Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Scientism

May 8, 2014 By William M. Briggs


Hey. It’s Science.

The other day on Twitter, I saw somebody quote approvingly these words by Neil deGrasse Tyson:

The good thing about Science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.

This received many favorites, re-tweets, and various (coarse) approbations. Evidently, this phrase produces a visceral glow in its fans, or perhaps the feeling of belonging to a group advanced beyond the benighted masses who, wallowing in their ignorance, dare to doubt Science. 

Only here’s the thing. The phrase doesn’t mean anything. It’s emptier than our federal coffers. If you doubt this, try substituting other words for science:

The good thing about Philosophy is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.

The good thing about History is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.

The good thing about Economics is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.

The good thing about Art is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.

Each of these propositions are just as true as Tyson’s original; which is to say, each is as meaningless or as confused.

Has every theory promulgated by Science, which is to say, by individual or groups of scientists, been true? Obviously not. Therefore Science isn’t always true, and you’d best believe that. Has every theory put forth in Philosophy, History, etc. been true? Certainly not. Though some have. Is every painting or novel or poem been valuable? No. But some are. And so on. 

“Oh, but Science is self-correcting. That’s why it’s true.” 

Is it? If so, it is an admission that it has things to correct; which is to say, Science knows it is often in error, and therefore what it puts forth should not always be believed in toto because what it says might very well be false and in need of correction. 

And then Philosophy, History, etc. are self-correcting, too, and we know this in the same way we know Science is self-correcting. That is, we have seen in these fields errors identified, new evidence augmenting the old, new (or rediscovered) theories supplanting old ones, and so forth, just as happens in Science.

Example? In History, take the absurd fiction that Giordano Bruno was murdered by the Church for holding forbidden Scientific views, which Tyson presented as truth (in cartoon form) on his Cosmos show. This tale has been (yet again) corrected, this time by our friend Mike Flynn (see Reply to Objection 6; and more in depth here) and also by our friend Thomas McDonald. Will Tyson recant? 

“What I really meant was Science was truer than any of those other things.”

But truth is truth: epistemically, no truth can be higher than another; all truths share the same logical status. Ontologically, truths can be ranked, such as in a moral or ethical sense (it’s true you should not murder your neighbor, it’s truer you should not nuke a city for the fun of it). Sorting truth in that way thus admits Science is not the highest truth, because matters of ethics and morality belong to Philosophy, which is itself fed by History, Economics, and Art. Science can only say what is, Philosophy can say what you ought to do.

Damon Linker at The Week has noticed Tyson’s scientism, too:

[Tyson says] undergraduates should actively avoid studying philosophy at all. Because, apparently, asking too many questions “can really mess you up.”

…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.”

You need philosophy to lead an examined life, even in the presence of Science. It is easiest, and surely safest, to imbibe casually your morality from the culture, especially from what you see in social media. And majority rules is always the answer, isn’t it? Science can’t answer that question, so it really isn’t worth asking, let alone answering. Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? What is best in life? All have the same answer. Science!

Could Tyson’s next career be the replacement to the Scientific Ethicist ?

Update To save me retyping it here, see the comment I made to George Wolfe about the so-called truth of the Scientific method. Welcome Hacker News folks. I hope you can agree that proving Tyson’s comment has little or no meaning is not an “attack” on Science. It is an attack on scientism, which is very different. 

See also the comments from kikito, who offers a valid rebuttal on Linker’s story. Given his correction, I have modified my own uncharitable aspersion about Tyson at the end of the original piece (I suggested Tyson would agree with the penultimate paragraph).