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September 16, 2014

What Exactly Are We Going to Do With Neil DeGrasse Tyson?


More Tyson "quotes" that serve no purpose except to stroke his own ego while he simultaneously strokes the egos of his fanbois and fangurlz.

I was taken aback by the first episode of the Cosmos reboot. That episode also contained, get this, a generally dishonest accounting of a mad monk named Giordani Bruno who challenged the prevailing theory that the sun was singular in the heavens in its possession of a planetary system.

That story was fable-ized -- stripped of the complicated reality of truth, turned into a simplistic Aesop Fable for children* -- in order to flatter the sensibilities of the I Love Science Sexually camp while insulting anyone of even a mild religious disposition.

This is quite jackass, if you assume that the show's creators actually wanted to evangelize for science among those who had come to distrust science. The show began by making things up in order to denigrate those who distrust science -- certainly not evangelizing them to join Team Science at all.

I watched the first episode of the original Cosmos. Sagan avoided any touchy material in that first episode. He did begin to get into it in the second episode, but the first episode served as a good hook for interesting people before making the various socio-culturo-politcal points he wanted to make.

The new Cosmos, on the other hand, immediately went stampeding for the clitoris.

But this approach does make sense if one assumes their stated motivations for the show (evangelize for science among the "science pagans," if you will) were not their real motivations.

It makes sense if you assume their actual motivation was to tell the Science Flock that They're Awesome and that the people who do not believe in The God Science are apes and monkeys.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson's position grants him power; it also imposes on him responsibility. I would never myself have nominated what is essentially a planetarium manager as Head of Science of the Western World; but the I Love Science Sexually brigade, the fanbois and fangurlz, did, so this is what we have.

By Tyson's own lights, is he actually popularizing science, or is making science look rather shabby and stupid by confusing actual science with its sorta-lookalike, "Science"? **

I think the latter. He doesn't seem to be talking about science; he's talking about "Science," which is not an intellectual discipline, but a tribal signifier and I Win Button for stupid internet political arguments.

He's becoming a buffoon, if he's not become one already, and a buffoon can't popularize anything.***

* The accounting of Bruno omitted the part, in narration, that Bruno's heresy charges were almost all about denying the divinity of Christ, believing in magic and sorcery, and the sort of things that routinely got people in Dutch with the Inquisition.

By the way, I certainly think it's horrible that the Inquisition burned him at the stake. I'm not engaging in apologism for the excesses of a church I don't believe in.

But the truth is that the bit about denying the uniqueness of the solar system was but one count in a long list of heresies. To claim he was burned for that is, at the very least, highly misleading.

At the very least, it's highly misleading to suggest that as a fact, because the facts suggest otherwise. Tyson & Co. may say "Well it is our interpretation that the solar speculations were the real reason for the burning;" but this is a speculation, and not a fact, and the show sure didn't signal it was now turning towards historical speculation.

The show gets cute when it tries to cover its bases on this score. It does have the cartoon of the Inquisition (yes, this cartoony deformation of history is actually presented as a literal cartoon) mention "denying the divinity of Christ" in the list of charges.

But Tyson's narration had never mentioned that. When I heard the Cartoon Inquisitor say that, I assumed, wrongly, that that was a bogus charge they were making up in order to support their charges on the thing that he was really being tried for, which was suggesting that many stars had planetary systems.

And I thought this because the Inquisitors were presented as shifty characters who just made crap up. Which might not be an inaccurate description -- but the show including a mention of denying Christ's divinity does not really "cover" the show for honestly noting that, as the people claiming this -- out of the blue -- were presented as, quite literally, scary monsters whose shadows fall long and menacing before them.

In fact Bruno was a sorcerer -- or a wannabe at least -- and did deny the divinity of Christ. The Inquisitors weren't making that up.

I didn't learn that from Cosmos, a show supposedly about The Truth. I learned it from Wikipedia, after I looked Bruno up, and also learned that his status as a Martyr for Science had long been controversial -- disputed -- within the scientific community, precisely because it's not clear he was burned at the stake for his scientific heresies.

Indeed, it seems he was burned for his religious and magical heresies, like so many other victims of the Inquisition.

But Neil DeGrase Tyson, Ann Durand, Seth MacFarlane, all involved, really, decided not to treat the audience as informed adults capable of handling complicated reality, but as little children in need of Fables so that they could know the Good things to do and the Bad things to do.

The show needed a Cartoon Hero for its big start, and so they made Bruno into one.

And this in the first episode. Right out of the gate, Cosmos took off its mask and revealed itself not as primarily about science, but about how science (and history, actually) can be distorted, deformed, and fable-ized to promote a particular religious cult, and to denigrate other competing religious cults.****

** I have a theory. Call it the HuffPo Rule. If your "Science" gets linked by HuffPo, then it's not science, because HuffPo readers are not scientists and are not interested in science. If they take self-congratulatory delight in it, it can't be science.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson's work as a public "scientist" -- his public work, his popularization -- all seems like the kind of shit that goes viral on Buzzfeed and HuffPo because most people don't know any better, and just want to hear that They're Awesome.

** I'm also struck by Tyson's apparent eagerness to engage in just the sort of lazy, self-aggrandizing faith-based thinking he presumably disdains in others.

Tyson would say of those Not of His Tribe that they work backwards from Received Wisdom, and they find, choose, and even invent evidence to support those already-believed dogmas and bigotries. Motivated reasoning, they call it -- "reasoning" which is actually engaged in only to "discover" a truth which is already known.

And yet -- especially with the Mad Monk story, and now this apparently bogus story about George W. Bush -- we find Tyson eagerly inventing Parables and Fables which support his already-determined Religious Writs.

Sometimes when I argue with commenters about the intersection of Faith and Science, it will be offered to me that Science is merely just another Faith, just another religion, every bit as predicated upon unprovable metaphysical assumptions as Faith. (But, of course, it is further urged that the metaphysical assumptions of Science are derived from the shabby source of mankind's ego rather than received from the divine mind.)

I disagree with this premise. I do not believe that Reason is "just like" Faith. Or, I should say, I do not believe Reason or Science are "just like" Faith in requiring a metaphysical belief in something when Reason or Science are actually being utilized properly.

Now, humankind being humankind, what is called "Reason" or "Science" frequently is turned into a silly little game of Magical Thinking that may occasionally involve putting up .gifs of the Milky Way.

But that's not a knock on reason or science; that's just what humans do. Most humans are kind of lazy in their thinking and engage in motivated thinking all the time.

But here we have Neil DeGrasse Tyson, offered to us as the Avatar of All Which Is Science (a bit like Obama was offered as the Avatar of All Which Is Elevated Political Reasoning), engaging, it sure looks like, in embarrassing fabulism for rather crude political purposes.

That's a quote from a newspaper headline, by the way. Here's the citation: "Newspaper Headline."

He is basically proving the more aggressive critics of Science (or "Science") right -- that whether you call it "Faith" or "Science," man is just going to take a few unprovable metaphysical precepts as being unquestionably true and then batter and deform all "Evidence" to conform with those Cosmic Revelations, so what is the difference, apart from whether the Fish on your bumper is the Christian one or the Darwin parody?

If you say you're dedicated to Truth, and to putting aside sloppy bigotries and Magical Thinking to observe the Universe as it really is and not how it may please you, on the level of ego, to be -- if you're committed to the proposition that neither the Earth nor Neil DeGrasse Tyson and his Teenage Fanclub lie at the center of the Universe -- then you really ought to act that way.

Or does that ask too much of Tyson?

**** Incidentally, the story could have been told accurately and still conveyed this message. It just would have been slightly more complicated and taken a little more time.

Bruno was definitely a Martyr for Free-Thinking. Whether or not he was a Martyr for Science is highly disputable; but there can't be much dispute that he was burned at the stake for thinking, believing, and speculating about Forbidden Things.

It is critical to science that people be allowed to speculate about Forbidden Things. Ideas are tested in a lab, or compared against physical measurements, but those ideas are first born in the mind, out of speculation, skepticism, or simple contrarianism.

If people cannot speculate and guess about the nature of the universe, there are huge areas into which science is forbidden -- upon threat of violence and execution -- to inquire into.

Framed like that, the Bruno story would have served its purpose. Tyson could have freely mentioned Bruno's denial of Christ and belief in sorcery not as science in and of themselves but as the sorts of wondering about questions that science absolutely relies upon to discover the truth of things.

But instead, the show was made into a Cartoon -- literally and figuratively -- and Bruno's complicated backstory was simplified into "He was burned at the stake for guessing, correctly, that many (or all) stars had planets."

This is a Fable. This is the sort of thing we tell to children because children's minds are too simple to grapple with complicated and sometimes contradictory reality.

And this was Episode One.

They didn't have to do this.

It was just Easier.

And of course: Dumber.

And so Cosmos, the Show For Smart People, just followed the Golden Rule of our Stupid Age:

Dumb is Easy, and Easy is Holy.

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posted by Ace at 01:01 PM

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