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Neil DeGrasse Tyson: Scientism’s Televangelist

Damon Linker knocks Neil deGrasse Tyson into orbit. Here’s how his column begins: Neil deGrasse Tyson may be a gifted popularizer of science, but when it comes to humanistic learning more generally, he is a philistine. Some of us suspected this on the basis of the historically and theologically inept portrayal of Giordano Bruno in the opening […]

Damon Linker knocks Neil deGrasse Tyson into orbit. Here’s how his column begins:

Neil deGrasse Tyson may be a gifted popularizer of science, but when it comes to humanistic learning more generally, he is a philistine. Some of us suspected this on the basis of the historically and theologically inept portrayal of Giordano Bruno in the opening episode of Tyson’s reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.

But now it’s been definitively demonstrated by a recent interview in which Tyson sweepingly dismisses the entire history of philosophy. Actually, he doesn’t just dismiss it. He goes much further — to argue that undergraduates should actively avoid studying philosophy at all. Because, apparently, asking too many questions “can really mess you up.”

Yes, he really did say that. Go ahead, listen for yourself, beginning at 20:19 — and behold the spectacle of an otherwise intelligent man and gifted teacher sounding every bit as anti-intellectual as a corporate middle manager or used-car salesman. He proudly proclaims his irritation with “asking deep questions” that lead to a “pointless delay in your progress” in tackling “this whole big world of unknowns out there.” When a scientist encounters someone inclined to think philosophically, his response should be to say, “I’m moving on, 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.”

Read the whole thing. Ignorance and anti-intellectualism when it comes out of the mouth of a popular scientist is still ignorance and anti-intellectualism. If Sarah Palin had advised young people to ignore the humanities because they’re a waste of time, she would have been pilloried, and rightly so.

Tyson epitomizes the glib, and dangerous, arrogance of scientism: science as an ideology, science as a privileged and only valid way of knowing. Tyson, like Stephen Hawking, doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know — and doesn’t care. Because, you know, scientists are the high priests of our age, and Neil deGrasse Tyson is the most successful televangelist of our time.

UPDATE: Jim Manzi writes:

I’m no fan of Tyson, and am not going to defend what he has to say in that (admittedly pretty jocular and casual) podcast. But what’s so interesting is that exactly the attitude he describes was the philosophical foundation of modern science. It is precisely what Francis Bacon argued in Novum Organum when he defined the modern enterprise: That debates about things like final cause, essences and so on weren’t so much wrong as they were (in Tyson words) “distracting.” They had to be abandoned to make practical progress.

What Tyson doesn’t seem to grasp is that the implication of this is that the science does not pursue truth (at least in the classical sense of correspondence between statement and reality). It doesn’t even seek to understand nature, but rather to manipulate it. The real goal of science is not truth; it is improved engineering.

Bacon (already, at the beginning) understood that if scientists saw themselves this way, they would lack the psychological drive to push forward fast enough. Literally zero scientists of my acquaintance think they are not discovering truth; but this is the noble lie they tell themselves. (Bacon calls them the “Sons of Knowledge”).

Damon Linker responds to his critics:

I just re-listened to the interview, and Tyson says and implies precisely what I say he says and implies. His attack on philosophy is far broader than some people here seem to realize. His criticism of raising questions about the “meaning of meaning,” about tables, about nature, about the “sound of one hand clapping” (a variation on “if a tree falls in a forest”) doesn’t just apply to postmodernism or philosophy of science or logic games. It applies, in spades, to Plato. And everyone who comes after him. It’s what philosophy is.

It’s also revealing that the guy interviewing Tyson states at one point that he’s in favor of both science and philosophical questioning, and Tyson responds that he’s not content with this both/and. Just wants science.

If Tyson wants to clarify what he meant, he should go ahead. But what he said was clear enough.

Neil deGrasse Tyson jumps in (note that he posted his comment before seeing Linker’s):

Wow. So this is a blog, based on a blog, based on a few sentences I uttered in a comedic podcast. Yet few people other than, I suppose, the 730,000 viewers of this video: https://bit.ly/Rvon8E have explored further my fully fleshed views on Philosophy. I offer it here for those interested in shaping a more informed opinion.
-Neil deGrasse Tyson, New York City

Damon Linker responds to that Tyson remark:

I’m happy to see Neil DeGrasse Tyson engaging here. I also like his statement in the video to which he links. But it only partly clarifies matters. On the one hand, he says ethical, religious, and political philosophies are still valid, but philosophy that tries to engage in any way with the natural world has been rendered “essentially obsolete” by natural science — because philosophers are basically scientists “without a laboratory.” That’s a pretty nice statement of what Rod dubs “scientism.”

Religious, ethical, and political philosophy can’t be disconnected entirely from reflection on nature, and philosophical reflection on nature can’t be wholly replaced by the scientific study of nature. Philosophy in the older sense I discussed in my column — the sense developed by Socrates after his turn toward reflection on human beings — is still valid after all these centuries. Unless, of course, like Tyson, you dismiss it out of hand as a waste of time.

Science explores how the material world works. Scientism — as distinct from science — believes that the only truths worth knowing, the only truths that can be known, are instrumental truths, that is, truths that teach us how the world works so that we may manipulate it. You see this attitude in a number of the reader comments in this thread, e.g., “What good did the humanities ever do for anybody? How many diseases have they cured?” The anti-science version of this kind of thing is making fun of scientists for studying things that don’t seem to have any plain practical value.

The A.E. Housman poem “Terence, this is stupid stuff” is about the value of dark poetry, in teaching us wisdom — that is, how to live. In a broad sense, this is what art and the humanities do. They address questions that science cannot answer, because that’s not what science does. They cannot give answers that are verifiable in the same way scientific claims are verifiable, because they have to do with things that cannot be measured. The positivist who makes claims for science as a way of knowing that are beyond the scope of science as a way of knowing is no better than the fundamentalist religious believer who insists that Scripture is a reliable guide to how the material world works.



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