Against Neil deGrasse Tyson: A Three-Minute Polemic

A literal "skeptic trump card," for the armchair sociologist who prefers personalities over boring old physics textbooks.
A literal “skeptic trump card,” for the armchair sociologist who prefers personalities over boring old physics textbooks.

Normally I put a lot of thought (or at least a lot of words) into my Jilt articles, careful to say things that I’ll still feel passionately about five minutes after posting. But a Neil deGrasse Tyson quote – the latest of dozens – just floated through my Facebook feed, and it broke a levee of feeling. Here are some thoughts I’ll throw haphazardly like mustard seeds onto infertile soil, thoughts I may regret posting within five minutes – but not three:

Neil deGrasse Tyson has spent the last decade slouching toward cultural ubiquity, a seemingly nice guy who twenty years ago would’ve competed with lanky Bill Nye for the title “Science Guy” (and yes, I think that’s a real thing in our culture: scientists who spend more time in public relations meetings than in the lab are all vying for the title of “Science Guy”). But in 2014, he inhabits a cultural ecosystem where Richard Dawkins is someone my mom has heard of. DeGrasse Tyson inhabits a world in which Christopher Hitchens, approaching 60 and noticing the inevitable dulling of his faculties, turned to popular atheism as an easy and reliable source of mulah. This is a world in which a cursory knowledge of the natural sciences and a declaration of disbelief in the desert deity of Abraham is enough to certify oneself “intellectual” or “enlightened,” all with the blessing of a few high-profile public figures.

Dawkins was once a great explainer of Darwinian biology, but he quit that gig years ago. Nye was a children’s TV host who explained basic scientific knowledge in clear language who now debates Young Earth Creationists (i.e., the people who other Creationists make fun of). And deGrasse Tyson was once a fan and acquaintance of Carl Sagan, and now hosts a television show that is (so far) preoccupied with religion and earthbound institutions – as far from the spirit of Sagan as The Big Bang Theory is from Star Trek. 

To be fair, deGrasse Tyson seems like a nice enough guy. I heard him interviewed by Terry Gross a few weeks ago, and he explained that his new show Cosmos (produced by Family Guy creator, professional misogynist, and world’s-most-irritating-atheist Seth MacFarlane) was an attempt to recapture the spirit of John F. Kennedy’s sweeping pro-science rhetoric. That rhetoric, said deGrasse Tyson, is what inspired him and millions of his peers to enter scientific fields. Today’s generation won’t be inspired by the prospect of creating an airplane that is more fuel-efficient than their parents’, he continued. They needed something to really inspire them.

Nevermind that JFK was half-hearted in his commitment to the space program or that its impetus had little to do with scientific discovery (everyone knows that). Nevermind that innovative, fuel-efficient technologies make money, and money is pretty damned inspiring. Nevermind that deGrasse Tyson is attempting to ape ’60s pro-science optimism using Cosmos, a vehicle of late ’70s inward-looking trippiness that doesn’t inspire action so much as awe. Sagan was chill. DeGrasse Tyson is visibly uptight. Sagan’s Cosmos was subtitled A Personal Journey; MacFarlane and deGrasse Tyson have revised that to A Spacetime Odyssey, aiming, I guess, for shades of “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” Stanley Kubrick, and Nietzsche. But their show’s tone isn’t ’60s or ’70s: it’s pure 2014, the Year of the Dead Horse (DISCLAIMER – I do not believe in astrology I believe in science I was only making a pun I believe in science I do not actually believe in astrology – DISCLAIMER). In this case, the horse is the vacuousness of religious faith. And despite all the blood and pulp, nobody seems to be tired of it yet.

So twenty minutes ago, deGrasse Tyson slides across my Facebook feed, the latest in a long chain of images mocked up by fans (or, in this case, Mother Jones) that marry images of deGrasse Tyson looking cool or authoritative (or, in this case, just standing) with a quote that only barely masks his utter contempt for those who would, say, explore the religious sphere of human existence or deny funding to NASA:

When [scientists] do know something, there are reasons why we know it, and if you don’t understand that, you deny it only at your peril, especially when the result may affect the stability of our future.

This sounds like a threat. I know he’s addressing climate change denial as much as Creationism or regular Mass attendance, so the “stability of our future” is probably intended to register beyond “If the religious crazies take over, we’re all going to die!

Problem is, that’s the only song these public “Science Guys” have been singing since Richard Dawkins discovered there was money in it. And I am so, so sick of it.

Science denial is a meaningless phenomenon. Outrage about science denial is phony. Period.

Basic scientific knowledge has never been widely understood – not fully. The average anti-Creationist probably couldn’t explain Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection without getting much of it horribly wrong. And scientific inquiry has never been widely valued in itself. Everyone knows scientific inquiry is not funded unless there are economic or (less commonly) geo-political reason for doing so. And everyone knows that practical and economically viable scientific research will be funded no matter what.

I never tire of reminding people that “science” is, in itself, not an actual thing. Science is a method, a process. And I love science, for many of the same reasons deGrasse Tyson wants me to: I was too young for Cosmos, but I grew up with NovaNature, and yes, Bill Nye the Science Guy (remember when he had Soundgarden on?). I loved science before I love the humanities. And although I’m a humanist, I still believe that the scientific method produces the most valuable knowledge we have about our world and, increasingly, each other.

But the scientific community, left on its own, is just a bunch of guys with no money and no voice producing knowledge that nobody pays attention to. To hear Dawkins and deGrasse Tyson and Nye tell it, science is simultaneously totally in charge and under constant attack (their rhetoric in this regard resembles the rhetoric of Evangelical Christians and Stalinists). But science is not in charge. In the 19th century, scientists were guys who either sought patronage or relied on independent means to fund beetle collections and jungle expeditions. And without their practical socio-economic applications, most scientific work wouldn’t get done.

But deGrasse Tyson isn’t interested in the practical applications. He said as much on Fresh Air. Practical applications are boring. And when the skeptical consumer of pro-science PR asks, “Why should I care?”, deGrasse Tyson responds in one of two ways. Either he relies on rhetoric and poetry, not the nuts and grit of real scientific work, because the big stuff – theoretical astrophysics, for instance – is much sexier, especially when you dumb it down…or he goes shrill, warning that if we don’t take science seriously – if we don’t trust them and believe what they say – bad things will happen. This shrill tone occasionally cracks into insouciance: “Doesn’t matter what you believe,” says the Science Guy. “We’re correct whether you believe us or not.”

I hate both approaches, especially the latter. Both approaches discourage critical inquiry, upon which the scientific method relies. While their colleagues do actual, original, difficult research in universities on the dimes of taxpayers and various boards of trustees, Science Guys globe-trot on book tours, stroking the egos of the faithful and epistemologically bullying everyone else. And I wouldn’t mind as much if the enlightened faithful actually understood or cared about the boring work of science any more than the drooling masses. But one only need survey Western civilization for five minutes to know that the overwhelming majority of everybody – including Dawkins/deGrasse/Nye’s audience – doesn’t care about real, hard, boring science.

And so this is my message to the Science Guys:

The Catholic Church ignored science for centuries without destabilizing shit. There were wars, then there were periods of peace, then there were wars. There was ignorance, but there was also some knowledge. But there was no “peril” in ignoring Copernicus. And it wasn’t Galileo who created post-Enlightenment stability in Europe. That was Protestants. More specifically, that was German princes who embraced Protestantism and capitalism. These societies created the conditions in which the natural sciences flourished – not the other way around. Don’t pretend that we need you more than you need us (in most cases, literally U.S. – the U.S. government and its economic allies). It’s our teat you’re sucking on – so keep on sucking, and smile while you’re doing it. 

I realize that 99.99% of professional natural scientists understand that science is a process and that scientific knowledge is a target for continual inquiry. And to be fair, deGrasse Tyson offers an acceptable, if unnecessarily vague, definition of “the scientific method” early in Cosmos. But the definition takes 30 seconds to recite, while he spends half of the episode lambasting 16th century Christianity for persecuting a man who, he later admits, wasn’t actually using the scientific method and was just lucky to have guessed that planets existed. This only further encourages regular people to continue invoking the word “science” the way deGrasse Tyson does: it’s a mantra, a mystical trump card that ends all debate. “This is SCIENCE,” end of debate. Such a mindset is decidedly anti-scientific, but these celebrity scientists who  moonlight as armchair sociologists are enablers, virtually none of whom have earned their public authority through scientific inquiry.

(Hey, here’s an equation written by an English Ph.D. candidate: Neil deGrasse Tyson – [Jon Stewart + Seth McFarlane] = NOBODY. 100% tested and verifiable. What does that tell you about the power of “science”?)

Do I trust scientists more than I trust religious fanatics? Yes, obviously. But I still trust the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book more than I trust either scientists or spiritualists. Even in an educated city like Boston, people won’t nitpick over the astrophysical details of George Clooney movies, and they’ll still probably wind up setting aside a few dollars for the Large Hadron Collider.


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