My Most Important Blog Post Yet – Answering Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Science in America”

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.

The Arts & Funding

Revered Director of the Hayden Planetarium, Neil deGrasse Tyson, recently articu-tweeted his view on funding of the arts in America, in light of discussions about cutting various governmental sources: “We can all imagine a land that provides no support for Art [sic]. But is that a place you’d want to Live [sic]? To Visit [sic]? To Play [sic]?”

Certainly this land without any support of arts whatsoever would be miserable. Thinking about my own consumption of the arts, I realize just how much I’ve relied on them for entertainment and enrichment, just in the last year. In that time, I’ve attended one ballet, three operas, two orchestra performances, a few local indie shows, a couple recitals, visited three art museums, and every weekend at my parish I’m treated to top quality Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony, and classical masses (not to mention the beautiful stained glass windows, statues, marble altars, and exquisite design elements of the building itself). I also quite enjoy playing guitar, singing, and I’ve dabbled in banjo in the past. There is absolutely zero doubt that I have personally benefitted tremendously by the artistic talents of people around me, even just in this last year, exponentially more if you consider my whole life!

I firmly believe that the arts play a role in making people’s lives not just better in a superficial way, but actually improving individuals as people. It is for this reason that I am against state funding of the arts in any way.

Show me the money!

If this seems like an absurd notion, as it surely does to Neil deGrasse Tyson, then we might have to talk about the word “support.” According to Giving USA, charitable giving reached $373.25 BILLION in the United States in 2015. Of that, $17.07 billion went to Arts/Culture/Humanities (not to mention the billions more that went to “Education”, “Public Society Benefit”, “Religion” or “Foundations”, all of which could share considerable overlap with the arts). These numbers represent a 4% increase in overall charitable donations from 2014, as well as a 6.8% increase for the arts. Of the nine categories used by Giving USA, the arts increase in overall donation amount eclipsed all but “Education” and “International Affairs.” As I said though, consider how much those categories, especially “Education” might share with “Arts/Culture/Humanities.” Does this not qualify as sufficient “support?” Put it in perspective: that $17 billion that went to the arts charitably and voluntarily in 2015 alone, is 30% more than the total capital raised by Goldman Sachs over the five years between 2008 and 2013. Keep in mind, that this money is all in essence “extra” money being given away. It does not take ticket sales for exhibits or concerts, etc into account at all.

I am not quite positive about where this idea comes from that if we don’t use tax dollars to transfer money to orchestras or museums or local arts programs, then nobody would take it upon themselves to develop artistic talents. Is there a basis for this? And if it is the case that truly nobody (or at least not nearly enough) would pay their own money to support the kind of art currently being presented in a given community, then how can we really say that it is actually making anyone’s lives better? From my perspective, if people aren’t willing to spend their money on something, then it just isn’t ultimately living up to the standards. As demonstrated in the previous paragraph, there is no real shortage of money in the arts. This leads me to think that if your particular program isn’t being well supported, instead of blaming the government for not subsidizing it, perhaps you should re-evaluate the function that your favored institution is actually serving.

One possible objection to this position is that people who are not well-off still don’t have access to arts. Although I believe that given the vast dollar amount contributed, this problem is largely exaggerated, I concede that there are undoubtedly areas of our country that don’t have a level of access that would lead to true knowledge or appreciation of a given art form. I would answer by saying that this is where the people who see this problem (they are the ones bringing it up after all) are in infinitely better a position to address it locally and immediately than a bureaucracy that can’t act independently. It might take some serious elbow grease and some marketing savvy, you might also have to solicit donations yourself, but if you truly do care about the arts in poor areas, I don’t see why you wouldn’t make the necessary sacrifices.

What about the poor?

Now, some might even say that sure, there is enough money out there and sure, it’s all well and good to tell people to solve their own problems, but at the end of the day the poor are often ignored by society at large and simply lack the resources to create art education programs or buy ballet tickets. Because of this, it’s very unrealistic and insensitive to suggest that they can afford to take the incredibly necessary and precious time away from work and family to focus on other things. This is why we need state intervention here.

Again, I am willing to concede this to a degree too, but still disagree with the conclusion. I think that with any state-imposed arts program, by nature of it not responding directly to particular needs, wants and tastes (i.e. market forces), you can never know if it is actually effective. In worst case scenarios, the art supported by this type of blind, unresponsive system might actually turn people off completely to the artistic world. Think about all the other public services in poverty-stricken areas: do they produce the results promised? I know this is venturing into another debate to a degree, but I simply want to point out that good intentions do not equal good results and frequently produce the opposite when government promises are in the mix.

A just wage for artists

This deviates slightly from the topic of government funding, but one somewhat related final point I want to make stems from an idea presented in Brian Lauritzen’s blogpost. I specifically want to address the following:

Part of the problem facing musicians is their skill set is so highly specialized  From a management perspective, then, why not just cut pay? It’s not like there are that many principal bassoon jobs out there. Where are they going to go?

But that’s precisely why these musicians deserve a fair wage. Out of 313 million people in this country, they are literally one of probably 100 people who can do this job. They’ve been training their entire lives to do it. These musicians uniquely possess the talent, the artistry, and the dedication to skillfully and movingly execute the intricacies of the music of Mozart, Stravinsky, and John Adams. They deserve to be paid like the superstars they are.

The age old question of the “just wage.” Lauritzen suggests that being exceptionally good at something, regardless of whether or not enough other people value it, should determine compensation. Some of you might recognize this sentiment as a derivative of the “labor theory of value.”  I do not intend to go into detail about the economic philosophies for and against this idea (you could spend the rest of your life doing that), but rather let’s look at this kind of situation in practical terms.

In his post he was talking about a strike by the San Francisco Symphony musicians. He suggests that the Symphony should pay them more because of how elite they are at their craft. This sounds reasonable enough. However, given that people like Lauritzen also nearly universally subscribe to the idea that we need to make art more accessible across socio-economic classes, I question how he thinks a pay increase without a corresponding revenue increase will benefit those in society that are commonly thought to not have enough access to these kinds of performances. Wouldn’t this raise have to be accompanied by higher ticket prices to make up for it? The money would have to be transferred from somewhere else; symphonies don’t have an infinite source of funds, especially the San Francisco Symphony, which has run at an operating deficit every year since 2008.

So who makes up that cost? It seems that Lauritzen would prefer to shift the burden either to the government/taxpayers (the issues with which I have already dealt with) or raise prices for their fans, in the process also making it even more unlikely than before for those of modest means to ever be exposed to Mozart, Stravinsky, or Adams. Is it more important to pay elite performers more, or to further make things harder on the poor who show interest in music?

Be the funding you want to see in the world

Honestly, one of the highlights of my week every single week is listening to the choir at my parish on Sundays. It would be a tragedy if we lost them. To try to keep them around, I think putting an hour’s wage of pay into the collection basket is well worth it. If everyone who loves art intensely and passionately translated those feelings into spending their own time, energy, and money for the greater artistic good, I think we’d see a flourishing in theater, music, painting, etc; one that would be personal, tenacious, engrained in our communities, and indestructible. We only get this by voluntary sacrifice and careful attention to detail, not by passing bills off to others who do not share our convictions.

The Bible, the IRS, and You.

One of my favorite passages from the Bible comes from 1 Samuel Chapter 8 verses 1-22:

When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beer-sheba. Yet his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me,[a] from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

10 So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12 and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16 He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle[b] and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

Israel’s Request for a King Granted

19 But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20 so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” 21 When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. 22 The Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to their voice and set a king over them.” Samuel then said to the people of Israel, “Each of you return home.”

TL;DR: Samuel, an ancient Hebrew prophet and judge, is approached by the Israelites who demand to have a king appointed, in order to be like other nations. Samuel talks to God about this. God seems somewhat unimpressed with this request and instructs Samuel to simply warn them of all the awful things that kings do: conscript their sons, confiscate the fruits of your labor, force your daughters to work, etc. My favorite line comes when Samuel, relaying the message from God, says “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

Unpersuaded by all this, the Israelites persist in their desire to be ruled, and thus their wish is granted with the anointing of Saul. You’ll need to read the rest of the Old Testament for yourselves, but trust me, the kings certainly end up having their share of terrible qualities.

Now, I am no seminary professor, but it does seem like God is not a fan of formal government, especially the idea of taxation. This is confirmed in the book of Matthew (17:24-27) with Jesus referencing the temple tax:

24 When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax[a] came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?”[b] 25 He said, “Yes, he does.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” 26 When Peter[c] said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free. 27 However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin;[d] take that and give it to them for you and me.”

So according to Jesus (AKA “Son of God”, “Word become flesh”, second person of the divine Trinity, fully God and fully man), it is those who are exempt from this taxation that are actually free. Everyone else (the taxpayers), I think we can safely infer, do indeed have at least some level of freedom stripped away.

I find Jesus’s reaction somewhat humorous. He makes it a point to first show how unjust the tax is before relenting and sending his friend (Peter) out on a somewhat comical mission in order to be able to pay the absurd fee. Jesus doesn’t seem to take his “civic duty” all that seriously.

Every year around this time when I receive my W-2 and start thinking about the coming April 15th, I must say, I feel very close to Christ. I, too, genuinely desire to tell my friendly neighborhood IRS agent to go jump in the Massachusetts Bay, swim around for a bit and open the mouth of the 13th mackerel s/he sees. Therein can be found 25% of my income. In coins.

If Jesus found these taxes in the early years AD to be so ridiculous, I wonder what he might think of modern America. Our obligations today are not “temple taxes”, but rather used for any number of nefarious purposes: nuclear bombs, massive domestic and international spying projects, torturing foreigners without probable cause, drones, a welfare state that traps the most vulnerable in poverty, public schools in state-ruined neighborhoods that seem just as likely to produce felons as graduates, etc.

However, it is also important to look at what Jesus and the early Christians did in these situations: paid their taxes. Perhaps they did so reluctantly, but they did pay. Do not give the civil authorities such an easy way to come after you and prevent you from finding your vocation, fulfilling your life’s goals, following God, starting a family, continuing your education, furthering a career, learning a second language, or any other kind of productive activity. This idea is reinforced by St. Paul’s letter to the Romans 13:1-7 (which many Christians use to argue precisely against my point here, but I think the context of trying to avoid persecution/oppression in an unfriendly time is quite relevant to this particular letter).

Now, this doesn’t mean we need to be happy about unjustifiable state compulsion, nor that we shouldn’t seek to better our own world in this regard, but it is a reminder to us that we shouldn’t be so focused on these things of the world so as to avoid pondering that which is beyond the material.

So sure, render unto Caesar (to borrow a phrase) if we must. Refusing to do so is ultimately futile. But above all, let’s be sure not to forget about the larger goals, aspirations, and just obligations that we have to ourselves and especially to others.