Scientific Heresy: A Critique of Public Intellectual Neil deGrasse Tyson

 

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It was an opportunity too good to pass up; the ball was teed up and all it took was a solid swing. When rapper B.o.B. (Bobby Ray Simmons) recently posted 50 tweets purporting to prove that the earth is flat, he claimed to “be going up against the greatest liars in history,” a conspiracy society led by NASA. Never mind that the claim was a thinly veiled promotion for Simmons’ latest recordings, this was a juicy tidbit for astrophysicist/entrepreneur Neil deGrasse Tyson to devour. First there was Tyson’s set of short Twitter responses with clever scientific facts proving the Earth is round, followed later by his own rap response to B.o.B. along with his nephew rapper Stephen Tyson.

It is important to understand Tyson’s savvy in applying his considerable scientific knowledge through social media commentaries on such cultural events as the Super Bowl or the opening of the latest “Star Wars” movie. With nearly 4.9 million Twitter followers, he is the quintessential 21st century public intellectual who plies his trade to reach huge audiences unimagined by scientists of previous eras. But even though Tyson rarely misses a social media spotlight opportunity that will pay off with the approval of his adoring science fan base, it was obvious that he might have felt just a bit sheepish about engaging in such trivial drivel with B.o.B. In writing for Popular Science, Tyson attempted to justify the exchange:

“This was rare, my stepping out to confront B.o.B. because it just isn’t what I do. I don’t pick people out who have weird ideas and then debate them. …but I chased B.o.B. because his fanbase started directly tweeting at me. It shouldn’t take a Ph.D. astrophysicist to give convincing arguments that Earth is round … he has 2.3 million Twitter followers, and in his tweets, he was saying, ‘This is simple physics. This is physics and math that’s giving me these results.’ The moment he called out physics and math, people are thinking he is actually doing it correctly, rather than just having a crazy idea. He crossed a line there. He is hugely influential, he is doing it in the name of science, and he is so wrong.”

This is vintage Tyson, an expression of his personal brand as a public intellectual who is the guardian of scientific inquiry and a crusader against what he views to be chronic bias by most of humanity against the values of solid data and undisputable facts. He has leveraged this market position in the discourse of ideas well, moving from the relative obscurity of the study of astrophysics to become a best-selling author, television host and a prominent and lucrative attraction on the speakers’ circuit and talker TV shows.

For the past decade, Tyson has been director of the Hayden Planetarium in his native New York City. With an undergraduate degree in physics from Harvard and a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Columbia, he has research interests in all-things celestial. He has advised the federal government on the future of the nation’s aerospace industry and the space exploration policy, and is the author of scores of essays having to do with our universe, astronomy and a variety of science topics in support of his role as an evangelist for discovery. He is the author of ten books, the host of the PBS series, NOVA ScienceNOW, and most famously picked up the mantle of Carl Sagan in reviving the iconic video series, Cosmos. This is a man who knows his stuff and he has a rare and admirable talent for translating and expressing sophisticated science knowledge into language that can be grasped by the masses. Our world needs Tyson, and more like him, as we attempt to keep up with the accelerating acquisition of human knowledge driven by geometric gains in technological advances.

But as we enjoy the benefits of Tyson’s intellectual and communications assets, we often receive the unwelcome condescension of a man who knows he is smarter than most of us and can’t resist the urge to incessantly point out that annoying fact. In an essay titled “By the Numbers,” adapted from his 2008 keynote address for the Space Technology Hall of Fame event, Tyson boldly declared that “our nation is turning into an idiocracy.” He lamented that the nation was “simply not plugged into” the work of space visionaries. “Not only that, some of them even celebrate their science illiteracy,” Tyson observed. “They’re not even embarrassed by it.” After comparing the superior ability of China to graduate seven times the number of scientists and engineers as U.S. colleges, Tyson pointed to the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and lack of investment in scientific discovery. Concluding his essay, Tyson observes that the rest of the world “needs to understand” the intellectual journey of scientists because it is “fundamental to our lives, to our security, to our self-image, and to our capacity to dream.”

Consider the context of Tyson’s remarks in an era of bewildering advancement in data science, biological and chemical advances and robotics. This hubris-laden attitude illustrates the thesis of an essay by Stephen Mack titled “The ‘Decline’ of the Public Intellectual.” Mack exposes the shortcomings of reasoning by those who promote the notion of a “venerable tradition of American anti-intellectualism.” He points out that the assumption that the great masses of society are “childlike and must be led by a class of experts is politically corrosive and historically dangerous.” According to Mack, consigning the role of public intellectual to only the highly educated minimizes the obligation of every citizen in a democracy to take on their personal duty to “prod, poke, and pester the powerful institutions that would shape their lives.” Indeed, Mack debunks the anti-intellectualism fiction with two clear examples, the prowess of American higher education, and the penchant for Americans to express their intellectual power through practical and active pursuits, rather than the passive life of the mind.

In a similar way, some critics have spoken out against Tyson’s characterizations of society as un-scientific. An excellent example of the anti-Tyson sentiment came in 2014 in reaction to disparaging comments he made during a “Nerdist” podcast about the study of philosophy. Tyson claimed that asking “deep questions” only amounted to delaying progress. “I’m moving on,” he said. “I’m leaving you behind, and you can’t even cross the street because you’re distracted by deep questions you’ve asked of yourself. I don’t have time for that.”

Writing for The Week, Damon Linker said Tyson “should be ashamed of himself,” and pondered how a prominent public intellectual could hold the field of Plato, Socrates, Acquinas, Hume, etc., in such low regard. “Tyson shows he’s very much a 21st-century American, living in a perpetual state of irritated impatience and anxious agitation,” Linker writes. “Don’t waste your time with philosophy! (And, one presumes, literature, history, the arts, or religion.) Only science will get you where you want to go! It gets results! Go for it! Hurry up! Don’t be left behind! Progress awaits!”

Biologist and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci joined in scolding Tyson on his views of philosophy, explaining the hypocrisy of a public intellectual of science failing to understand the fundamental value of contemplation of the deepest and most profound questions. “You can think of philosophy as an exploration of conceptual, as opposed to empirical, space, concerning all sorts of questions ranging from ethics to politics, from epistemology to the nature of science,” writes Pigliucci. “The main objective of philosophy of science is to understand how science works and, when it fails to work (which it does, occasionally), why this was the case. It is epistemology applied to the scientific enterprise.”

While Tyson has made a few enemies among the relatively small community of prominent philosophers, he has made far more enemies among those who hold strong religious beliefs. In his essay, “The Perimeter of Ignorance,” Tyson posits that many great scientists throughout history reached the limits of their ability to understand the physical world and then threw up their hands and invoked the role of a divine being as a force that made some things unknowable. Tyson called such thinking “God of the gaps,” a scientific tactic that could be used whenever there was a gap in human knowledge. As rational knowledge grew, and science filled in the gaps, Tyson said scholars did a “stunning and unheralded philosophical inversion,” declaring that the laws of physics “served as proof of the wisdom and power of God.”

Tyson attacks the modern-day expression of a spiritual approach to science, known as intelligent design. The concept hypothesizes that some entity greater than humans created or enabled things in the physical world that cannot be explained through science. Tyson writes that intelligent design “is a philosophy of ignorance,” and holds that allowing such thinking into the scientific realm would cause “incalculable” cost to the frontiers of scientific discovery, as scientists abandon the pursuit of knowledge that is fundamentally unknowable.

Among Tyson’s most requested and controversial essays is one titled “Holy Wars,” published in Natural History magazine in 1999. His opinions were blunt and unqualified:

“Let there be no doubt that as they are currently practiced, there is no common ground between science and religion … The claims of science rely on experimental verification, while the claims of religions rely on faith. These are irreconcilable approaches to knowing, which ensures an eternity of debate wherever and whenever the two camps meet … I have yet to see a successful prediction about the physical world that was inferred or extrapolated from the content of any religious document. Indeed, I can make an even stronger statement. Whenever people have used religious documents to make accurate predictions about the physical world they have been famously wrong.”

Tyson relegates the spiritual thinking of several of humanity’s greatest scientific minds (Newton, Galileo, Huygens) to the category of “colorful history” that doesn’t belong in a modern science classroom. In short, Tyson believes science and religion don’t mix, a fascinating parallel to the theme of an essay by Mack titled “The Wicked Paradox: The Cleric as Public Intellectual.” Mack tackles the notion that religion and politics are “polar opposites – an ideological oil reacting against a metaphysical water.” While American government upholds the ideals of a separation of church and state, steadfastly repelling laws and practices that would promote favoritism toward, or discrimination against those who hold particular religious beliefs, there is a prevailing tension over the important role that spiritual leaders play as public intellectuals in American society. As Mack points out, theologians from both ends of the political spectrum have been leaders throughout history in reform ranging from abolitionism to labor and peace movements. He observes that American politics “uses” religion in important ways, and that “liberal democracy takes from religion what it cannot supply on its own: a deep sense of belonging.”

The irony is that a public intellectual of Tyson’s stature does not recognize the similar value that religion brings to scientific pursuits. This shortcoming is intellectually lazy and at odds with the disciplined thinking of an accomplished researcher. While it is easy to dismiss those with strong faith as merely the anti-evolutionist crowd or climate change deniers, the intersection of science and religion has a long history of rigorous study by distinguished scholars, many of whom have advanced this study into a formal academic field. Scientists around the world of many faiths carry out serious empirical research while holding deep and personal spiritual beliefs. In a 2008 statement on the relationship between science and religion, the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine provided a well-reasoned perspective:

“Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience. In science, explanations must be based on evidence drawn from examining the natural world. Scientifically based observations or experiments that conflict with an explanation eventually must lead to modification or even abandonment of that explanation. Religious faith, in contrast, does not depend only on empirical evidence, is not necessarily modified in the face of conflicting evidence, and typically involves supernatural forces or entities. Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist.”

Considering the tremendous influence that a scientist such as Tyson, who inspires what some call a “cult-like following,” one would hope he would employ an approach modeled by a public intellectual scientist of a different era – Albert Einstein. In a 1930 essay in the New York Times Magazine, Einstein described his views of science and religion:

“I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research. Only those who realize the immense efforts and, above all, the devotion without which pioneer work in theoretical science cannot be achieved are able to grasp the strength of the emotion out of which alone such work, remote as it is from the immediate realities of life, can issue … Those whose acquaintance with scientific research is derived chiefly from its practical results easily develop a completely false notion of the mentality of the men who, surrounded by a skeptical world, have shown the way to kindred spirits scattered wide through the world and through the centuries. Only one who has devoted his life to similar ends can have a vivid realization of what has inspired these men and given them the strength to remain true to their purpose in spite of countless failures. It is cosmic religious feeling that gives a man such strength. A contemporary has said, not unjustly, that in this materialistic age of ours the serious scientific workers are the only profoundly religious people.”

In one brief passage, Einstein has “dropped the mic” on the debate over science and religion. Unfortunately, Tyson has yet to pick it up.

 

Works Used

  1. Albert Einstein on Religion and Science
  2. “Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Value of Philosophy” by Massimo Pigliucci
  3. “Why Neil deGrasse Tyson is a philistine” by Damon Linker
  4. Neil deGrasse Tyson on “Talking Philosophy”
  5. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Twitter account
  6. “Holy Wars” by Neil deGrasse Tyson
  7. “The Wicked Paradox: The Cleric as Public Intellectual” by Stephen Mack
  8. “The Decline of the Public Intellectual” by Stephen Mack
  9. “Neil DeGrasse Tyson Gets Into A Rap Battle With B.o.B Over Flat Earth Theory” by Laura Wagner
  10. “Why in the world would rapper B.o.B think the Earth is flat? A quick science lesson.” by Valerie Strauss
  11. “Cosmic Perspective” by Neil deGrasse Tyson
  12. “The Perimeter of Ignorance” by Neil deGrasse Tyson
  13. Neil deGrasse Tyson on the “Nerdist” podcast
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