Monday, August 11, 2014

A Friend of a Friend of a Friend Told Me!

The first question is whether Tyson actually said this.  I still haven't found a real source, as opposed to the blizzard of memes and reposts and reblogs and retweets that come up from a search.

For a moment I thought I had it, in a link to a National Public Radio story on two "anonymous art students ... who have been creating gorgeous hand-lettered and illustrated chalkboards featuring inspiring quotes from literary and public figures," illustrated with a photo of their chalkboard of the supposed Tyson quotation.  The same page has a link to the quotation, which leads to an interview with Tyson on Fresh Air promoting his remake of the Cosmos TV series.  The text teaser doesn't include the quotation in question, and I don't really feel like listening to the whole program right now.  Maybe later.  The excerpts provided are annoying enough, like this:
If you are one of those people who don't like thinking about astronomy because it makes them feel small, Tyson suggests looking at it a different way: "Our molecules are traceable to stars that exploded and spread these elements across the galaxy," he explains. If you "see the universe as something you participate in — as this great unfolding of a cosmic story — that, I think should make you feel large, not small. ... Any astrophysicist does not feel small looking up in the universe; we feel large."
I think this is apologetic invention, but I say bullshit anyway.  One of the pillars of scientific triumphalism has always been that Man is a worm, that Science puts him in his place, decentering the earth from the center of the universe, toppling Homo sapiens from the crown of creation, and so on.  He confuses the emotional issue, too.  I'm supposed to feel big because I'm an extra in "this great unfolding of a cosmic story"?  I don't believe that people who are concerned about feeling small are going to get much comfort from this.  And greater scientists than Tyson have seen things differently:
I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
But c'mon, Tyson is an astrophysicist, not a philosopher!

Tyson also told NPR:
You will never find people who truly grasp the cosmic perspective ... leading nations into battle. No, that doesn't happen. When you have a cosmic perspective there's this little speck called Earth and you say, "You're going to what? You're on this side of a line in the sand and you want to kill people for what? Oh, to pull oil out of the ground, what? WHAT?" ... Not enough people in this world, I think, carry a cosmic perspective with them. It could be life-changing.
Maybe you won't find "people who truly grasp the cosmic perspective ... leading nations into battle", but you will find them building weapons of mass destruction that could wipe out life on the planet.  And Tyson isn't unaware of that; he told a blogger from Scientific American who questioned him about it:
Lastly, you speak as though all War is bad. I tend to agree with you on a personal level. But I know as a matter of political awareness that not all wars are unjust and some wars are, in fact, worth fighting. Many scientists who serve military interests do so because they believe deeply in the value of their work to the security of our country.
It's probably not too surprising that Tyson prefers not to address the politics of these matters; that would be, how you say, bad for business.  And maybe he's learned, as people do, what is safe to say on controversial issues and what isn't.  For example, here's his take on the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Look at how we reacted to September 11, 2001: about three thousand Americans died that day, and, that’s more than who died in the attack on Pearl Harbor. So, one of the most devastating days in American history since the Civil War. Understood, people are pissed off. We want blood. So, we go into Afghanistan, and we would later go into Iraq, and war would be conducted – I remember people kept track of when American servicemen died, and there was the date where more American servicemen died, than who died on September 11, and that was kind of an interesting milestone, to compare, but we just pushed on, and so now many more Americans died in those wars than have died – and countless others died, local citizens. But apart from that, count thirty days from September 11. Thirty days after – by then, in those thirty days, more Americans had died on the highways in car accidents than who died on September 11. Not only that, that number keeps dying every month. So, there’s no outcry for people dying on highways – there is locally, we fixed our drunk driving laws, and there’s enforcement [that’s] very high and taken very seriously in all our public consciousness, but if deaths of Americans is what you care about and protecting the lives of people is what you care about, and you rank all ways Americans die, then terrorist attacks is not high on that list. It’s high on the list because we fear them, because it’s a terror factor, but because of the actual numbers.
Tyson focuses on whether "deaths of Americans is what you care about and protecting the lives of people is what you care about," but as he seems to realize, that's not the real reason for the wars in which the US mired itself starting in 2001.  (Though the roots of the conflicts go much further back.)  Even on his reasoning, it would seem that World War II wasn't worth fighting, because far fewer Americans died at Pearl Harbor than on September 11, 2001 -- but judging from his response to the Scientific American blogger, he considers World War II one of the good wars.  (Or maybe not; he's kind of coy about it.)  It's all very well to have a "cosmic perspective," but from a cosmic perspective, not much that happens on earth -- nuclear war, global warming, the destruction of the rain forests, etc. -- matters very much.  So other values have to be taken into account, and Tyson either doesn't understand that or prefers not to go there.

Writing to the Scientific American blogger, Tyson took the easy way out, blaming the electorate for voting for politicians who make scientists do bad things: "I can scream at lawmakers without limit, but their duty is to serve their constituents. And so it’s the electorate that I, as a scientist and educator, will always target for my messages."  Do lawmakers serve their constituents?  That's open to some dispute.  It's also debatable whether the massive government subsidy of high-tech research and development was the work of lawmakers.  David F. Noble showed, in his book Forces of Production, that the reality was complex and tangled.  Scientists, engineers, corporate interests, the American military, political appointees, and Congress were all involved, and their interests didn't necessarily agree.  The taxpayers, the electorate, had little idea what their tax dollars were paying for, as usual, but the need for the US to be what Tyson calls "an innovation nation" was part of the sell.

Like many scientists, Tyson is ambivalent about the hoi polloi.   He was a lightning rod for the reclassification of Pluto as an unplanet, and the criticism he drew obviously nettled him: "So astrophysicists should be under no obligation to poll the public. I don't care how deeply affectionate you felt for these objects that we had talked about. Now that's not arrogance, that's just simple common sense about what it is to move a frontier and the sensitivities you need on that frontier to classify or not."  I sympathize, and agree to a point, but notice the irony here.  Tyson is very big on educating the public on science, but a major part of his approach is an appeal to emotion.  He wants to get kids excited about science in the same way it was done in the 1950s and 1960s, with carefully-managed spectacles involving rockets thrusting into the unknown, heroic astronauts, the lure of adventure, and competition with other superpowers to Get There First.  This may be effective in motivating people, but it has nothing to do with what science is supposed to be about: the quest for knowledge and truth and shit.  (As far as I listened in the Fresh Air interview, his take on SETI is conventionally emotional, based on whether it makes sense to think we're Alone.)  The people who objected to Pluto's 'demotion' were people who'd been fossicked up by just such an approach: science for them was a spectator sport, with teams to root for and a personalization of all issues: if Pluto stopped being a planet, its feelings would be hurt, the scientists were just being meanies, and people had to stand up for the underdog.  That's what happens when you personalize issues that have nothing to do with people.  But if you don't use that approach, how are you going to get the voters to pressure their lawmakers to fund a manned mission to Mars?  Mars is waiting for us; it's so lonely, all alone out there, and it's so stupid that it should be alone.

Anyway, back to the meme in question.  Whether or not Tyson said it, it's an odd thing for a scientist to say.  In the NPR interview he says, "If you're a scientist and you have to have an answer, even in the absence of data, you're not going to be a good scientist."  There are a lot of bad scientists running around, then.  But that's as close as I can find to a sentiment like the one attributed to Tyson in this meme, and it's not very close.  It's an article of faith among scientists that the universe does make sense, if you study it hard enough and interpret the data correctly -- which is basically what fundamentalists believe about their scriptures.  I say "an article of faith" because it's an animating premise of the scientific quest, not a conclusion based on a coldly rational evaluation of all the data.  I think it's a fine article of faith as such things go, but for me it's a presumption, a starting point which can be proven false.

Even more, the statement in the meme is one that many religious believers would agree with, at least as far as lip service: they'd just substitute "God" for "the Universe."  The practice, for the spiritual as for the devotee of science, is more ambivalent: on one hand we are nothing, mere dust in the cosmic perspective; on the other, we have been granted insight and knowledge by the Most High.  The religiosity of the sentiment doesn't prove that Tyson didn't say it, of course, but that a scientist said it doesn't make it true either.