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.

Case Study: Cleveland #1 – Hough

This series will detail particular aspects of life and development, both politically and culturally, of my hometown of Cleveland. My hope is that these tangible examples and points made can be recognized by the reader and applied to life anywhere else. 

Welcome to Hough, Cleveland.

This east side Cleveland neighborhood welcomed thousands of visitors every summer for over 4 decades as the home of the Indians from 1901-1946, as well as a variety of other baseball and football teams dating back to 1891 when League Park was first constructed at the corner of Lexington and East 66th Street.

This neighborhood was a place where magic happened for all those fans back then. Walking around the block of the old ballpark, you can look around and try to envision what it must have been like on a game day: kids running down from the front porches across the street, racing their brothers to the gate (maybe a few of them trying to slip in undetected via a slight opening in a fence), Bob Feller throwing warm-up pitches from the mound,  people in local taverns buzzing about how badly they hope the Indians will stick it to Joe DiMaggio or Babe Ruth. True Americana. Hough in the early- to mid-20th century was a Cleveland equivalent to Brooklyn, NY: middle class, ethnic, blue-collar, family oriented, very densely populated, and obsessed with baseball. Streetcar lines criss-crossed the lively neighborhood as a true focal point of Cleveland life.

Then the 1960s happened. Race riots featuring the National Guard. The 1970s didn’t help either. Deindustrialization and decline. The 1980s and 1990s brought more of the same. The housing crisis in 2008 really finished off the little of what was left of Hough. League Park saw it all happen as it sat vacant (though mostly demolished) for over 50 years.

Until recently, that is, when in 2014 the park was completely refurbished and the Baseball Heritage Museum opened up, a rare positive for the beleaguered community. When League Park reopened, the neighborhood had already lost 30% of its total population in the last decade, but reclaiming a part of its history seemed to produce a new pride on the streets. Hough was, at least for some, a destination again. Along with other positive developments like the opening of Chateau Hough Vineyards, it seemed like the true nature of these Clevelanders was coming back: hard work, creativity, grit, optimism in the face of adversity, and sacrifice for the betterment of the local community.

Enter councilman TJ Dow to do his best to stunt growth. Though he represents one of the poorest neighborhoods in one of the poorest major cities in America, Mr. Dow seems more interested in making sure his friends have access to resources than his constituents have access to jobs, entertainment, and a higher quality of living. In addition to his many past failures to let individuals capitalize on the neighborhood’s prime location near Cleveland’s “second downtown” of University Circle (home of Case Western Reserve University, the Cleveland Clinic, the Cleveland Orchestra, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cultural Gardens, Western Reserve Historical Society, among many more institutions), he is back at it again to try to prevent League Park from reclaiming another portion of its venerable legacy.

The latest proposal in Hough is for a building right across the street from the old ticket office, right at Lexington and E. 66. A former church called “Straight Up Missionary Baptist Church,” it has been vacant for more than a few years now. Bob Zimmer has a great idea for the now useless building: an ice cream parlor/cafe, baseball memorabilia store, and broadcast studio that could be staffed by neighborhood kids. Capitalism at its finest. Who doesn’t like ice cream and baseball? Who could be against employing underprivileged teenagers?

Well, Mr. Dow for one. Though not to be too critical only of him, it seems that the entire city council prefers government-funded “jobs” for these teens as the answer to what they admit is a huge problem, namely youth unemployment. Quite a bit of time and energy is put into funding dubious “jobs programs” with taxpayer money and navigating bureaucracy and complaining about how if we don’t just force tax dollars to the poor we are anti-progress or insensitive, etc. Meanwhile, guys like Bob Zimmer (who runs the Baseball Heritage Museum, teaches local kids baseball, among other such noble activities) have actually done all the thinking already, have their own money already, and want to give their idea a shot. Why not let him try it out? What does Hough really have to lose?

For some inexplicable reason, it matters quite a bit what Mr. Dow and his councilmen cronies think of what other people want to do with their money and talents. In the past, Mr. Dow has wanted private development to be accompanied by additional funds directed towards his “community development” program in the neighborhood. In his strange world, that money will lead to more jobs and wealth for the community. But why? What is the basis for this concept? How does the private development, employment, and the general building up of this area as a potential tourist destination NOT help the community in exactly those ways?

Keep in mind, this is the building we are talking about. And this.

Mr. Dow, who is black, says he thinks this kind of establishment will attract unruly teens from the (96% black) neighborhood, which could lead to fights or even gunfire. This is nonsense. So what does Dow think is better? Couldn’t anything open to the public in theory attract bad people? Do we just have to bulldoze Hough?

It must be easy for people like Mr. Dow, who have never spent a day in the private sector (assistant county prosecutor and now councilman, after about a decade at university) to have a vast overestimation of one’s own knowledge, as such people have never once been objectively tested (via market forces) to determine if they are actually good at anything at all. All people like this are capable of doing is winning popularity contests (elections). They have no fundamental understanding of what a job actually is, what wealth actually is, or even of what responsibility actually is. Thus they are quite content to sit back in their comfy government funded chairs and tell everyone with skills, ideas, and passion what they cannot do and what residents should and shouldn’t want.

Moving from Mr. Dow’s view of what’s best, let’s look at  someone who lives in Hough, under the reign of King Dow, one John W. Mann. I found an open letter from Mr. Mann after googling a bit to try to find out what happened to the Straight Up Missionary Baptist Church. Here is what he had to say:

My name is John Mann, and I’m a new member of a very nice (but very poor) church called The Straight-Up Missionary Baptist Church. We’re located in a poor Inner-City neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio at 1572 East 66th St. near E 66th and Superior.

As a new member to this church I was surprised (and saddened) to find I’m one of only a few members of the church to have a job.

These are some very nice but very poor folks.

Anyway, the gas in the church is turned off so I am working to help them raise the money to get it turned back on before winter sets in (and winters are COLD in Cleveland!)

Anyone wishing to make a donation to the church directly, please contact me at john@johnwmann.com

You’ll get a tax write-off to boot because the church is a non-profit organization here in the US.

So Thank you and God Bless,

John W. Mann

Just from this simple letter, you can feel the modesty and authenticity of Mr. Mann and his church. No suggestions to write to the councilman, or the congressman, or the senator. No demands for more “community development” funding. No plea for more Section 8 housing or higher welfare payments. No, rather Mr. Mann embodies the Cleveland attitude: we have a problem and I want to do something to fix it myself. This is what it means to be a community, even if it is struggling as much as Hough is. These people don’t need a wise man to tell them what they can or can’t do. They need the space to thrive.

Hough, and the world in general, could use a few more Bob Zimmers and John Manns than TJ Dows.