(Trigger warning: Hyperbole was used in the making of this polemic, check references for the substance behind that hyperbole. Thank you.)
Around ten years ago, when Neil Degrasse Tyson was primarily writing on Pluto and people didn’t realize while he railed against God, Richard Dawkins was still more or less an middle class Anglican prig, my best friend got me a signed copy of Tyson’s book on Pluto. I still cherish that book, partly because she gave it to me and partly because I enjoyed the lucidity of Tyson’s writing on astrophysics and classification. However, over the past five years, Tyson’s attacks on philosophy, mistakes about history, and generally obscurantism in the some undefined ur-form of “reason”(TM) has increasingly led even a lot of the science promotion community to look at him with scant-eyed trepidation.
One of my favorite non-continental philosophy and psychology podcasts, Very Bad Wizards, finally took the piss out of Tyson’s Reflections on Rationalia. Taller Sommers and David Pizarro tear Tyson’s assertions apart. His chief sins being conflation of normative morality with descriptive anthropology, leaving the good undefined so one can skip the meta-ethics and other hard questions, some of the assertions about experimentation being both impossible and circular, and generally being wrong about the universality of morality as it actually exists.
Physicists often are like this in assertions about philosophy as both Steven Hawking and Laurence Krauss have also done, but then again engineers are the most likely to become religious extremists too, and belief in rational policy without defining the variables strongly enough has plagued radicals from Utopians like Technocracy, Inc to left Leninists, like one sees in some of the earlier optimistic writings of Amadeo Bordiga. Part of the problem, which Sommers and Pizarro hint at, is that notions of rationality around people like Michael Shermer, Sam Harris (whom Sommers and Pizarro have more patience for), Richard Dawkins, and Neil Degrasse Tyson are–perhaps deliberately–extremely thin. Is a reason: a justification or a piece of data? Tyson switches between both, which is fine in common speech, but could be deleterious in an ethical debate.
For one, the above apostles of ur-Reason conflate the scientific method–which itself is a simplification that does not exist in actual practice as one “method”–with reasoning. This conflates empirical thinking with a synthesis of empirical and logical formal thinking. I have said in the past that the scientific methods (note the plural) work because they pit formalization from the pre-modern idealist philosophers (including some of precursors to modern science like Descartes) with empirical modes of observation in an almost dialectical fashion. However, we know how Tyson feels about the philosophy and sociology of science, so, of course, this ignores that. (Although the fact even someone like Alan Sokal readily admits that the experimental methods and even falsification don’t work to describe all of science because both historical sciences like evolutionary biology and statistical inferences are key to scientific thinking, which are necessarily un-falsifiable without nearly infinite replication, should clue those above cheerleaders for Ur-Science in). Often, like Sam Harris, there is a pragmatism that refuses to define the “good” it is seeking: Harris tries harder than Tyson, but even Harris just assumes that flourishing is the answer and presumes to operate on the loosest of an anthology to medicine, whose applied “evidence-based” paradigm is often largely based on confusing causation with correlation because at least then one can try an intervention. Then one brings in Max Weber: instrumental reason, value-based/belief-based reason, affective reason, and ingrained habituation. Tyson switches often between instrumental and affective reason as if they are the same thing. Psychologically, Weber’s distinction may not hold, but again, one needs more clarity when justifying the epistemology around policy. While these modes of “reason” all work on a variety of logics and are mixed in most actual use, their goals are different and so, then, must their variables and kinds of “experimentation.”
Most pragmatism, like what Tyson is describing, then is basically begging the question and conflating different types of reason. To make it worse, there isn’t even one clear unified system of logical formalization to base all this one (syllogistic, prepositional, first and second order, modal, predicate logic, set theory, dialectical reasoning). If Tyson would quit posturing to be above the humanities, he would know that. Ultimately, this refusal to deal with the fact all these ideational complications are unsexy, Tyson becomes an example of thing he hates, dogmatic slumber.
Thus the decline in his writing and public thinking in the past decade as he moves furtherer and furtherer away from limiting himself to topics of physics and astrophysics.