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President Obama got the history of Sputnik wrong.

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.