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.

You Never Give Me Your Money/ You Only Give Me Your Funny Paper

By Kindred Winecoff

After the Pope’s recent screed I wrote on Facebook that I didn’t understand why he was getting so much attention, particularly from non-devout Catholics. After all, hasn’t a very long history demonstrated that anything the Pope writes should be taken as utter horseshit until conclusively proven otherwise? The most common pull-quote in the 200+ letter is this:

[S]ome people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.

Others have noted that his empirical claim is dubious at best. I’d also note that his theoretical claim (“inevitable”) is a straw man. People have always been concerned with the “goodness of those wielding economic power”. If we’re being consistent we’d also be concerned with the “goodness” of what is one of the wealthiest institutions on earth, and one of the least transparent. This is why we in the decadent West have regulatory institutions, progressive taxation, and a welfare state deployed by elected representatives of the people. No similar checks and balances in Vatican City.

Meanwhile, as Hitchens noted in his polemic against the “ghoul of Calcutta,” the Pope’s own organization has been less a friend of the poor as of poverty. The church opposes the liberation of women and the sagacity of demographic planning, which is a precondition for escaping Malthusian social dynamics. Historically the church has actively worked to promote ignorance, oppose scientific inquiry, and limit the erosion of its own prestige by rising bourgeois and working classes — the very things that have enhanced human dignity. At present it refuses to divest any of its substantial assets to improve the material lives of the suffering. If a capitalist can be defined by a logic of accumulation then there has been no greater capitalist in world history than the church in Rome. These are not actions that demonstrate concern for the least among us (and we will know them by their actions).

Until these policies and doctrines are not only abolished but thoroughly repudiated I won’t take seriously lectures from Jorge Mario Bergoglio on questions of political economy. This should be obvious to practically everyone, and I would encourage well-meaning people of the left to not accept poisoned friendships so easily.

But I hadn’t actually considered another aspect of this. Among the world’s poorest the situation is the exact opposite of what Bergoglio describes.

“All the data show households with humbler jobs and lower incomes enjoying faster income growth than those with fancier jobs and higher incomes,” observe Batson and Gatley. “China’s income inequality has been quietly getting better.”

Via Scott Sumner, who adds that the Pope should really be less Euro-centric. Indeed he should.

UPDATE: If I’d noticed this FT exposé on the financial malpractice of the Vatican that published a few days ago I would’ve worked it into this post. I didn’t, until now, so I’ll just link to it. It’s pretty bad.

To Faithful Warriors Comes Their Rest

By Kindred Winecoff

My family are evangelical fundamentalist Protestant Reformed Christians. Only two of those descriptors applies to me now (guess which!), but Halloween remains a weird time of year for me. Because of religiously-motivated conscientious objections on my  parents’ part I never had the typical American experience — dress up as something scary — when I was young, and so I never really bothered with the arrested development ritual — dress up as something funny and/or sexy — since I’ve been old. So Oct. 31 is not a big deal for me, except insofar as it inconveniences me, and I’m a bit suspicious of anyone over the age of 20 or so who still geeks out on it.

As far as I can recall, I was only permitted by my parents to trick-or-treat once. I was dressed as the Old Testament David. My neighborhood cohort, ghouls and ghosts and glow-in-the-dark skeletons, were not intimidated by my (fake) slingshot. I did not encounter any Goliaths. As I remember it I ran home in tears before collecting any candy.

My parents eventually realized that This Would Not Do. You don’t take a slingshot to gunfight. But they also could not let me celebrate the Devil’s holiday in style. Solution: a church-sponsored “All Saints’ Day” party, on November 1, wherein all the kids dressed up as Moses or Joshua or something (not too many good dress-up characters from the New Testament), got candy, and everyone had a wholesome time. It was a win-win. The church parties not only had candy but also games. Most of my friends were there, whereas trick-or-treating is pretty anonymous. There wasn’t anything scary, except for the spiritual warfare stuff that I didn’t really understand. Some of the less-observant kids got to celebrate two candy-receiving holidays in a row! And the parents seemed to enjoy themselves.

But! There was a subversive undertone that I did not appreciate as a child, and in fact did not know until just this week. All Saints’ Day was a Papist gyp. It originated in the 7th century, when Boniface IV consecrated the Roman Pantheon to the (alleged) Blessed Virgin and the Christian martyrs. My evangelical fundamentalist Protestant Reformed parents were bribing me with candy to celebrate the usurpation by a heretical egomaniac of a pagan monument! Strange brew.

Later, apparently, Byzantium tried to usurp the previous usurpation. This involved a shift from “all martyrs” to “all saints”. Wikipedia has the simple story. It was only a matter of time before there was slippage from the Orthodox to the Episcopalians, so the Protestant usurpation was not original to my family’s (Presbyterian) church. Around the turn of the 20th century the Anglican bishop William Walshow How wrote the lyric of one of my favorite Christian hymns to commemorate the day, which was shortly later set to a gorgeous martial tune. One of the better of the style, in a very strong field:

Peering through the looking glass of the criminal justice system

By Patricia Padurean

Walking into Department 5 of the Vista courthouse in California, it is hard to resist the urge to cross yourself. Visitors sit in pew-like rows of seats, looking up at a stained glass representation of the California state seal. When the judge walks in, his robe billowing behind him, everybody stands until His Honor grants us permission to be seated. Some of the penitents in the pews are new, some are visiting, most are regulars. They bow their heads. We are in the inner sanctum of the criminal justice system, but the vernacular is overwhelmingly ecclesiastical.

Generally in a church you do not have the looming presence of armed bailiffs so rotund that they have to throw their weight around just to be able to move. In court, these men and women are unavoidable. But it is precisely the ever-present menace of Bailiffs Tweedlee and Tweedledum that highlights the absurdity of the criminal justice system.

Participating in the criminal justice system, whether by choice or in handcuffs, involves stepping into a plane of existence that operates in parallel with the real world. Legal language and logic do not quite map onto normal human language and logic. At every step of the process you have to absorb a new obstacle that challenges and distorts everything you thought you knew about language and reality.

So let’s say one of your friends is a little quirky and a bit of a night owl and instead of doing the normal thing and watching Netflix until 3am, he does chores instead. One evening he decides to mow the lawn. It’s midnight, it’s dark. The neighbor has a dog whose lot in life is not easy. Rover is deaf and as he scampers across the neighborhood backyards, he does not hear the mower coming for him and he is accidentally run over. Your friend, Mr. Insomnia, is charged under your state’s animal cruelty law with killing a domestic animal.

We all know that a criminal defendant is by law considered innocent until proven guilty. We hear this mantra a lot. But if you have ever watched Nancy Grace in her full splendor, you know that the mantra is often disregarded. With stunning regularity, potential jurors admit to thinking that the defendant must have done something wrong or she would not have been arrested and the gears of bureaucracy would not have ground far enough for her to see the inside of a courtroom. The defendant is then generally guilty until proven specifically guilty of something.

If the criminal offense in question has an element of intent, which they typically all do, the jury is charged with deciding whether or not the defendant intended to commit the crime. The law breaks this down into a two-part test comprised of an objective and a subjective half.

The subjective test requires the factfinder to determine the defendant’s mental state at the time of the crime. That’s all fine and good; it rings true that any attempt to enter a person’s mind should be called subjective.

The objective test also tries to determine the defendant’s mental state but it does so by imagining a generic “reasonable man” in the same situation as the defendant. If a reasonable person would have foreseen that mowing the lawn at midnight would result in the violent death of the neighbor’s deaf dog, then obviously the defendant, for all his protesting to the contrary, was clearly out to make a dog smoothie.

The objective test, then, supposedly improves upon the subjective test by determining what was going on in someone’s mind by comparing it with what might hypothetically have been going on in someone else’s mind at the time. There is nothing objective about this; in fact the objective test is twice as subjective as the subjective test! And of course, it is possible to imagine many varieties of a reasonable person, all of whom might have foreseen different consequences of deciding to mow the lawn at midnight.

So let’s assume our defendant has been found guilty of intentionally killing his neighbor’s dog. Criminal convictions not only have the force of law, they also have the force of fact. Once you are found guilty of an offense, in future that offense will be referred to as having objectively happened. But often this is a legal fiction. In our case, Mr. Insomnia accidentally shredded a dog. He knows he didn’t intend for it to happen but from this point forward, as far as the criminal justice system is concerned, he is a willful dog killer.

This type of scenario is admittedly quite rare; however, a large proportion of criminal convictions are plea bargains in which the prosecution offers the defendant the opportunity to plead guilty to a lesser charge than the original conviction. Domestic violence becomes false imprisonment, soliciting a prostitute becomes disturbing the peace. In these cases, any lawyer, judge, jury, or employer who looks at these criminal records will say “Mr. Smith disturbed the peace” when in fact he tried to pick up a hooker or “Mr. Doe imprisoned his family in their home for a week” when in fact he was raping his wife or when perhaps his wife was hitting their children but reported her husband to the police to cover her tracks. These are all very serious issues and behaviors, yet when the justice system treats reality itself like it is fungible, it is difficult not to see criminal justice as a game that you are forced to play but can never hope to win.

Like most institutions, the criminal justice system works well some of the time, and it spends the rest of its time simply existing. To make your living in this system you have to either live in a perpetual state of denial or suspended disbelief. If you squint and tilt your head just so to try to make the two parallel worlds meet, you’ll just wind up cross-eyed and deranged. Nothing is real; Godot will never come.