If you know me at all, you know I have a bit of an iconoclastic streak going against the much beloved astro-physicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson. In a previous post, I used a tweet from Mr. Tyson to launch into an attack against his (and many other people’s) ideas about public funding of the arts. In that post, I argued that if you are truly in favor of the development and success of the arts, you should be against public funding for them. I am here today to make a similar case against Mr. Tyson’s ideas about science, as detailed in his recent video currently making the rounds all over social media.
Many people will likely feel free to disregard my opinion here, as I am not a scientist, let alone on the level of Mr. Tyson. However, if you are a person who is sympathetic to his ideas that normal people need to take action to lead to a better world, I think it would be hypocritical to be selective about who gets to have a meaningful opinion. If you are a true NDT devotee, you owe it to his own principle espoused in his most recent video, that we need to have “political discussions” about science. In this sense, I am not contradicting his ideas there at all, simply obliging by them. To start, let’s make one thing clear: the following statements and opinions in no way demonstrate my beliefs on the validity of vaccinations or climate change or any individual issue. In fact, let’s assume I agree 100% with the scientific community consensus on each of these issues.
After watching the video a couple times, let me summarize (in good will) what I believe to be his main point: America became great because we led the way into creating new industries and technologies, i.e. relying on the scientific method to guide us to new heights that the world had never even thought possible before. However, the modern age is different in that people now have a troubling tendency to deny scientific truths that can affect the wellbeing of others, even the entire world (vaccines, climate change, etc). Thus, we need to take it upon ourselves to become scientifically literate so we are able to make the political decisions as a country/democracy that will lead to the most harmonious and prosperous future possible.
It seems to me that his entire outlook is based on a few assumptions: 1) utilizing government power is the best way to solve large scale problems, produce a prosperous nation, and promote science; 2) there is something fundamentally different in the Zeitgeist regarding science today vs. in the past; and 3) we need to value what is true above all else, regardless of whether or not it makes you comfortable.
Let’s look at assumption #1 and see if it holds any water. Mr. Tyson sees a connection between government action and scientific progress. As a child of the 1960s and an astro-physicist, I am sure he is referring to the advances in space technology made during the Cold War. During his childhood, it all of a sudden became possible to send human beings not only into outer space, but to walk on the moon and build a space station. This indeed is a near miraculous achievement that our grandparents likely never thought about until one day, it actually happened. However, I posit that these advancements were not merely the benevolent activities of a scientific and scholarly state, but rather the cutthroat competitiveness and win-at-all-costs attitude of a power hungry government willing to do anything to score points against its rival, the Soviet Union (which confiscated vast amounts of wealth from its own people in order to prove itself against the USA). Leaving that aside for the moment though, how does Mr Tyson account for the scientific progress of railroads, steel production, and automobiles? Was this the result of a massive government program, or was it more the efforts of people like the Fords and Vanderbilts? Did Carnegie and Rockefeller play second fiddle to the US government’s central plans at that time?
The Apollo program alone cost over $100 billion (in today’s money). Even this decade, we are still spending around $20 billion per year on NASA. This seems like a lot for a country that apparently is so ardently against all public spending, especially science spending, as Mr. Tyson and others would like to have us believe. Public spending on this type of grandiose activity didn’t even exist during the height of development in the United States. How can the Tysons of the world explain this? What is the justification for this level of spending? Why is it not enough to rely on further private research and development? The government did not invent the iPhone, or the automobile, or the airplane, or the personal computer, or the air conditioner, or indoor plumbing, or Instagram, or motorcycles, or basically anything cool and useful that you use every day. I don’t see a failure of private industry, which, by the way, “we” did not “pioneer”; rather it was the result of the coordination of millions of individuals (entrepreneurs, laborers, etc) each seeking their own most favorable results, i.e. profit.
In addition to state control over scientific funding simply not being the best way to go about things, it can also lead to downright evil results. I am not suggesting that Neil deGrasse Tyson or anyone who supports his ideas want to fund programs like producing Agent Orange, or writing eugenics into law, or using human subjects for questionable experimentations. I am simply saying that I am unsure what principle is being acted upon. Do we give the state authority over science or not? Some science has undoubtedly been used by the state for nefarious and destructive purposes. How can we actually avoid that again? If the scientist’s default position is that we have to know with evidence that something is true before accepting it, then I am confused how people can then go and look at our own past scientific tragedies and write them off as nothing? I want to know for sure how people plan on using government power to lead us to scientific glory and at the same time prevent the state (and its multitude of clandestine operations) from carrying out destructive campaigns with this power, which it has done so frequently in the past.
In response to Mr. Tyson’s point that people didn’t use to deny science (assumption #2), let’s say I give him that one for free, since I wasn’t alive at the time. But people in the past also didn’t go running to the government to have their scientific ideas enacted using taxpayer money. As he admits in the first 30 seconds of his video, during this time, we became the greatest nation ever. Though I must admit, I am skeptical of his claim that people today are unscientific. If you believe the, ya know, “empirical data”, it seems that the USA is tops in science PhD’s and patents granted. Science today is more accessible and studied than at any point in human history. Thus, I think that if there truly are issues with how science is approached, it probably isn’t because we don’t know enough about it. Maybe it’s time to start questioning the utility of the politics that Mr. Tyson thinks is the solution.
The third thing that Mr. Tyson assumes is that we need to care about what is true above all else. I agree that water boils at 100 degrees celsius whether you believe it or not. Certainly, gravity exists regardless of you approving of it. One could also say that God exists independent of your belief to the contrary. This however, is not really what many people would accept as a full definition of “truth.” I would call this a “fact” personally, but without getting unnecessarily philosophical or semantic, let’s carry on. This type of scientific fact/truth doesn’t necessarily determine an action. Let’s say sure, climate change is man-made, very real and incredibly dangerous. This is true. But how does one determine what to do with this? This in my opinion is the greater truth: what ought to be done vs what is. There is nothing about a given statement of scientific fact that implies morality, for example. When talking about government policies, something might sound good, moral, and true, but there are a multitude of harmful possible outcomes behind any given law or regulation. I have yet to see a coherent justification for why the state is the proper vehicle to use in regards to “truth.”
In many ways, I don’t disagree much (if at all) with the Tysonites about the merits of the scientific method and how the world is better off with technological development. Yet I strongly believe that if you are really being rational and honest, you would have to seriously question some of the foregone conclusions that are presented by Mr. Tyson and others. This in no way is being close-minded or anti-science, rather it is to ensure that we don’t make disastrous and permanent mistakes. Everyone should be able to get behind that.