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President Obama got the history of Sputnik wrong.

AFP/Getty Images

Arguing for the need to invest in more science to battle climate change, President Obama at the State of the Union brought up some ancient history: “Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there.” 

Unfortunately, Obama gets the history of Sputnik slightly wrong: There were Amerians who denied that Russia put up the first artificial satellite in 1957. Sputnik skeptics tended to be right-wing Americans who thought that there was no way a socialist peasant society like Russia could possibly beat the United States in a technological battle.

According to the late classics professor Seth Benardete, one prominent Sputnik denier was the famous Harvard philosopher W.V.O. Quine, who was quite confident that Russian accounts of launching a satellite could not be trusted. Similar arguments could be found in the pages of National Review in the late 1950s. 

In sum, Obama is over-estimating how rational Americans were in the past, which has implications for how rational they can be in the present.