No, Neal DeGrasse Tyson is not a “Philistine”


Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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103 Responses

  1. Avatar Saul DeGraw says:

    I will defend the idea of thinking philosophically in a broader picutre and one of my big problems with the current tech/disruption scene.

    When I listen to techies, it seems that they view people more as optimization problems rather than as people. Or they don’t stop and pause to think about the ethics or morals of an action or app before launching into the solution or their idea. The parking app Kazzy mentioned yesterday is one example.

    A more serious example is the launch of Soylent. The guy is trying to design a product that replaces food. Listening to the guy, he seems like a radical minimalist in a way that is very odd and almost impossible for most people to achieve. He seems to really want to replace the need to eat actual food and is not considering what purposes meals serve for social bonding and rest. To him, it is just a distraction from working on the next problem. I fear that the introduction of Soylent will cause employers to demand more work and get rid of meal breaks, etc.

    Injecting some discussions of ethics and morality into debates and scientific inquiry could lead to more humanity and humility. Yes something might be really interesting but that does not make it ethical or moral to do.Report

    • Avatar Saul DeGraw says:

      A lot of the discussion on the parking meter app was about how it is just money left on the table and I know economists hate this but there could be moral, ethical, and justice reasons to leave money on the table. I rather dislike how recently everyone tries to explain things by economics and thinks we can just design the right incentives to utopia. We cannot.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        given the levels of Cali air pollution, I’m not persuaded.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        I rather dislike how recently everyone tries to explain things by economics and thinks we can just design the right incentives to utopia. We cannot.

        Perhaps I’m misunderstanding something, but the problem you set out seems ripe for philosophical correction; which seems sort of the point of the practice, as opposed to comprehending the one-handed clap or the sound of the tree nobody hears crashing to the ground.Report

      • Uh, Saul, a lot of the discussion about parking was how money was left on the table and then certain private actors took that money. If you think such transfers of wealth from the public to private, wealthy-enough-to-own-a-car individuals are the height of morality, I’d really like to read that argument.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        recently everyone tries to explain things by economics and thinks we can just design the right incentives to utopia. We cannot.

        That’s a bit odd, given that economics is the study of choice in conditions of scarcity, so at its very foundation it eschews the potential for utopia.

        Philosophers, on the other hand…Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Any word on whether that parking app was trolling? Because it sounds like it just mostly replicated what SF had already done. Except with more overhead costs.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      It’s interesting that you couch a product that can feed people for cheaper and more efficiently as amoral.

      I tend to think the opposite: that eating for pleasure — and igorouslt defneding doing so — in a world where a lot of people are starving is the more amoral choice.

      And I say that as an unabashed foodie.Report

      • Avatar trizzlor says:

        It’s interesting that you couch a product that can feed people for cheaper and more efficiently as amoral.

        I didn’t see that moral judgement. I think it’s fine if Soylent was marketed as a cheap and efficient way to get people fed that otherwise couldn’t (though I’m sure there are much more effective ways of doing so that take into account structural issues). The problem arises when the whole idea of meals (i.e. times in the day to focus on food and bonding) is being attacked as inefficient and a waste of time. That’s a separate moral statement, and I agree with Saul that it’s one that should be discussed in a philosophical context.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        “igorouslt defneding ”


      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        Tod’s quoting Dan Aykroyd from the early days of SNL:

        “Jane, you igorouslt”.Report

      • Foodies, check your privilege!Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        Pretty sure he meant “vigorously defending.”Report

      • Avatar Saul DeGraw says:


        Trizzlor said it better than I did.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:


        Not sure, I think MikeS might be onto something.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        @mad-rocket-scientist Where are you from? In my part of the country, we usually just say “on something.”Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:


      If I can paraphrase your argument, are you posing the, “People tend to ask, ‘Can we?’ but skip, ‘Should we?'” argument?

      I think that is a fair one to make; I’m just trying to make sure I grasp your position.Report

      • Avatar j r says:

        If @kazzy’s take on @saul-degraw’s comment is correct, I am going to suggest that you start reading better economists. Good social science is more concerned with the is than the ought.

        Yes, there are lots of people who stand on the edge of economics and cherry pick findings and theories to make ideological points, but that’s an indictment of punditry and sophistry and not of economics.Report

      • Avatar Dan Miller says:

        @j-r I’m not sure that actual economists are as free of “ought” as you claim they are. For instance, check out this speech by Tom Sargent, or basically any popular writing done by Greg Mankiw or Paul Krugman. Maybe econ journals are full of dispassionate descriptions of the world with no ideological vision of how the world should be, but you wouldn’t know it from the public face put forward by plenty of economists.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Krugman’s work on Japan leads him to certain policy conclusions for America. Bernanke’s work with the Great Depression leads him to certain policy conclusions as well. Math, science, testable theories give people guidance.

        hell, take global warming — it’s given me great guidance on where not to buy a house!

        (part of the problem is that there isn’t a large enough sample size for a lot of macroeconomics, and precious few doubleblind experiments).Report

      • Avatar j r says:

        Like I said, that’s an indictment of punditry. I agree with very few of the normative conclusions that I’ve seen Krugman come to in his NY Times column. And yet, I keep a copy of his Macroeconomics textbook at my desk, with which I’ve never had cause to object. Note that Krugman’s column is called “Conscience of a Liberal” and not “Conscience of an Economist.”Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:


        I’m right with you on that. I’m an anti-fan of Krugman the columnist, but I also have a copy of Krugman’s text, and also a number of his popular books (which are what first taught me how to really think economically, as opposed to seeing it as solely a dry number-crunching discipline) on my bookshelf. For students who want to dip into economics without having to sit through intro micro or (god forbid) macro, those are among the books I recommend.Report

    • Avatar Matty says:

      Soylent is real? Not only that but someone actually picked the name well after Soylent Green was released when they must have realised the connotations.




  2. Avatar Kim says:

    “There is no way to measure them, asking and guessing at their answers takes no discipline,”

    Except that asking and guessing at whether our universe is a computer simulation is measurable, even if we don’t have other universes to compare to.

    We can define (okay, approximate) how much computing power (organic or inorganic) it would take to simulate our universe.

    These are fun and disciplined questions. Not terribly scientific, but definitely engineering.Report

  3. Avatar Chris says:

    I have to admit, while I don’t find him a Philistine, I do find him annoying in the same way I’ve found every physicist I’ve ever known annoying. As I’m sure anyone who’s ever worked as a researcher in any science but physics and talked to physicists knows, they have a habit of thinking that being a physicist means that they can comment intelligently on every science (and intellectual pursuit). It certainly looks, at times, like anti-intellectualism, but I think it’s really just a strong positivism combined with an unbound, professionally-cultivated arrogance.

    For example, the simulation theory is, in fact, a theory, not merely an untested hypothesis, but its arguments are formal, not empirical, because you know, logic is a thing. And logic is a thing that makes empirical arguments possible. Hell, he must know what theoretical physicists do, right?Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      Also, “why are you concerned about the meaning of meaning?” Umm… because it’s an even more fundamental problem than any in physics? Hell, it has implications not only for how we talk about physics — which just is what physics is — but also for the logic that underlies physics.

      Seriously, by the time I got 25 minutes in, I just wanted them all to shut up. Just because you’re not interested in something and haven’t thought a lot about it, or why it might be important, doesn’t mean it’s not important.

      That is anti-intellectualism, and it’s pretty close to the uniquely scientistic philistinism that is pretty common in the world that Dawkins created.Report

      • Avatar Patrick says:

        Time for this one again

      • Avatar Chris says:

        The way I see it, all of the sciences take place in brains, making the brain sciences (neuroscience and the cognitive sciences) the most fundamental sciences.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Also, much of the logic going on in questions like “what is the meaning of meaning” is so close to mathematics that there’s very little distinction (ignoring for a moment the issues surrounding the connection between mathematics and logic that surfaced in the middle of the last century). I wonder if logicians look down on physicists the way mathematicians do. I’ve only known a couple serious logicians, and then only as acquaintances (I had a friend who was a philosophy grad student at Syracuse once upon a time).Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        The brain’s behavior is determined by its chemistry, which operates according to the laws of physics, which are described mathematically. So the cognitive sciences are like street-level dealers, while mathematics is the one who knocks.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        A good deal of science takes place in computers, these days.
        Which mostly means that I’m arguing that Computer Science belongs in the same category as neuroscience…

        Hm. If physics is the “basest” science, then neuro/computer science is the most “meta” science. Both are really important.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        The way I see it, all of the sciences take place in brains, making the brain sciences (neuroscience and the cognitive sciences) the most fundamental sciences.

        Wait, Chris is actually….Amy Farrah Fowler!?Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        I’m going to start calling mathematicians Los Zetas.Report

      • Avatar dragonfrog says:

        @patrick – My thought was more

      • Avatar Chris says:

        @dragonfrog Precisely!Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        harumph. the physicist I know who (frequently) expounds on other fields has generally done quite a bit of research into the field before talking.

        Psychology experiments are a lot cheaper to run without IRBs… and consent forms — hell, if you make them fun enough, people sign right up, no questions asked!Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Psychology experiments are a lot cheaper to run without IRBs… and consent forms — hell, if you make them fun enough, people sign right up, no questions asked!

        What the fuck?!Report

      • That was my thought too, @james-hanleyReport

      • Avatar Chris says:

        (I had to look up who that was.)

        I have been making that (admittedly outrageous) claim since well before The Big Bang Theory began airing, so she’s really me.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        “Psychology experiments are a lot cheaper to run without IRBs… and consent forms — hell, if you make them fun enough, people sign right up, no questions asked!”

        What the fuck?!

        Forget it, Chris. It’s Kimmietown.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      As a physicist, I think that I can probably sound intelligible on any scientific pursuit — with enough research. But that’s thousands of dollars per problem — and it’s cool to look at ones that people haven’t solved yet (like proper regulated airflow through a filtered furnace).

      I’m generally content to let folks who specialize do exactly that. If someone wants to say “I’ve spent twenty years doing this research!” fine and dandy — you speak first, and I’m only going to holler out if your conclusions seem pretty damn counter to my empirical anecdotes.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        As a physicist, I think that I can probably sound intelligible on any scientific pursuit

        I just spit Cherry Coke Zero through my nose. Thanks!Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        I can wait until you finish reading the sentence, Chris.
        Or I could just post some of the numerous articles on “doctors can’t do statistics.”
        I’m not about to cite (by name at least) my former boss on how much cognitive scientists screw up statistics, but apparently the trend was towards better statistics as time went on.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:


        I thought you did web development?Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Not much web development. A lot of basic messaging, some compression theory, some video games (thank the cog sci folks who paid me), some pattern recognition, some modeling.

        I’m much happier in C++ than anything else, believe it or not.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Kim, a lot of psychologists know how to do ANOVA and t-tests, maybe OLS regression (though they may not know what it really does, or how it relates to ANOVA, or anything like that) with point and click in SPSS, and they design their experiments to fit the tests they know how to do, but cognitive scientists are big on computational and mathematical models.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        yes, of course a lot of psych folks know how to do basic (and reasonably advanced) statistics — some even know how to do massively multivariate statistics. Or at least the appropriate point and click stuff (If you understand “cos” turns an angle into a ratio of the triangle, I’m not going to complain if you don’t understand what a cosine curve looks like).Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        So you are a trained physicist and you do coding?Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        I’m not trying to say that I have a PHD or anything. But yeah, my BS is in physics.
        (so’s another guy on my team, and my former tech lead’s degree was in biochem).

        I mostly learned how to code from another physicist (He does far more climate modeling than I do). But I could talk your ear off about entropic coding.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        But yeah, my BS is in physics.

        More than that.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire says:

        “More than that”


    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      For example, the simulation theory is, in fact, a theory, not merely an untested hypothesis, but its arguments are formal, not empirical, because you know, logic is a thing.

      Could you explain what you mean by this? I don’t understand it at all.

      Also, “why are you concerned about the meaning of meaning?” Umm… because it’s an even more fundamental problem than any in physics? Hell, it has implications not only for how we talk about physics — which just is what physics is — but also for the logic that underlies physics.

      I’m not sure I understand what you mean by this, either. What would be an example of how this matters in a practical sense?Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Brandon, are you familiar with the simulation theory (which I believe has been argued by actual physicists)? Or the arguments for it?

        As for the meaning of meaning, much of the work in the philosophy of science has revolved around work on reference, reducibility, the nature of verification, the problem(s) of induction, the universal and the particular, underdetermination, theory-dependence, internalism and externalism, and so forth, all of which concern the meaning of meaning, and all of which have implications for things like interpretation and models, the nature of explanation (including, and in fact particularly scientific explanation), the scientific method, and pretty much every concept in science. I’m thinking of people like Quine, Kuhn, Duhem, Neurath, Popper, Russell, Kripke, Frege, Putnam, Whitehead, Carnap, but also a lot of the people working on semantics in logic and analytic philosophy today, as well as much of contemporary philosophy of science.Report

      • Avatar Peter Moore says:

        @Chris But that doesn’t answer Brandon’s question: how do any of those question practically impact science? I.e. what about this does a scientist need to understand in order to do science better?

        Because DeGrasse is quite clear he that doesn’t think Philosophy is useless: just that there are many parts that are irrelevant to the practice of science.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        I’m sure he’s aware of the ways in which the works of some of the thinkers I mentioned have impacted the practice of science. It is undoubtedly the case that individual scientists do not, for the most part, read or care about philosophy of science, and I’m sure NDT is one of those scientists, but over time the philosophy of science has had a great deal of impact on the practice of science. He may even be aware of, say, how the philosophy of biology has influenced the study of evolution (and much of that has to do with issues of meaning and concepts like species), to take one example, or how the philosophy of physics interacts with physics itself (particularly at the theoretical end, but also the methodological). And of course there’s been much debate in the philosophy of statistics on frequentist vs. Bayesian statistics that has spilled over into the actual use of statistics in a wide range of scientific disciplines. And obviously Kuhn and Popper have had a great deal of impact on science more broadly.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        Brandon, are you familiar with the simulation theory (which I believe has been argued by actual physicists)? Or the arguments for it?

        Like this?

        I’ll look up the names you mentioned. I’m not familiar with all of them.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Yes, that is a version of it.

        The Weatherson mentioned on that site has one of the oldest and most popular philosophy blogs, by the way.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        So when you say it’s a theory rather than an untested hypothesis, you’re referring to the weak version (either the universe is a simulation, or we’ll probably never simulate a universe that contains self-aware individuals), rather than the strong version (we’re in a simulation), which really is an untested hypothesis, right?

        The weak version doesn’t seem all that useful, or even interesting. For one, we have no way of knowing what probabilities to assign to any of these possibilities. It’s internally consistent, but I don’t see that it actually tells us anything about the world.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire says:

        @chris — I’ve heard of most of those names and even read a smattering here and there, a fair amount of Quine and Popper, some Kripke (but mostly I know him ’cause of Kripke models and how they show up in Type Theory). In other words, I know just as much as you would expect a curious computer scientist to know.

        But for all that, I find their approaches to semantics really off target. Moreover, I find that mathematicians and computer scientists do the formal stuff better, and linguists (particularly cognitive linguists) do the semantics better, and stoned college freshmen do the big question aspects just as well.

        So I guess we can still watch the Bayesians and frequentists duke it out. (Personally, I can’t decide between the two.) And neuroscience will march on and maybe someday totally figure it all out, or maybe not.

        But anyway, I guess my point is this: if you like the style of philosophy, as a particular academic pursuit with its history and methods of argument, go for it. Have fun. But if you are looking to really solve big questions, there are plenty of other fields to go where you might touch deeper places faster, while carrying less historic baggage.

        Mostly I blame Wittgenstein.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        @brandon, to be clear, I mean the argument that there is a high probability that we are living in a simulation, and I mean that it has been “tested” by valid logical argument using, ironically (given NDT’s statement) fairly straightforward theoretical physics (particularly the notion of a multiverse).

        @veronica-dire first, a warning. There are two philosophers whose names will get comments sent to the spam folder: Witt.genstein and Hei.degger. The latter is because in the early years of this blog, there was a mentally ill commenter (who came over from Positive Liberty, and stalked me a bit) who went by that name, and who is one of the few people the higher ups here have ever banned. I do not know why the former is flagged. So if you use either name in a comment, I recommend a second comment asking for it to be retrieved from the spam folder.

        Second, philosophy, at least Anglo-American philosophy (which also encompasses much German and even French philosophy, but calling it Anglo-American is better than analytic, which is a confusing term in this context) has been deeply entwined with science for well over a century now, and really going back into the 19th century with people like Mach. You’ll recall from Quine that this is basically what he saw philosophy as: a supplement to science, a discipline to work out the conceptual and methodological issues while science does the empirical investigation. This entanglement is true of physics and chemistry, and even mathematics, but particularly of biology and the social, brain, and behavioral sciences. In fact, if you look at the logo for the Cognitive Science Society, you’ll see philosophy right there as an integral part of the discipline:


        Much of what goes on in the interactions between philosophy and these sciences concerns some of the stuff that NDT dismisses out of hand in that podcast, particularly the philosophical study of meaning and reference, because at the heart of theories, without which data is meaningless, are concepts the very nature of which it is important, for the workings of science, to investigate, because the directions science takes are in part determined (in large part) by that nature.

        By cognitive linguistics, I assume you mean the discipline/paradigm essentially founded by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Johnson, if you’re not aware, is a philosopher, and their second most influential book together is called Philosophy in the Flesh. While I’m not much of a fan, I do think that in the last decade or so the idea of conceptual metaphors has spawned a bunch of interesting research. The ultimate problem is that it’s fairly impoverished as a model of representation, which means it’s not particularly useful. It is, in a sense, mostly an underspecified philosophical position on the nature of cognition. If you want a sophisticated philosophy of embodied cognition, you’d do better to start with Merleau-Ponty and work from there, and take a look at some of the interesting empirical research being done largely independent of cognitive linguistics over the last 15-20 years. (Reading Dreyfus on Heid.egger, Merleau-Ponty, and representation, is a good idea; he’s more accessible than either of those other two by themselves). In the end, cognitive linguistics is mostly still on the outside looking in, both in linguistics and cognitive science in general.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire says:

        @chris — For cog. linguistics, I’m mostly thinking of these guys:

        Which goes way past the stuff Lakoff /Johnson were doing. (Although I enjoy Lakoff, obviously, it does seem kinda golly-gee lightweight.)

        Their framework is good, except maybe there is a bit of handwaving regarding the notion of “construal,” which does a lot of heavy lifting in their theory. But that is fine, insofar as I don’t think we really quite know how the brain works yet, so we cannot expect Cog-Sci/Lin/Phil to really unpack all of that.

        Anyway, I like their general approach. What I get from their model is this: we might have to accept that the problem of reference really does reduce down to notions of construal and frames and a healthy respect for the map/territory distinction. Which is perhaps a boring answer, but I suspect correct.

        But people don’t like that, because the want denotation to be magic.

        Myself, I’m skeptical of a lot of what I see coming from the CogSci and CogPhi worlds. Not that I think they are wrong in the big picture, brains doing stuff, but I think they are maybe abstracting at the wrong level, trying to build models instead of understanding brains — which is me leaning toward a connectionist viewpoint rather than a computational one. (But then, maybe that debate is old hat. I don’t have time to keep up.)

        I think Quine totally missed the script, insofar as the mathematicians did logic better and Quine really had no idea how brains work. Plus, I’m pretty sure that if you are using a Fregian syntax, you probably going in the wrong direction about how we use words. Likewise (and moving away from Quine), if you are talking about Bayes or whatever.

        Just skimmed the Wiki page for Merleau-Ponty. Doesn’t sound like my cup of tea.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        @veronica-dire Perhaps you’d like M-P’s politics, at least, though he died too early to formulate them extensively.

        As for cognitive linguistics, I’m not quite sure what you’re saying about it or what appeals to you about it. This in particular:

        we might have to accept that the problem of reference really does reduce down to notions of construal and frames and a healthy respect for the map/territory distinction.

        I just don’t quite know what you’re getting at, but maybe I’m missing exactly how what you mention helps with the problem of reference (I know you’re doing a really high level gloss, so it could just be that I’m not getting all of the context).

        And the connectionist-computationalist debates are still out there, but for now computationalism is still pretty dominant, with embodiment and situatedness making noise.

        My problem with cognitive linguistics, in the end, is that it doesn’t say anything that cognitive psychology and mainstream linguistics weren’t already saying (with the exception of its focus on embodiment, which has now become relatively mainstream), and saying more rigorously (and more falsifiably). It’s basically the late 60s and early 70s discussion of schemas, frames, and meaning, with a (for scientific purposes) vague conception of metaphorical mappings, embodiment, and abstraction. There is a ton of good work on these things that owes little if anything to what’s come out of cognitive linguistics. But this is a hobby horse of mine (I looked, and some of the first posts on my ol’ blog were complaining about cognitive linguistics, way back in ’04), so I’m not really a potential buyer.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        particularly the notion of a multiverse

        Bah humbug. This, to me, is magical thinking, much as my inner sci-fi geek love of Zelazney wants it to be otherwise. It’s abstracting quantum states upward to physical states, and seems nonsensical and impossible; like trying to abstract you upward from a sampling of your gut bacteria.Report

  4. Avatar Patrick says:

    Alex posted this on Facebook, and I read it, and he and I were both struck by the same paragraph:

    “I very seriously believe that Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, or Wittgenstein may have gotten just about everything right all those decades, centuries, and even millennia ago — and I know of no professional philosophers writing today who come anywhere close to rivaling the brilliance and depth of these thinkers.”

    That’s… a mess of a sentence. Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel can’t be all “right” at the same time, under their own frameworks of correctness.

    And the irony meter explodes when someone says, ” I know of no professional philosophers writing today who come anywhere close to rivaling the brilliance and depth of these thinkers” when they clearly don’t even understand the classical philosophers they’re obliquely claiming that they read…Report

    • NobAkimoto NobAkimoto says:

      That is by far the stupidest paragraph I’ve read this week.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      Particularly coming right after he says “Tyson is wrong because he fails to recognize the real advances that happen in the discipline of philosophy over time.” So apparently he doesn’t understand that perhaps the last three had built upon work done by the first three?

      Then he goes on to say that Socrates must’ve been a cool dude. So philosophy is important and Tyson is wrong.

      Perhaps Linker would object that these are mischaracterizations of what he said. They’re no worse mischaracterizations than Linker is guilty of himself.Report

  5. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    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.

    I don’t have time for that.Report

  6. Quick question, Tod, what is a “pho-outrage”?

    Other than that, good post… though I’m annoyed that you’re spoiling the fun.Report

  7. Avatar Consumatopia says:

    I think the biggest irony is that Linker is engaging in exactly the philistinism that he condemns

    They would need to begin examining their own minds and motives, very much including their motives in taking up the pursuit of philosophical knowledge in the first place.

    Isn’t that exactly what Tyson did that pissed Linker off so much? Tyson thinks that some philosophical questions are either without meaning (e.g. one hand clapping) and that some other questions aren’t worth the time spent pursuing them.

    One might disagree with Tyson as to which questions are meaningful and/or worth pursuing (I certainly do.). But there is a huge difference between saying “Tyson is wrong” and going further to say”Tyson is a philistine”. It is perfectly legitimate to ask whether a particular question is actually meaningful or worth pursuing. Tyson may have reached the wrong answer to the question, but Linker is trying to rule the question itself out of bounds.Report

  8. Avatar Ethan Gach says:

    Sully apparently did go back and listen and is still doubling down on his initial screed.

    While I don’t personally agree with Tyson, I’m also extremely impatient with humanities types that get super defensive and revert to dismissive accusations of “scientism!” at the slightest whiff criticism from people in other disciplines.

    At bottom, people feel threatened by arguments like these from science because what’s at stake is power and influence over the culture and policy. It’s one thing for people talking about things like art, entertainment, religion, philosophy, or just doing general interest punditry to enjoy what they do, and want to continue doing what they do, but it’s another to for them to go an argue that their subjects of discourse are as important, or their methods should held in as high regard, as those doing material work using empirical methods.

    Especially in a world where there is one slightly empirically rigorous science show on a major network that airs late on Sunday night, along side a show about dragons and medieval politics and one about the zombie apocalypse, both of which trump it in terms of audience and cultural relevance, I find it downright ridiculous that non-science types feel so threatened by the merest mention that they may have outsized cultural and economic influence.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      While I don’t personally agree with Tyson, I’m also extremely impatient with humanities types that get super defensive and revert to dismissive accusations of “scientism!” at the slightest whiff criticism from people in other disciplines.



    • Avatar Chris says:

      I won’t defend the article, because it’s awful, but when someone basically determines the value of another discipline, a discipline that has been around for millennia and that basically birthed what we know of as science today, based on what it does to benefit science, which is what it seems like he’s doing in that podcast, “scientism” seems like a pretty good word for it.Report

      • Avatar Alan Scott says:

        @chris , the Ph in Dr. Tyson’s PhD stand for philosophy. The job of an astrophysicist is to discover the answers to (a subset of) the fundamental questions about the nature of the universe. That he works for a planetarium and not a philosophy department doesn’t magically strip him of a legitimate place in the debate about what questions matter.

        Tyson rejects what I like to call the ‘philosophy of the stoned undergrad’ the questions that seem profound, but are semantic tricks or questions answerable by observation. When they ask “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” on the podcast, they provide an answer–within two seconds. The sound of one hand clapping is captured by the microphones for the enjoyment of the listeners.

        To say that he’s dismissing the entire discipline of philosophy is either a gross misreading of Tyson, or a gross misreading of philosophy.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        That’s not what I said, though.Report

    • @ethan-gach

      I’ll cop to being one of those humanities types who is perhaps too quick to get defensive and shout “scientism” when I encounter criticism. I do think the Neil DeGrasse Tysons and the Carl Sagans do engage in some philistine-like shenanigans, and yet…..maybe I should look to my own self. (And for the record, I was and am a fan of the original Cosmos.)

      I probably focused too much on the 1 or 2 minutes after 20:19, which I listened to, and not the overall 1 hour and 10 minutes of context, which I didn’t listen to. (I’m not familiar with Nerdist, but I tried to listen to the whole thing and it was just so annoying that after a minute or so I skipped ahead to the controversial statements.) Similarly, I probably focus too much on Sagan’s denunciations of “idealism” as the thing that derailed the scientific promise of the good Greeks and condemned us to a Dark Age, only to be redeemed by misguided but smart early modern scientists.

      So there’s my bias. But I don’t know what to do with it. What little I’ve seen of Tyson’s Cosmos seems to me like a catchism children are expected to learn. but that’s almost definitely a reflection of my own attitudes and the way Tyson just rubs me the wrong way, none of which means I’m right.Report

  9. Avatar Ethan Gach says:

    Also, what does it mean to be a philistine in a world where everyone’s reading re-caps about a show with dragons on Monday morning?Report

  10. Avatar Will Truman says:

    The Week runs stuff by Michael Brendan Dougherty. That alone makes it a net positive.

    To me, the more interesting meta-discussion about science and philosophy is the extent to which the former has become a t-shirt for the latter.Report

  11. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    The good news is, everyone from the religious right to hacky clickwhores are choosing Neil DeGrasse Tyson as their straw man. I’ve been a big fan of Tyson for a long time, and to see him becoming a personification of science the way that Carl Sagan did a generation ago is a bit of a vicarious thrill. It couldn’t be happening to a better guy for the job, or a nicer guy either.

    It’s a shame this sort of hackery comes along with that, is all.Report

    • Avatar greginak says:

      NDGT can handle being the strawman for people to flail at. He can whip back the crap he gets very well since he is a great communicator.Report

    • Avatar Francis says:

      NDGT actually posted a comment on Rod Dreher’s blog post accusing him of scientism, inviting people to watch the interview. Look here (Second page of comments, I think.)

      Pretty classy, I think, especially since he was called a televangelist.

      (I will confess a weakness for RD’s blog. As I disagree vehemently with just about everything he writes, it keeps my blood pressure up.)

      (I also think that the new COSMOS is pretty good. But I can see why religious conservatives are put off.)

      (And finally, I don’t get the slaps at NDGT for not knowing more philosophy. He’s an astrophysicist who has specialized in science teaching at a popular level. That alone is damn impressive.)Report

      • (And finally, I don’t get the slaps at NDGT for not knowing more philosophy. He’s an astrophysicist who has specialized in science teaching at a popular level. That alone is damn impressive.)

        I think the slaps come from the ill-considered remarks he made after the 20:19 point of the podcast. At least taken out of context (and I didn’t listen to the context, so I’ll have to take the OP’s word for what was going on), those remarks seemed to have him making claims about philosophy that would require a certain knowledge of philosophy, which apparently he does not have. (Not that I have much, either…..Chris’s discussion above, for example, is way over my head.)Report

      • Avatar Peter says:

        Rod Dreher not even being able to spell NdGT’s name correctly in his post title even after Tyson typed it out for him in his comment and Dreher subsequently used his comment in an update doesn’t argue very convincingly for his reliability concerning things knowable.

        Nor of course does his and Linker’s willfully mischaracterizing NdGT’s positions just to score internet attention. For example, check out the breathless tweets at @roddreher and @damonlinker after they got Dr. Tyson to even notice them. This is all less about Great Things and more about desperately needy parasitic egos seeking out a host to boost their profiles.Report

    • @burt-likko

      When I first read this comment a couple days ago, I was set to get all defensive and say that it’s not what Tyson says that I object to, but the way he goes about it (kind of like what I feel about Jon Stewart). That might be true, but then that’s just one of those “no accounting for taste” kinds of things and neither here nor there.

      But then I tried to think of who would I prefer instead of him, and I don’t know (not that I know all the science popularizers out there who could serve as candidates). I don’t know him personally to know if he’s a nice guy, so I’ll leave that judgment to others. So maybe my objection is to what he’s saying and not to his shtick. But all I know of what else he says is parts of a few interviews he’s given, the couple minutes I listened to at that Nerdist podcast, and about 10 minutes of his show.

      As for his show (actually, the 10 minutes I saw of it), I found it a bit too flashy, but maybe Mr. Sagan would have done the same thing if he had the technology at the time. As for the interviews, well, his (in my opinion) unfortunate baiting of non-science as anti-science and his seeming insistence that all religious faith is based on the “god of the gaps” reasoning and nothing else (or so I read into what he says) is not all he’s about. The Nerdist piece, he says some things that I think are ill-becoming someone who wants to style himself as a science popularizer, but 1) as Tod says, I didn’t listen to the entire podcast; 2) the Nerdist thing, which I hadn’t heard of until now, seems like just a chatty format a la morning drive-time talk radio and things said there ought to be taken if not tongue in cheek, at least as a light conversation fodder; and 3) if that’s what Mr. Tyson believes, then that’s what he believes and it would be worse if he hid what he believes.

      tl;dr: maybe I just jump to conclusions about Mr. Tyson and don’t like him as a public figure and I should leave it at that, without trying to bait him as a philistine.Report

  12. Avatar Shazbot9 says:

    Philosophy is -at least partially- directed at weeding out BS by examining concepts and methodologies skeptically and carefully.

    Science can be infected with BS where methodologies and concepts are accepted too dogmatically. Philosophical thinking is thus needed, whether it is done by philosophers or scientists.Report

  13. Avatar Shazbot9 says:

    Also, empirical science can yield some light (even if not final answers in all cases) on ethical , social political-philosophy, metaphysics (do we have free will, what is the relationship between mind and body, does the universe have a cause outside of itself, etc.) that are important to humans.

    Thus scientists need to engage in conversation to help answer -as best as possible- questions that are important to human existence and the goals of becoming educated.Report

  14. Avatar Shazbot9 says:

    Finally, you can’t avoid philosophy. The very thinking about what is useful and practical and empirical being worth investigating is itself a philosophical position. It must have a justification which will be philosophical.

    You can’t not think about philosophy except by being dogmatic.Report

  15. Avatar David McCartney says:

    Then again, NDT is no Carl Sagan and neither are Einstein.

    Even in context, NDT is preaching to the choir of STEM majors wearing fedoras and MLP t-shirts that leave nothing to the imagination. At best, he’s a pundit. Not a scientist.Report

    • @david-mccartney

      I enjoyed that article (and I hadn’t seen that blog before yet, and it looks pretty good). In my better moments, when I’m not indulging the emotional side of me that wants to cry “scientism!” at every criticism (and that side exists, for good and for ill), that article pretty much sums up some of my objections to how people are celebrating Tyson as the next Sagan. (I actually hadn’t heard the comparison to Einstein before.)Report

  16. Avatar Brek says:

    How does any of what was said earlier on in the interview change the fact Tyson tells people not to major in philosophy and so on? It seems that he starts out talking about specific ‘bad’ philosophy (as there is bad science) but then devolves into bashing all of philosophy. I don’t find your defense of his comments very compelling at all.Report