Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: We Don't Need No Stinking Evidence

WIRED has the story, as told by Ramin Skibba: NASA Will Not Change the James Webb Telescope’s Name. It's WIRED's usual slant:

James Webb led NASA in the 1950s and 60s, during the Cold War–era “Lavender Scare,” when government agencies often enforced policies that discriminated against gay and lesbian federal workers. For that reason, astronomers and others have long called for NASA to change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope. Earlier this year, the space agency agreed to complete a full investigation into Webb’s suspected role in the treatment and firing of LGBTQ employees.

This afternoon, NASA released that long-awaited report by the agency’s chief historian Brian Odom. In an accompanying press release, NASA officials made clear that the agency will not change the telescope’s name, writing: “Based on the available evidence, the agency does not plan to change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope. However, the report illuminates that this period in federal policy—and in American history more broadly—was a dark chapter that does not reflect the agency’s values today.”

Odom was tasked with finding what proof, if any, links Webb to homophobic policies and decisions. Tracking down evidence of contentious 60-year-old events made for a difficult subject of study, Odom says, but he was able to draw on plenty of material from the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and the Truman Library. “I took this investigation very seriously,” he says.

Unsurprisingly, Chanda-Prescod Weinstein (assistant professor of physics and astronomy and core faculty in women's and gender studies at the University Near Here) did not appreciate the decision.

The report and NASA’s announcement frustrate critics who for years have been making a case to change JWST’s name. “Webb has at best a complicated legacy, including his participation in the promotion of psychological warfare. His activities did not earn him a $10 billion monument,” wrote Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an astrophysicist at the University of New Hampshire, and three other astronomers and astrophysicists in a statement on Substack today. They question the interpretation that a lack of explicit evidence implies that Webb had no knowledge of, or hand in, firings within his own agency, writing: “In such a scenario, we have to assume he was relatively incompetent as a leader: the administrator of NASA should know if his chief of security is extrajudicially interrogating people.”

Let's summarize:

  • If there is evidence that Webb had knowledge of, or hand in, firings of gay people at NASA, that means he was a bigot, and the telescope name should be changed.
  • If there isn't evidence that Webb had knowledge of, or hand in, firings of gay people at NASA, that means he was incompetent… and the telescope name should still be changed.
Or: heads she wins, tails Webb loses.