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Stop letting Elon Musk break your brain
If someone is actually bad you don't need to make up extra bad stuff about them
A couple of weeks ago, humanity hit a significant milestone in the history of spaceflight. For the first time, the full-sized, fully-stacked version of a rocket that could conceivably, one-day, for real, take humans to Mars blasted off from its launchpad in Boca Chica, Texas.
And then shortly after take-off, the denizens of Twitter collectively shat the bed.
Somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico, the rocket – SpaceX’s prototype Starship – exploded in mid-air. It happened shortly before what should have been stage-separation, the moment where the rocket jettisons its enormous first-stage booster, so that the second-stage of the rocket can ascend to Lower Earth Orbit. Later analysis also points to earlier problems in the flight too, which ultimately led to the fireball.
But despite the explosive visuals, according to everyone who actually knows what they’re talking about, the launch was successful.
Eric Berger, the veteran space journalist, said that “For those who know a bit more about the launch industry and the iterative design methodology, getting the Super Heavy rocket and Starship upper stage off the launch pad was a huge success.”
The launch was also in line with SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s expectations.
According to Spaceflight Now, before the launch Musk said that “I guess I’d like to just set expectations low”, and that “It may take us a few kicks of the can here before we reach orbit.”
So the explosion was widely anticipated and the company had loudly telegraphed it expected the launch to end this way.
This is because, as Berger notes, SpaceX’s development strategy is different to the like of NASA. Instead of spending tonnes of time in the lab, simulating and refining designs, SpaceX prefers to launch prototype after prototype to see what happens in the real world.
It’s a strategy that has paid off enormously in the past - and is what led to the rapid and remarkable development of the Falcon 9, the world’s first reusable rocket. Today, the company is launching (and landing) more than once a week, and has singlehandedly reshaped the entire space industry1.
So an explosion during the Starship launch wasn’t a devastating loss, like it would be for a fully mature rocket attempting to launch a real payload, and it obviously wasn’t anything like, say, the Challenger disaster. It was a test2.
In fact, here’s a video posted by SpaceX itself of the many, many failed attempts to land the Falcon 9 first stage, complete with jaunty music. This is just how research and development works.
For sure, SpaceX had published a full, aspirational flight plan, that would have seen the rocket reach orbit and circumnavigate the Earth, splashing down 90 minutes later, somewhere near Hawaii, after taking the long way around. But this was very much the best-case scenario – and, again, one that anyone who actually follows this stuff knew was unlikely to happen.
That’s why SpaceX attempted to manage expectations ahead of time, and caveated its pronouncements ahead of the launch. And that’s why if you were watching the live stream, you could hear SpaceX employees literally clapping and cheering in the moments after the rocket exploded.
But this wasn’t enough for the know-nothings on Twitter.
Within seconds of the explosion, my timeline was filled with ostensibly credible journalists and commentators, former blue-ticks, crowing about the explosion, as though it was self-evidently bad for Musk and SpaceX3.
The only problem is that with a modicum of context, it's obvious that this isn’t true, and what was really – obviously – motivating the snark was the commentators’s pre-existing opinions about Elon Musk. Because there’s lots of (often valid) reasons to dislike Musk, for unrelated reasons. And so began an enormous collective failure of thinking, as the Twitter hive-mind embarrassed itself by mistaking “motivated reasoning” for “accurate analysis of events”.
Arguably the stupidest responses were from the people snarking about the phrase “rapid unplanned disassembly”, which was used by SpaceX’s official Twitter account to describe the incident. Despite the fact that it’s a tongue-in-cheek euphemism that has been used by aircraft engineers for decades, and despite the fact that it would be obvious to even the most studious Vulcans that SpaceX was very clearly making a joke4, I saw many posters pretending they didn’t understand this.
Perhaps the most depressing reaction though was that of the guy who is literally NBC’s “disinformation” reporter (who, er, happens to also be the guy in the screenshot above), roundly ignoring all of this context, and doubling down on the idea that the launch was a failure, telling his followers to “Stop being rubes and stop being afraid of him [ie: Musk].”
Simply put, then, it was another embarrassing episode of Twitter. And though this is one example – perhaps fairly trivial in the grand scheme of things (it’s just an annoying man launching a rocket!) – I think it is still important.
Because whether you are a capital-J Journalist, a public figure or just someone with a social media account who likes to post, you should aspire to say things that are accurate and not post things that are inaccurate.
And if you’re blinded by your pre-existing views, and are happy to tell yourself (let alone your followers) a lie because it aligns better with your politics, it makes everyone’s understanding worse and makes your criticism less effective.
Keep Rowling, Rowling, Rowling
The poison of motivated reasoning isn’t unique to Musk, of course. It can also be found in much of the commentary on another figure that Twitter loves to hate: JK Rowling.
For example, once Rowling made her views on The Trans Stuff clear, it became almost received wisdom among her critics on that issue that she is closely aligned with the far-right or the ghoulish Republicans vilifying trans people.
But this doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny as she has, for example, distanced herself from right-wing anti-trans activists like Matt Walsh, and spoken out in support of abortion and gay marriage.
And if you actually read the words she has written or listen to the words that she has said, it is clear whether you agree with her or not, that her views are rooted in the intellectual tradition of second-wave feminism. It’s also worth anchoring your thinking by noting that her views are situated roughly exactly where the median Briton is today.
So she is obviously coming from a wildly different perspective and context from the very rigid-gender-roles, religiously-inflected, conservative ideology that is motivating Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott et al.
Just like with Musk, this sort of deliberate obfuscation makes everyone stupider. I think it’s, at best, wildly counter-productive, even if (perhaps especially if) you are a critic of her views on issues like gender self-ID.
As if you actually want to understand why the beloved author thinks the way she does, you have to start by acknowledging this reality. And if you disagree with her, your criticism is only going to be convincing if you actually grapple with the feminist theory that underpins her perspective.
Be a smart information consumer
I’m not writing about Elon Musk and JK Rowling in this post just because I want to have a particularly bad day on Twitter. The only way I could make this worse for myself at this point would be to add a section titled “James Corden: Great entertainer, or greatest entertainer?”.
So for the record, my own views on Elon Musk are very mixed. I’ve previously written about why he is good – but also more recently why he is absolutely disastrous. And I’ve never expressed an opinion one way or the other on JK Rowling publicly because I don’t hate myself quite that much.
But I think they’re both incredibly good examples of how important it is to be a smart information consumer in an information ecosystem where we don’t just have strong cognitive biases towards seeing the best in our allies and the worst in our enemies, regardless of the facts – but also that in many cases, there are business incentives to maintain our delusions too.
For example, at the end of March The Independent sent this viral tweet, which earned over 1600 retweets, reporting that Rowling’s production company was reporting a 74% drop in profits.
The story was widely circulated – and I’d guess was almost exclusively written – because the headline slides very nicely into the “Rowling backlash” narrative, so had enormous viral potential5.
But much like the Starship launch, none of this analysis stands up to even ten seconds of scrutiny. As the body text of the story notes (as does the Deadline source it is lifting from), the results are actually down to a massive drop in theatre revenues (from the Cursed Child stage show) in a year when, you might remember, every theatre was closed for months.
Similarly, for any sort of backlash to make sense, you’d also have to explain away the huge success of the Hogwarts Legacy video-game, released earlier this year. Despite the calls for a boycott, and the near universal hostility of the mainstream games press, it sold over 12 million copies in the first two weeks and became one of the biggest game releases of recent years6.
Garbage In - Garbage Out
You may have excellent reasons to like or dislike Elon Musk or JK Rowling. My point in writing this isn’t to persuade you that either of them are good or bad.
The only point I’m actually making is that if you want to accurately understand the world, you should try not to let the people you don’t like break your brain. And it can happen with almost any suitably notorious public figure. Boris Johnson was often talked of like he was a teflon, and immune to the normal rules of politics – right up until the moment when he wasn’t.
So it can be simultaneously true that an intensely annoying man who is ruining Twitter has also built some incredible rockets – you don’t need to pretend the rockets are bad, just because you don’t like him.
And it can be true that JK Rowling takes positions you disagree with on trans rights, without you needing to pretend that she is commercially unsuccessful, or that she is a not so secret fascist.
The boring reality is that people are complex, and if everything that happens can be organised neatly into “good” and “bad” according to your preexisting views, with absolutely no surprises, then you’re probably not thinking clearly. And if someone is actually bad, it should be possible to accurately criticise them by explaining why they are bad – without needing to make something up to make them sound worse.
In other words, if James Corden somehow manages to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity, we’re going to have to suck it up and award him the Nobel Prize, and update the history books to forever more record the name Corden alongside that of Newton and Einstein. Whether we like it or not.
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If you’re not familiar with the Falcon 9, I strongly recommend digging into it and learning about it. It really is quite astonishing just how dramatically SpaceX has captured and dominated the space industry because of its success. And it’s hard to overstate just how important the rocket is in terms of reshaping space ambitions.
For similar reasons, it infuriated me when people criticised the mobile emergency alert test last month, just because it didn’t work for everyone. What on earth do they think a test is for?
If you wanted to steelman the “it was bad” position, the only wrinkle you can really point to was that Musk also suggested that “I would consider anything that does not result in the destruction of the launch mount itself … to be a win,” as the evidence is that the launch mount did sustain some damage (though was not destroyed) during the launch. But crucially, none of the Twitter insta-critics knew this at the time because the dust literally hadn’t settled.
The phrase is even used as an on-screen caption in the above landing fails video too.
I think the fact the story had so many quote tweets too – many more than retweets in fact – also reveals how we now want to perform our views, as dunking on Rowling shows how right-on you are, and defending Rowling shows how you hate the woke libs, or whatever.
There was also some extremely dumb commentary/wishcasting that the recently announced HBOMax Harry Potter TV show is being made so that Rowling can move on from the movie cast whose stars have distanced themselves from her. Maybe! But I think it’s probably more likely that the motivation is WarnerBros Discovery want to leverage arguably the biggest non-Disney-owned IP in the world, and drive subscribers to their streaming service. Call me crazy.