Salon on Cosmos, Neil deGrasse Tyson, science, and conservative denialism

Several posts at Salon lately about “Cosmos”, Neil deGrasse Tyson, science, and conservative denialism.

5 Most Important Lessons from “Cosmos”
Which are:

  1. It’s OK to not know all the answers
  2. Climate change is happening, and it’s made-made.
  3. Evolution: How did we get here?
  4. The danger of ignoring science, or following special-interest science.
  5. Discovery starts with an open mind and the scientific method.

Another list article: Five “Cosmos” moments that made creationists’ heads explode

These concern the age of the universe, the age of the Earth, the origins of Christmas, anything about evolution, climate change, and… basically the entire series.


And a third article compares Tyson’s frank defense of science and reality with Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century, which is getting a lot of (world-wide) attention for its challenges to conservative denial that rising inequality is not something to worry about (and undermining the dogma of trickle-down economics): Rise of the myth busters: Why Piketty and Tyson are the icons America needs. Here are a couple nice passages — not about Piketty, but about how Tyson’s worldview unsettles conservatives.

And that’s really the deepest terror that conservatives have when encountering Tyson, and the whole sweep of scientific discovery he articulates. (William James, who was a graduate student when Darwin’s “Origin of Species” was published, had a similar view of our place in the universe. Consequently, he reframed the analytical truths of math and philosophy as a sort of backdoor empiricism: What our brains perceive as necessary truths reflects the empirical influence of how they evolved.) It’s one thing if science confirms our predetermined religious dogmas, but quite another if it challenges them. Yet, it’s worst of all for religious dogmatists if it threatens to replace those dogmas by providing its own sense of meaning, order and purpose in the universe. And that’s just what Tyson is suggesting.

Here [Piketty says], specifically, as is generally the case, openness is a requirement for the advancement of knowledge.

This reflects back onto one of the broadest findings in political psychology, as discussed by Chris Mooney in “The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—And Reality.” Namely: Liberalism is correlated with the “big five” personality trait of openness to experience. The exploration of novelty is a recurrent theme linking liberalism and science to one another, just as the veneration of tradition is a recurrent theme linking conservatism and religion. Yet, several centuries on, science and liberalism have their own venerable traditions as well, and this has been a recurrent theme in Tyson’s “Cosmos” series. “Science is a cooperative enterprise, spanning the generations,” he said in one “Cosmos” segment. “It’s the passing of a torch from teacher, to student, to teacher. A community of minds reaching back to antiquity and forward to the stars.” One can even go so far as to say that Tyson preaches a kind of scientific faith: a faith in doubt, in a philosophy “unsettled daily,” as he put it. In another “Cosmos” segment, he said:

There seems to be a mysterious force in the universe, one that overwhelms gravity on the grandest scale, to push the cosmos apart. Most of the energy in the universe is bound up in this unknown force. We call it ‘dark energy’, but that name, like ‘dark matter’, is merely a code-word for our ignorance. It’s OK not to know all the answers. It’s better to admit our ignorance than to believe answers that might be wrong. Pretending to know everything closes the door to finding out what’s really there.

This evokes the conservative discomfort with science, which some seem to think that, because science doesn’t (claim to) have all the answers, and some current scientific conclusions are subject to change, it therefore can’t be trusted at all. As Andrew Sullivan mentioned last week,

A figure as respected on the right as Charles Krauthammer has been reduced to claiming that no reigning scientific theory should be taken seriously because it might one day be adjusted in light of new data or new experiments.

A curiously backwards route to thinking that only unchanging faith can be trusted. Such arguments, of course, do not bear up to reality-check scrutiny for a moment.


A fourth article is 5 demented conservative attempts to hijack and discredit science:

  1. Climate Change Isn’t Happening, but if It Is That’s Fine Because It Means Jesus Is Coming
  2. Creationism, Dinosaurs, and the Loch Ness Monster
  3. Neil deGrasse Tyson
  4. AIDS Has Been Weaponized to Doom Heterosexual Culture
  5. Gay Parents Are Worse Than Straight Parents (If You Lie)

The last item addresses, yet again, the discredited Regnerus study, commissioned by conservative groups specifically to create evidence to use in court cases against same-sex marriage.


One more: a long book excerpt which I have so far only skimmed: Science can’t tell us everything: Faith, physics and the origin of the universe, from a book by Marcelo Gleiser called The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning. Salon’s subtitle is, “Recognizing the limits of science doesn’t mean surrendering to religion, but being free to understand ourselves”.

This entry was posted in Astronomy, Cosmology, Culture, Science, Thinking. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.