No, Neal DeGrasse Tyson is not a “Philistine”
I should probably start off by noting that I don’t read The Week. So it might well be that The Week regularly delivers the internet’s hardest hitting most cutting edge journalism and I just never hear about it. Beats me. Before this morning, I could have named just one Week article from memory: The one about Nate Silver that declared that non-punditry, non-partisan journalism was “dangerous” “hippie punching.” It’s hard, though, not to lump in that Week article with the one I read this morning that reported on what a Philistine Neal DeGrasse Tyson is.
The case against Tyson — penned by Damon Linker and declared a “must read” by no less than Andrew Sullivan — is laid out thus:
But now it’s been definitively demonstrated by a recent interview in which Tyson sweepingly dismisses the entire history of philosophy. Actually, he doesn’t just dismiss it. He goes much further — to argue that undergraduates should actively avoid studying philosophy at all. Because, apparently, asking too many questions “can really mess you up.”
Yes, he really did say that. Go ahead, listen for yourself, beginning at 20:19 — and behold the spectacle of an otherwise intelligent man and gifted teacher sounding every bit as anti-intellectual as a corporate middle manager or used-car salesman. He proudly proclaims his irritation with “asking deep questions” that lead to a “pointless delay in your progress” in tackling “this whole big world of unknowns out there.” When a scientist encounters someone inclined to think philosophically, his response should be to say, “I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind, and you can’t even cross the street because you’re distracted by deep questions you’ve asked of yourself. I don’t have time for that.”
“I don’t have time for that.”
With these words, Tyson shows he’s very much a 21st-century American, living in a perpetual state of irritated impatience and anxious agitation. Don’t waste your time with philosophy! (And, one presumes, literature, history, the arts, or religion.) Only science will get you where you want to go! It gets results! Go for it! Hurry up! Don’t be left behind! Progress awaits!
“Wow,” I thought when I first read that. “That sounds pretty bad.” You probably said the same thing. After all, as Linker correctly notes, the greatest scientific minds of history pondered the deep questions of God, ethics, reality and existence. Even Tyson’s hero Giordano Bruno couched his scientifically correct cosmology in theological terms.
Still, having now listened to the Nerdist podcast from which Linker pulled Tyson’s quote, it’s telling that he asks you to “listen for yourself, beginning at 20:19.” Of course he does. Because if you begin at 20:19 as Linker insturcts, Neal DeGrasse Tyson does indeed sound like a Philistine. However, of you take the time to listen from, say, the 10:00 mark, you realize that The Week’s Damon Linker sounds like a page-hit seeking troll.
If you listen to the ten minutes preceding the point Linker wants you to begin, you will learn that Tyson is talking about a certain kind of “philosophical question:” the kind that sophomores ask one another in their dorm room when they’re stoned. Some paraphrased examples:
What is the sound of one hand clapping?
What if our entire universe is just an experiment in the lab of some other meta-universe? OH MY GOD — WHAT IF THAT UNIVERSE IS AN EXPERIMENT IN AN EVER BIGGER UNIVERSE???!!!
Scientists measure things in “meters,” but what is a “meter,” really? A word obviously, but what is a “word?” What is a “defeinition?” How can you define “definition” because you don’t know what a definition is with out that word, and how do you even know what a word is, and oh my god you’re freaking me out right now.
Tyson is right, of course, when he says that asking one-hand-claps and universe-in-a-lab questions are wastes of time, scientifically speaking. There is no way to measure them, asking and guessing at their answers takes no discipline, and if someone working in the rigorous fields of hard sciences holds off on the hard science part until they get those answers then that person is going to be left behind. As a scientist, Tyson is spot on when he says, “I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind, and you can’t even cross the street because you’re distracted by ‘deep’ questions you’ve asked of yourself. I don’t have time for that.”
If you’re a comparative religion major hanging with your buds, on the other hand, knock yourself out.
I want to give Linker the benefit of the doubt about the quote he pulls, but that would require me to be sure of the answer to this question:
Which possibility is worse: that Linker listened to the whole thing but cherry picked to make a pho-outrage-of-the-day troll post, or that someone passed along the quote to Linker and it hit that sweet spot where it was totally worth taking the time to savage a celebrity in The Week, but not worth taking the time to bother listening what he was writing about? Which of those two options gives him the benefit of the doubt? I go back and forth on that one.
Like I said, I don’t really read The Week and so my two-article sample size is too small to make a fair judgment. But it’s telling that both articles are essentially cut of the same cloth: Arguments, couched in intellectual rhetoric, telling readers that they should eschew scientists and instead glean their truths from The Week pundits. Which, at least in this sampling, makes The Week no different from Fox News and the Daily Caller.
ps – To a lesser extent, shame on Sully as well — and I say that as an unabashed fan. I get that he’s as much aggregator as pundit, and as such doesn’t have necessarily have the time to research every post, article, of podcast someone else talks about. But he really should take the time to look into the one’s being criticized by those he declares “must reads.”