Thursday, May 15, 2014

Why Neil deGrasse Tyson is a philistine

"The popular television host says he has no time for deep, philosophical questions. That's a horrible message to send to young scientists."


  1. I found this attitude/opinion, to varying degrees, among my peers and degreed colleagues during my graduate studies. It wasn't just about "philosophy" either, it was about any questions larger than the ones that can fit into a scientific manuscript. Any mention of examining the premises underlying the evolutionary dogma was a conversation-stopper. Any mention of the implications and inevitable trajectory of evolutionary psychology was a great way to get people to clam up. I don't find this to be true so much now that I have the PhD and am working outside of academia.

    The attitude in my school was usually manifested in discomfort; a person becoming silent and looking embarrassed if I asked questions or posed topics that were larger and more transcendent than the typical materio-naturalistic presumptions allowed.

    Here's a fun example:

    (Continued in next comment)

    1. Some years ago, my school invited Frans de Waal to speak as part of an ongoing "impact of evolutionary biology on society" speaking series. The title of his talk was "Morality Before Religion: Empathy, Fairness and Prosocial Primates".

      The graduate students got first crack at his schedule, which included a lunch, which I attended. What surprised me was the shallow thinking displayed by the questions and conversation topics. Many of my fellow students were clearly impressed by his resume and his position as an established and popular scientist. But in a room full of aspiring biological scientists, not one person showed any evidence of being engaged in the examination the premises, conclusions, or implications of de Waal's research.

      One of his major premises is common decent, which is no surprise, but I was curious about whether he had thought about how important it is to his entire framework. So, half to satiate my curiosity and half in hopes of distinguishing myself so as to improve my chances of being able to put a question to him after his public talk later in the evening, I followed him to the elevator with his grad student escorts.

      Once the doors shut, I turned to him and asked him what the significance of his research would be if common decent was shown to be false. The surprise that registered on his and the students' faces was significant. His initial response was to blurt out, How would you even test that?" Then he recovered a little and said something along the lines of, "We already know that common decent is true. It is settled science, so what is the use of such a question?" And a friend of mine chimed in with an inflection of mild horror, "You don't believe that, do you?!"

      I was hopped up on adrenaline, so I missed the concession of de Waal's initial answer in that moment and responded with something like, "Well, we are scientists, aren't we? Shouldn't we be concerned with the context in which our work is placed? After all, there have been many scientific theories about nature that enjoyed significant popularity and acceptance that have now been shown to be wrong by new experiments and new data. So, given that, what would the results of your experiments mean if common decent were shown to be false?"

      His answer? "I don't know." By that point, we had left the elevator and arrived at his next scheduled meeting so I couldn't pursue it further.

      After this interaction, the already sparse interest in these topics disappeared from any room in which I was present. The only person in the department that I could discuss these things with was a Roman Catholic friend.

      I still made it out with my degree, but I found it very difficult to socialize with many people in the department just because all they were every interested in thinking/talking about was the empirical stuff. No one was interested in discussing or considering the manifold presuppositions underlying all of their work.

      Maybe that shouldn't be a surprise, eh? At the risk of being ironicle, Upton Sinclair nailed it, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"

    2. Thanks for your comments, Mr. Fosi! Pretty interesting, if unfortunate. But I'm sure you'll be one the scientists who won't have this attitude in your academic or other career. Plus, since you're already conversant in both the empirical science as well its philosophical underpinnings, I think you'll be able to beneficially influence others here. :-)