The Dogmatic Slumber of Neil Degrasse Tyson


(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.


Oh look, Tyson doing the meta-ethics he claims is unnecessary. Sure, it’s a simple version based on sentimental assertion and not pure reason, but don’t point that out.


The replication crisis, sociology, and liberal gender politics: Or the perils of psychologization and shallow materialism

In general, I am loathe to share hot-button takes from the NPR set as I tend to find the mixture of liberal self-congratulation, the TED talk simpleton’s vision of science, and fads in sociology and social psychology to be sickening.  However, the last episode of Invisiblia really hit on a problem of the way many institutional gauges for “female empowerment” work as well as the perils of the replication crisis, although it downplays the latter.

The case study is Rwanda, where after the genocide, female empowerment and representation in civic life was decreed by the President, but as the podcast showed, private life remained incredibly patriarchal in ways that few women in US or Europe would accept, despite their countries showing up much lower on those female empowerment indexes. Part of the irony of this episode is that the episode uses the case study about the female debaters and tries to expand  it to the entire country in a rah-rah liberal feminist sort of way.  Yet Gregory Warners own reporting actually indicates that this sort of self-actualization made progress in the home more precarious, and the distinct divide between public and private life more precarious as well. In short, Warner tries to use a case study as an answer to a social problem while admitting there is no evidence for the case study working on individuals and, in addition, his own reporting seems to indicate contra-evidence at a social level.

Ironically, I was listening to this the very day I saw a recent Slate article, another smug liberal outlet that I whose shallow contrarianism in service of the Democratic party establishment I sometimes advise avoiding,  had published on the Strack smile study which prompted Amy Cuddy’s work.  Slate has also published an interesting article on the failure of the republication of Amy Cuddy work too (here’s the TED talk referenced if you must),  but the entire foundation of the Cuddy was the “Smile study” in the first place. As  points out for Slate,

How bad is this latest replication failure? It depends on your demeanor. If you read the study in an optimistic mood—let’s say, with a highlighter in your teeth and your lips pulled back into a smile—then perhaps you’d be inclined to think it’s just a local problem. Maybe there was something off about The Far Side cartoons, or the presence of the cameras, or the subject pool. In any case, you’d think the replication failure tells us this and only this: For one reason or another, one particular re-creation of one particular experiment, designed on the way to Mardi Gras in 1985, simply didn’t work.


Or maybe you’re inclined to take a slightly darker view of the research: It could be there was something wrong with the original paper. Maybe the pen-in-mouth approach had a fatal flaw, even one that might come up in every other study where it’s used. Now your forehead starts to crease with worry: What if there’s a deeper problem, still? They only did an RRR for this one specific work, but it was chosen precisely on account of its fame and influence. If the classic facial-feedback paper doesn’t replicate, then who’s to say that any other, lesser facial-feedback research would? Maybe there’s a problem with the whole idea that expressions have a direct effect on our emotions.

Almost proving Thomas Kuhn’s point despite himself, Engber shows that Fritz Strack, had already started lambasting the replication crisis before his work was directly implicated. He doesn’t take the counter-findings seriously as even the republication shows some evidence, but 9 vs. 8 is bad odds for replication. Scientific paradigms, particularly in psychology, where the infinitudes of factors become infinite themselves, don’t tend to move fast or with clear and clean experimentation patterns.

This brings us back to Warner’s Rwanda debate challenge:  He seems to miss that he too encouraging girls to succeed in the perception of the public sphere, but not necessarily at the level of their social lives.  The debaters individual attitudes may or may not have changed–although as we see above there is plenty of reasons why we should be skeptical on the long-term effects even on an individual level–but we are still conflating public with private in the way done by the Rwandan government.

A shallow approach to social psychology indicates the dangerous–and frankly faddishness–of liberal approaches to science and social advanced.  First the focus on the formal and not the social trending along lines that were obvious even to Karl Marx almost 150 years ago; secondly, the psychologization of the social as if individual scales up to social matters while also acknowledging, contradictorily, the social constrains on individual attitudes is an untenable position. This is a shallow “materialism”–a faux of love of science and “data”–to justify easy answers to incredible hard problems.  After all, if this were all just a matter of self empowerment, wouldn’t the feminist movement that Warner says had not shown significant improvement in American also have figured this out?   Probably. So why the pollyanna attitudes here when we have already acknowledged replication crisis on the first place?

The NPR mid-cult junkies will have to answer about their conflations of science and what they think it achieves on their own, but it is transparently shallow.  It does not recognize the social as a intermixed and limiting agent in material constructions of the self clearly, or if it does do it, only does so negatively.  This leads to an utterly incoherent notion of the individual.