Science Evangelism’s Naivete

I nearly always experience a strong negative reaction to the over-optmistic “comos enthusiasm”  typically expressed by science educators such as the late Carl Sagan and Neil de Grasse Tyson: a rhapsodic view of a world which, at base, is really nothing but an amalgam of mindless cycles of force – which injure, sicken, age, and eventually kill us. I suppose that it’s “natural” enough to be mind-boggled or awed over the immensity, age, and complexity of the universe. But for me, that effect wears off fast. The universe brings us to birth, batters us, ages us, sickens us, kills us. There seem to be only two significant responses to this fact:

1) Even acknowledging the cosmos’s human-harming elements, it is still all wonderful; and how lucky we are to be part of it, we are star-stuff that has become aware of itself and “taken its destiny into its own hands” (Sagan at his most optimistic); it doesn’t matter that “It” is not aware of us and does not care about us, and will snuff us out without reprieve, and without ever knowing or caring that it spawned us.

2) Precisely because the universe is completely unlike us (except in its material processes of which are bodies are part) – i.e., precisely because there is nothing like mind in nature – there is really nothing to be awed or boggled about. Humans are sentient and sensate, the universe is not.

The core burden of modern “existential Man” is exactly this complete lack of anything in the cosmos even faintly resembling psyche, mind, spirit. Camus said, “If man found that – like himself – the universe could love, then he would be reconciled”. No reconciliation, however, is possible. The world is “irreducibly Other”. I share Camus’ pessimism (although not his atheism).

But – surely I cant’ really be saying that just because humans seem to be alone in a cosmos that is unaware of their existence; and becuase the cosmos evinces nothing like personhood; and because the cosmos is utterly unlike the psyche … then the cosmos is “just as common as dirt”? Yeah, I’m saying something pretty close to that – and more.

After all, what do galaxies, quantum weirdnesses, cosmic rays, exploding suns, have to do with me/us? Granted, they’re big, they’re ancient, they’re powerful. But so what?

The claim to longevity, vastness and power is exactly the degraded and worthless  defense that the Bronze Age, raging sky father, Yahweh, makes for himself in the book of Job. Trade Yahweh for the material universe, and you have the identical more-than-bleak situation:  in the one case, an almighty deity makes excuses for his coldness and harmful acts; in the other case, science-evangelists make a similar case for the universe. Yahweh is spirit; the cosmos is matter, but they’re both bad news for not only the human person, but also for all sentient beings who are inextricably caught in the wheels of the grinding cycles.  I don’t accept excuses on Yahweh’s behalf, or excuses on the universe’s behalf.

A wise and compassionate deity may or may not exist. But it is certain that the cosmos can never be put in the place of said deity. The idea is sheer folly, and the fact that science-evangelists cannot or will not see it,  is a harsh indictment of their perceptive capacities’ objectivity.

Two final, specific words about Tyson.

So egregious is his overconfidence and false superiority that I have saved an article in which he holds the phenomenon of alien abuction, and by implication its victims, up to an all-too-familiar ridicule. The link provided shows Tyson in the raw, thinking he’s clever and even “funny”, while offering no attempt at real explanation for reports of these strange encounters:

Especially obnoxious is Tyson’s arrogance about astronomical UFO sightings:

Many people, including all the amateur astronomers in the world, spend a lot of time looking up. We walk out of a building, we look up. Doesn’t matter what’s happening, we’re looking up. Yet UFO sightings are not higher among amateur astronomers than they are among the general public. In fact, they’re lower. Why is that so? Because we know sky phenomena. It’s what we study.

Aside from being a time-worn cliche and an appeal to authority, Tyson’s statement ignores the simple fact that professional astronomers have always reported UFOs. The evidence for this is abundant:

Tyson moves on from this seemingly deliberate omission to a sarcastic directive that abductees should perform the functional equivalent of stealing an ashtray from an alien spacecraft as proof of their experience – a suggestion as silly as it is unfunny.  But Tyson thinks it’s funny, and that’s all that matters: that is, Tyson’s indulgence in the anti-scientific practice of making mockery a principle of science is allowable, apparently, because Tyson is seemingly just so bright, affable and knowledgable that he can get away with it.

Finally, I recently I saw Tyson being extremist when vociferously supporting a high school student who had called out his teacher for endorsing Creationism/ID in the classroom. For the record: I’m with the kid. The teacher was out of bounds. But Tyson wanted the teacher fired, not because he mentioned Noah’s Ark, but because he was, in Tyson’s phraseology, “scientifically ignorant”.

This kind of reaction typifies the “Sagan-Tyson personality”. Instead of rightly nailing a fundamentalist teacher for the real crime of violating church-state separation, science-ists go all Thought Police in demanding that the teacher be removed for “scientific ignorance”, a somewhat different, and much more vague, consideration. Note that Tyson’s agenda apparently doesn’t include firing (for example) other benighted educators, e.g., religiously ignorant teachers, politically ignorant teachers, musically ignorant teachers, liberal art-ignorant teachers, etc. But  – of all these other partially-ignorant educators – only scientifically ignorant teachers must go. This incident serves to illustrate the radical parochialism and bias of Tyson’s thinking.

In summary:  Too many science popularizers – many of them believers in a scientifically unsustainable scientism – practice evangelism on behalf of insensate cosmic forces (while condemning most religious claims that reference a compassionate Spirit); dub their missionary zeal as “Reason”; and indulge in the staggering naivete of ignoring the fact that the teaching population is bound to include, has always included, and will continue to include a certain percentage of persons who are ignorant of science … and religion, history, and/or any other subject under the sun. Science evangelists’ turning a blind eye to all of these other classes of supposedly “unfit” teachers – while simultaneously demanding punishment only of the (“criminally”) “scientifically ignorant” educator – manifests a prejudice more appropriate to fundamentalists than to thoughtful, democratically-leaning, socially-informed scientists.

It could be argued that Tyson, as director of a leading planetarium, should be censored or even fired for using his position as a public platform for mixing science with mockery, misleading claims (e.g., UFOs and professional astronomers’ reporting of UFOs), half-baked philosophy, biased missionary zeal, and a host of other failings. But Tyson’s professional and social status seems so well-established that he ‘ll probably never need to worry that the same treatment he dishes out to others will ever effectively … karmically … return to him.


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