypothesis to explain observed phenomena, then gathers evidence to validate, or contradict, the proposition. Taken together, the hypothesis and data make up a theory.

The Overview Effect theory began with a hypothesis about future space dwellers, specifically those who might live in an O’Neill-style community.

Here is the hypothesis, as stated in my book The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution:

    People living in space settlements will always have an overview! They will be able to see how everything is related, that what appears to be “the world” to people on Earth is merely a small planet in space, and what appears to be “the present” is merely a limited viewpoint to one looking from a higher level. People who live in space will take for granted philosophical insights that have taken those on Earth thousands of years to formulate. They will start at a place we have labored to attain over several millennia. (1)

    Having had this insight in the mid-1980s, I faced an obstacle: there were no permanent space dwellers at the time, just as there aren’t any today. That’s why I began to interview astronauts as proxies for these future “space people.” This was the beginning of my search for “data” to confirm the hypothesis.

    By and large, astronauts confirmed that there was a significant experience to be had by going into Earth orbit or traveling to the Moon. However, I had always thought of the Overview Effect as something ordinary. In other words, if you lived permanently in outer space, it would be commonplace to see the Earth “in the sky,” just as it is for us to see the Moon “in the sky.”

    For astronauts and cosmonauts, all of whom had been born on the Earth, it was actually extraordinary to see the planet from a distance. This led to a new hypothesis:

    The Overview Effect is a shift in worldview reported by astronauts and cosmonauts during spaceflight, often while viewing the Earth from orbit, in transit between the Earth and the Moon, or from the lunar surface. It refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality that the Earth is in space, a tiny, fragile ball of life, “hanging in the void,” shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. The experience often transforms astronauts’ perspective on the planet and humanity’s place in the universe. Some common aspects of it are a feeling of awe, a profound understanding of the interconnection of all life, and a renewed sense of responsibility for taking care of the environment. (2)

    Because the Overview Effect is a positive experience, regardless of which hypothesis we consider, a movement has developed, which assumes that “bringing the Overview Effect down to Earth” would improve life on our planet. (3) 

    Those are the hypotheses that are relevant to the Overview Effect; the interviews I have conducted with astronauts, supplemented with their own writings and speeches, and by other studies, makes up the data that confirm or deny the hypothesis.

    Now that this is clearly stated, let’s consider the “rethinking,” with two questions in mind:

    • Does Jordan understand the hypothesis?
    • Has he found any contradictory data to deny the validity of the hypothesis?

    Let’s examine these questions with Jordan’s three main points in mind:

    • The Overview Effect is a cultural, not a physical phenomenon, and “astronauts lie to fly.” It would be beneficial if more cultures had the experience, and it would be unfortunate if we believed that there is only one way to experience spaceflight;
    • The view of the Whole Earth is a product of the Cold War and is therefore suspect;
    • The Overview Effect is another version of the “Breakoff Effect.”

    Misunderstanding the Hypothesis

    The “rethinking” notion does highlight interesting areas for further discussion; however, some of his assertions are either inexact or flawed entirely, which suggests that Jordan does not have a full grasp of the hypothesis of Overview Effect theory and therefore his claims are unreliable. 

    Several inconsistencies have been made during his various presentations. For example, there is the claim that I have implied that there is only one way to experience spaceflight, i.e., the Overview Effect. I have always said that there are cultural differences and I have included interviews in various editions of the book suggesting that the interviewee did not interpret their experience as being profound.

    When this topic is brought up, I often refer the questioner to my dialogue with Edgar Mitchell:

    White: Everything I’ve done in the interviews for this book has confirmed that the initial idea was right, but it was far too simple. The variety of experience is a lot greater than I expected.

    Mitchell: I would challenge that. The variety in the interpretation of the experience is a lot greater than you expected. The experience is the same. I have developed a whole philosophy around the notion that the first-person experiential event is valid for every human, whatever it is. The problem is, how do they interpret it and how do they express it?

    That comes through the belief system, which is the key to how you see and interpret all these events. If your belief system accepts that information as different, you get an expanded belief system. If you happen to be closed off and are happy with the former belief system, you reject the information and nothing happens. Or if it happens to be too challenging or threatening, then it’ll be consciously rejected, thrown out. But otherwise, it can be absorbed and expanded into the belief system, and you have a different view. (4)

    In other words, Mitchell is saying that every astronaut had a similar perceptual or sensory experience, but they interpret it through their belief systems, which are, of course, cultural.

    I would therefore suggest that this is not a case of either/or, but of both elements being true, i.e., the experience is both perceptual and cultural.

    Going one step further in demonstrating a misunderstanding of the hypothesis, Chapter Seven of my book is called “Individual and Cultural Variations,” and opens with the following sentence about individual variations:

    “There are as many spaceflight experiences as experiencers and, similarly, as many Overview Effects as people who have been in orbit or traveled to the Moon.” (5)

    Regarding cultural variations, I wrote:

    “Americans tend to think of activities and exploration in space as being equivalent to ‘the American space program,’ but this is certainly no longer an accurate way to view the situation.” (6)

    There is another way of looking at whether the Overview Effect is “cultural” or not. This definition of the term focuses on how some people will demonstrate a certain behavior or adopt a certain point of view because others do so. 

    This would imply that astronauts describe the Overview Effect in a specific way because their predecessors and peers have told them about it. However, evidence indicates that astronauts often avoid doing just that.  

    Jordan has used a technique known as “setting up a straw man” to make his main point, which is that I have failed to see the Overview Effect as having cultural variations or as a cultural phenomenon. He has set up the straw man and then knocked him down. This means you argue that the person you are criticizing says something they did not say and then you refute what they did not say. It actually leaves the original thinker’s ideas unscathed, but it appears that you have demolished their arguments.

    Another element of the “rethinking” argument is more negative because it is a misunderstanding of the data, i.e., the astronaut descriptions of their experiences. It is actually insulting to the astronauts and cosmonauts who have risked their lives to leave the planet and have the experience we now call “the Overview Effect.” Jordan says you can’t rely on astronaut reports because they “lie to fly.” It’s a cute phrase, but it is misplaced in reference to the Overview Effect.

    First, he offers for his evidence events that took place early in the US space program, when most of the astronauts were test pilots or military officers. It is well-known that the Mercury astronauts did not see psychologists and psychiatrists as their allies, and it may well be true that they would not share negative experiences with those particular interviewers. This attitude may well have persisted into the Apollo era. In Michael Collins’ book about his Apollo 11 experience, we know he did not tell doctors about his claustrophobia, because that certainly would have eliminated him from consideration for a lunar mission.

    However, the “lie to fly” argument weakens substantially when we examine it more closely, and for two reasons:

    While early astronauts might not have shared negative experiences of spaceflight, I also doubt they would have shared feelings of euphoria and transcendence that are linked with the Overview Effect. That might have been as detrimental to their flight status, at that time, as reporting negative outcomes.  They were expected to complete the mission, period.

    Moreover, at least half of the astronauts I have interviewed for my book’s four editions have been retired or they never expected to have more than one flight. They are not going to fly again, so they do not need to lie to fly. The “lie to fly” claim simply isn’t applicable in reference to the Overview Effect.

    These simple facts dismantle Jordan’s main argument about the data, which is that we can’t count on astronaut reports about the Overview Effect. One of his main pieces of evidence for his thesis is the experience of Loren Acton, who told me that he was so afraid of making a mistake on his flight that he felt he did not really experience it. However, when he returned to Earth, he had to say something to audiences about the experience, and he did.

    Acton noted that he “expected” to see the atmosphere as being very thin, and he saw it that way. He had a number of similar expectations about the experience, and insofar as he had any kind of experience, it lived up to expectations. He did not mean that his expectations before the flight colored his experience. He meant that he used his expectations after the flight to answer questions about it.

    The “rethinking” approach frames this report as countering my work, but in fact, it validates it. If you look carefully at the interviews I have conducted with astronauts, like the Action conversation, you will see that I do not report a homogenous recounting of the experience. You will also see that Acton’s experience is atypical of what happens to astronauts when they go on a mission.

    The above examples demonstrate a confirmation bias, where Jordan appears to be randomly selecting surface features from narratives that fit in with his frame of reference, yet ignoring those that contradict his assertions.

    Irrelevant Arguments

    In my writings, I have, from the beginning, emphasized that the Overview Effect, whether it is experienced by future space people or current astronauts, would include seeing the Earth as a whole system in which everything is interconnected and interrelated. This is at the heart of the theory.

    As I noted earlier, the Overview Effect Theory is, in essence, a systems theory, and that is one of the elements that differentiates it from other perspectives on space exploration and development.

    Jordan takes issue with the “Whole Earth” thesis by saying it originated in the Cold War. However, since the dawn of civilization we have oscillated between individualism and collectivism, and depending on our frame of reference, imagined what the Earth might be and might look like. 

    For example, the name Gaia, presented as the Gaia Hypothesis by James Lovelock in 1972, has its roots in Greek mythology, representing the personification of the Earth and the primordial Greek deities, the first generation of gods and goddesses. Furthermore, the Whole Earth symbol of Gaia; Mother Earth, is akin to Carl Jung’s “mother” archetype. 

    The “Whole Earth” idea cannot be traced back to one particular point in time. As a concept, it has occupied our collective mind for a long time, and at various intervals in history has either increased or decreased in popularity, eventually transitioning from a concept into a confirmed “fact” around the time of empiricism and technological advancement. Of course, Space Age 1, the Apollo missions, and the images relayed back helped further cement the concept and fact into our collective psyche. 

    Regardless of whether Jordan’s claim is right or wrong, many ideas originated during the Cold War, but that doesn’t make them invalid or even “suspect.” Regarding the Whole Earth, he refers to Lovelock, who originated the “Gaia Hypothesis” and Buckminster Fuller, who popularized the idea of “Spaceship Earth” as people who talked about the Whole Earth as a system. He is right about that, but these two people are as far from “Cold Warriors” as you can get. 

    Lovelock was an influential scientist who contributed much to the environmental movement. He did work for the British government during the Second World War and later for NASA on the Mars Viking mission. I don’t see how that makes his insights about Gaia invalid.

    Fuller has inspired generations of philosophers, designers, and architects to think in new ways about humanity and our place in the universe. He invented the geodesic dome and always tried to be “50 years ahead of his time.” He lived during the Cold War, but his mind was far beyond that moment in history. That’s part of why he is so revered. 

    It is difficult to see how the Cold War argument has anything to do with the astronauts seeing the Whole Earth as part of their experience.

    Moreover, Stewart Brand, publisher of “The Whole Earth Catalog,” used the concept to promote an alternative lifestyle and challenged NASA to publish a photo of the Earth from space because he knew it would help the environmental movement. Again, he was not connected to the Cold War, except perhaps to oppose it.

    I am simply baffled regarding what any of this has to do with overall argument that is supposedly a rethinking of the Overview Effect theory.

    Conflating “Breakoff” and “Overview”

    Shortly after the first edition of The Overview Effect was published, I received a letter from a reader who informed me of the “Breakoff Phenomenon” or “Breakoff Effect.” As I recall, he sent me an article about it, and I found it to be very interesting but not contradictory to the Overview Effect thesis.

    “Breakoff” was described as an experience that happened to jet fighter pilots as they flew high above the Earth’s surface. They sometimes experienced a separation from the Earth, an altered state of consciousness that became dangerous because they were flying a complex machine faster than the speed of sound. 

    Breakoff was not necessarily a bad experience; it was only negative because it might lead to a crash (I don’t think it ever did). By analogy, listening to beautiful music on your cell phone is not dangerous when you are sitting on the couch at home, but it can be dangerous when you are driving your car. Even though it is enjoyable, it can also be distracting. The experience of a profound cognitive shift can be gripping and emotional, and in the moment, potentially cause someone to disassociate from the task at hand. If you do not have a task that requires your full attention, this is generally welcomed. But if you’re flying an aircraft, the task needs your full attention.

    I got the impression that NASA was afraid the “Breakoff” would happen to their astronauts, which is why Mission Control kept them so busy. 

    In “rethinking” the Overview Effect, there is a suggestion that the Overview Effect is really the Breakoff Effect, but people want spaceflight to be seen as positive, so it has been renamed as Overview and no one wants to talk about Breakoff any more. 

    There are several problems with Jordan’s argument.

    First, it may well be that Breakoff and Overview are similar experiences, but that in no way dispels the validity of the theory. As with a cell phone or car, whether it is a positive or negative experience depends entirely on the circumstances.

    For example, Scott Carpenter, a Mercury astronaut, became so enthralled in his experience that he missed his landing site in the ocean, and NASA was afraid they might have lost him. He never flew again, and Mission Control tightened up on future flights. (Incidentally, this is another instance where reporting euphoric experiences might have been as detrimental to an astronaut’s career as reporting something negative). 

    This might also be an example of how the Overview Effect flows over into something like the Breakoff Effect. However, Carpenter was having a positive experience; he was enjoying it. The flight was euphoric for him, not negative. It was only problematic because there were other things that required his full attention in order to land in the correct place. (7)

    Moreover, I have talked to at least one fighter pilot who told me he understood the Overview Effect after one of his flights because he experienced something like it flying high above the surface of the Earth. When he heard about the Overview Effect, he could relate to it, but it was not negative because he did not lose control of his aircraft, and he lived to tell me about it.

    Once again, much of the argument that we need to see the Overview Effect differently focuses on something that seems rather irrelevant when accounting for all the necessary facts.

    Unfounded Speculation

    Now, Jordan has coined a new phrase, “The Overlord Effect.” He says he is afraid that certain people (he has mentioned Jeff Bezos) will go on a suborbital or orbital flight, claim they have experienced the Overview Effect, and then use that claim to justify whatever they want to do in outer space, or on Earth.

    I appreciate the flattery of having people riffing on my idea (another researcher has created “the Ultraview Effect,” for example), but there is a big difference between the two “Effects.” 

    In the case of the Overview Effect, we have a hypothesis that is backed up by data (over 40 interviews with astronauts). Jordan has a fear that something will happen, but no evidence to back up that claim. In fact, we have nothing but a large body of contrary evidence so far. 

    For example, Jeff Bezos went on the first Blue Origin flight, said he experienced the Overview Effect, and now he and his partner, Lauren Sanchez, have committed to giving away most of his fortune. If Jordan is going to propagate the idea of an “Overlord Effect,” it would be helpful to offer some evidence that it exists.

    Summary and Conclusions

    I welcome “rethinking the Overview Effect” and meaningful discourse from anyone who really understands the Overview Effect theory. They also need to understand the scientific method and how the theory relates to that method. I appreciate the fact that Jordan has taken my work seriously enough to spend time analyzing  it, and I feel certain that he is sincere in his beliefs.

    However, his arguments are clearly flawed. He misuses or ignores the evidence in order to make inaccurate claims about a truly important phenomenon, which is now a theory validated by the data. This is a disservice to the astronauts who have brought back remarkable reports about what happened on their missions, and a disservice to society, which could benefit from integrating the Overview Effect into our understanding of who we are and where we are in the universe.

    References

    (1) F. White, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, Fourth Edition, 2021, Multiverse Press, Denver, CO

    (2) Ibid.

    (3) The Human Space Program

    (4) The Overview Effect.

    (5) Ibid.

    (6) Ibid. (7) Ibid.

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