This astrophysicist may make wonderful arguments within the boundaries of astrophysics, but when he tries to play the role of philosopher of science, he parades his ignorance for the world to see. I have nothing against the man personally; he just happens to be the prevailing contemporary example of a typical modern scientist with a serious case of Déformation professionnelle whom the media has chosen as their darling. Combine this with the tragic tendency of modern minds to conflate physics with philosophy (or even theology!), and you have a uniquely dangerous scenario.
My point of departure will be this “tweet” from Neil, made in April of this year to his 14 and a half million followers:
One might find it strange that I am taking issue with a statement that appears to be a rebuttal of today’s Dictatorship of Relativism, in which truth itself is despised — but, unfortunately, his tweet is nothing but candied poison. To illustrate why this is so, I provide below a line-by-line rebuttal of the article he wrote and there links to, which he encourages reading to understand this tweet of his. Clearly Dr. Tyson feels this article is a magnificent exposition of his understanding of reality, being that he now begs his followers to read it — though it was written five years earlier — in order to understand his own teachings on the nature of science and truth. Refuting this article will, therefore, hopefully help Tyson’s fan club recognize the emptiness of his approach.
Beneath each line or paragraph from Tyson’s article in grey/italics, I present my own responses in bold.
Science distinguishes itself from all other branches of human pursuit by its power to probe and understand the behavior of nature on a level that allows us to predict with accuracy, if not control, the outcomes of events in the natural world.
(Note: Throughout this article, Tyson means “the modern empirical scientific method” when he says “science,” therefore I will adopt the same lexicon for this rebuttal, even though “science” properly and broadly understood is just any careful reasoned investigation.)
How absurd this statement is. What Tyson claims as science’s “distinguishing” marks do not, in fact, “distinguish” science at all. “Probing and understanding the behavior of nature” has been a constant theme throughout human history. Accurate reason and investigation based predictions of natural-world phenomena occurred for thousands of years before the birth of modern science, and inaccurate predictions plague modern science.
Science especially enhances our health, wealth and security, which is greater today for more people on Earth than at any other time in human history.
Really? The most scientific century in history — the 20th (we are still only in the beginning of the 21st century and therefore cannot yet judge it) — was the most bloody, genocidal, war-plagued, starvation-plagued, epidemic-plagued (Spanish flu may have killed more in 2 years than the Black Death did in 7 years — that was just one of the 20th century’s pandemics, along with polio, Asian flu, AIDS, Malaria, etc.) century in the history of the world. Today, in the developed world nations, our quantity of days may generally be somewhat higher, but our quality of days (even as far as mere physical health is concerned) is drastically lower; with most people either obese, addicted to substances, or plagued by some chronic physiological or psychological condition. This is not to mention the utterly erroneous nature of the common claim that only recently have life expectancies grown beyond 40. That is a wildly inaccurate guesstimate paraded as scientific; it results from scarcely grounded estimates of infant (often childbirth) mortality averaged in with the lifespan of those who made it past infancy when, in fact, a “median” would be a much more telling number than an “average” in determining average qualify of life, and would likely present something around 70 for centuries past. It is also an unfair comparison, since it does not include those murdered by abortion today; if it did, our modern life expectancy would look similar to the 40 year alleged life expectancy of pre-19th century people. If one actually strolls through an old graveyard in Europe and writes down the ages at death displayed on all the pre-19th century tombstones, he will come up with a life expectancy more like what we see today: somewhere around 70. About 70-80 has, for 4,000 years now, always been the standard life expectancy. “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures” Psalm 90:10, 1000 B.C. Science and technology have had relatively little effect on that. And what has science done for “wealth”? More people are in destitute poverty without adequate food or shelter than ever before. What has it done for “security”? Violence kills more now than it ever did, and science has done nothing to decrease murder rates.
Leaving those inconvenient facts aside: what exactly is the use of “health, wealth and security” if we are miserable? Modern society has by far the highest rates of depression, suicide, mental illness, anxiety, divorce, broken families — and on the list goes — than ever before in history. If science is supposed to be the key to human flourishing, it’s doing a good job pretending otherwise.
The scientific method, which underpins these achievements, can be summarized in one sentence, which is all about objectivity: Do whatever it takes to avoid fooling yourself into thinking something is true that is not, or that something is not true that is.
That is not even remotely close to summarizing the scientific method, but it’s decent enough advice.
This approach to knowing did not take root until early in the 17th century, shortly after the inventions of both the microscope and the telescope. The astronomer Galileo and philosopher Sir Francis Bacon agreed: conduct experiments to test your hypothesis and allocate your confidence in proportion to the strength of your evidence. Since then, we would further learn not to claim knowledge of a newly discovered truth until multiple researchers, and ultimately the majority of researchers, obtain results consistent with one another.
“This approach” has been the approach of serious thinkers for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks often did a better job with it than the modern era Europeans did, notwithstanding the telescopes, microscopes, and empiricism of the latter. Furthermore, it was neither modern scientific empiricism nor telescopes that generated the so-called “Copernican Revolution,” but was rather simply a continued rigorous plain-sight observation of the heavens combined with carefully reasoned thought which, over time, revealed more and more problems with the Ptolemaic system; a system which was heavily criticized even in the 1100s. Copernicus himself — a devout Catholic and a monk whose motivation was to aid in Liturgical calendar calculations — died long before the telescope was invented and used by Galileo, and long before Francis Bacon detailed the scientific method. Furthermore, it was ironically not even Copernicus who first put forth the “Copernican” set of arguments that enabled the “Copernican Revolution,” but rather was the Bishop of Lisieux, Nicole Oresme, in the 1300s (that’s three hundred years before the scientific method, telescopes, etc.). It was Oresme who described relative motion, the earth’s rotation, and other arguments which were blatantly used (unsurprisingly, without credit) by Galileo and Copernicus. It was, furthermore, only the impetus dynamics (a divergence from Aristotle’s mechanics), developed by Oresme’s own teacher, Jean Buridan (born 1301), which enabled Galileo and Copernicus to do their work. So much for the modern scientific method and instrumentation being, as Tyson implies, that which alone enables us to discover objective truths about nature.
This code of conduct carries remarkable consequences. There’s no law against publishing wrong or biased results. But the cost to you for doing so is high. If your research is rechecked by colleagues, and nobody can duplicate your findings, the integrity of your future research will be held suspect. If you commit outright fraud, such as knowingly faking data, and subsequent researchers on the subject uncover this, the revelation will end your career. It’s that simple.
Well, this seemingly truth-of-consensus-guaranteeing “code of conduct” is broken, since science is no less plagued by corruption than any other field. Usually, “the science” merely follows the funding, which in turn follows the politics, which in turn follows what people want to hear. Those who regularly publish (Tyson has had his PhD for 30 years and has scarcely contributed any scholarly publications and has contributed practically nothing to advance scientific knowledge) are well aware of this sorry state of affairs, and the few of them who are honest openly admit it.
This internal, self-regulating system within science may be unique among professions, and it does not require the public or the press or politicians to make it work. But watching the machinery operate may nonetheless fascinate you. Just observe the flow of research papers that grace the pages of peer reviewed scientific journals. This breeding ground of discovery is also, on occasion, a battlefield where scientific controversy is laid bare.
This is how all scholarly professions’ “internal, self-regulating” systems work, not just science’s.
Science discovers objective truths. These are not established by any seated authority, nor by any single research paper. The press, in an effort to break a story, may mislead the public’s awareness of how science works by headlining a just-published scientific paper as “the truth,” perhaps also touting the academic pedigree of the authors. In fact, when drawn from the moving frontier, the truth has not yet been established, so research can land all over the place until experiments converge in one direction or another—or in no direction, itself usually indicating no phenomenon at all.
Plenty of good exists in this paragraph (e.g. Tyson’s lamenting how the click-bait media parades recent papers as “the truth” when in fact they are just conjecture), mixed in with plenty of garbage.
For example, research seeming to “converge in one direction” is often an indication of nothing other than shared, but hidden, background assumptions generating their inevitable results — or, perhaps more commonly, the motives of the primary funding sources, conference operators, and journal administrators eliciting the predictable responses.
Furthermore, science very rarely discovers objective truths. Good science indeed begins with objective truths (which are not themselves discovered by science; no field generates its own starting points) — even if individual scientists do not realize this is what they are doing — but the conclusions it reaches have their own degree of certitude inescapably limited by the weakest premise used in their demonstration; which is usually a premise that is deliberately ignored due to its inconvenience, and is perhaps why the vast majority of scientific studies cannot have their findings replicated; which is to say, they are completely useless (for example, the fundamental inability to prove the reliability of radiometric dating beyond several thousand years, and the lack of a single piece of evidence in the fossil record to support macroevolution, the utter absurdity of all the various theories on the supposed origin of the alleged “LUCA,” Last Universal Common Ancestor of Evolution — see page 25 of The Crown of Sanctity).
Once an objective truth is established by these methods, it is not later found to be false. We will not be revisiting the question of whether Earth is round; whether the sun is hot; whether humans and chimps share more than 98 percent identical DNA; or whether the air we breathe is 78 percent nitrogen.
This is circular reasoning. Obviously, if some assertion is indeed an objective truth, then by definition it is never found to be false. This does not mean we have modern science to thank for the objective truths we know. The four weak examples Tyson chooses illustrate this well: the first two are not thanks to modern science, and the second two are anything but settled and permanently unquestionable objective truths. The ancient Greeks demonstrated that the earth was round (and accurately calculated its circumference through inferential philosophical and mathematical reasoning even though they could not directly measure it) thousands of years before modern science. They also concluded that the sun was hot (though that doesn’t take much genius, since the sun obviously causes heat, and no effect is greater than its cause).
And it is laughable to claim know, with objective-truth-certainty, precisely what percentage of DNA humans share with chimps (for this presupposes, among other conjectures, that we can be certain we’ve already fully and accurately mapped the human genome — and, in fact, we haven’t done so. In 2003, they pretended we did — and Tyson is evidently only aware of this marketing ploy and is unaware of the details of the actual science underneath it — as it later came to light that we didn’t fully map it). As to the percentage of the air that is nitrogen; this is fundamentally incapable of being some permanent and objective truth, since it could change at any point due to unforeseen circumstances, or we could have measured it incorrectly — or we could have simply taken insufficient measurements to actually be certain of the precise composition, or there could be a fundamental design flaw in our instruments, or we could be misinterpreting the data given by the instruments, or today’s elemental atomic theory could have errors mixed in with it (it almost certainly does, and tomorrow’s scientists will assure us of this), and on the list goes. So much for the entire point Tyson is here trying to make.
The era of “modern physics,” born with the quantum revolution of the early 20th century and the relativity revolution of around the same time, did not discard Newton’s laws of motion and gravity. What it did was describe deeper realities of nature, made visible by ever-greater methods and tools of inquiry. Modern physics enclosed classical physics as a special case of these larger truths.
True, 20th century physics does not discard Newtonian Physics; and some elements of the latter, I think, do constitute legitimate objective truths about the natural world. But these were not discovered thanks to what Tyson regards here as science. The devout Christian, Isaac Newton, in the year 1666 at age 23, developed them from his intelligent and common sense observation of the world and careful abstract thought. He did not in the least employ the type of scientific empirical, experimental, consensus-based method that Tyson has in mind and here advocates for as the sole arbiter of truth. If anything, Newton used a Euclidean like mathematical and philosophical deduction from more general truths — precisely the type of approach Tyson here implicitly rejects.
So the only times science cannot assure objective truths is on the pre-consensus frontier of research, and the only time it couldn’t was before the 17th century, when our senses—inadequate and biased—were the only tools at our disposal to inform us of what was and was not true in our world.
Here in Tyson’s article, we arrive at a whole new level of crazy. Though modern philosophical education is in dire straits indeed, even there an undergraduate today taking Philosophy 101 would flunk for uttering such nonsense (though Tyson, like many who share his tunnel vision and starry-eyed infatuation with his own field, has nothing but scorn for good philosophy).
Tyson’s first clause here implies two flagrant errors: 1) that consensus guarantees truth (proofs of the contrary are too numerous to list), 2) that that objective truth cannot be attained without consensus (how absurd — if something is true then it is true; it makes absolutely no difference how many people agree or disagree with it — evidently Tyson does not even believe in the existence of the very perception-independent truth that his article is putatively dedicated to defending the existence of!).
Perhaps even more absurd is Tyson’s insistence that objective truth was only accessible upon the invention of the microscope and telescope (which is doubtless what he is referring to here by saying “before the 17th century”). What, Dr. Tyson, pray tell, are you using to ascertain what your telescope or microscope “sees”? Does your telescope telepathically communicate objective truths to your intellect? No. You rely on your senses, Dr. Tyson, just as much as Aristotle did, and you always will have to do just that.
This is not to mention just how much philosophers and other thinkers were capable of doing well before the birth of telescopes and the modern scientific method in the 17th century. The hydraulics; machines; incredibly detailed descriptions of biological phenomena in animals, plants, and humans; astrolabes; irrigation; windmills; optics; clocks; architecture; agriculture… on the list goes. And we are still, to this day, struggling to plumb the depths of the incredible knowledge of the ancient Greek thinkers — not just hundreds of years before modern science, but thousands. For example, only in the last few decades have logicians begun to realize that Aristotle and the Stoics beat contemporary thinkers to a number of their conclusions. Aristotle’s syllogistic logic remains perfect and — whether modern scientists want to admit it or not — is the very thing that underpins all of their (legitimate and successful) pursuits. The secular modern thinker, Bertrand Russel, rightly called Charles Darwin himself a mere “schoolboy” in comparison to Aristotle, simply as far as biology was concerned! (Aristotle, though regarded as a philosopher, wrote more on biology than anything else.)
Objective truths exist outside of your perception of reality, such as the value of pi; E = mc²; Earth’s rate of rotation; and that carbon dioxide and methane are greenhouse gases. These statements can be verified by anybody, at any time, and at any place. And they are true, whether or not you believe in them.
This is said well enough, but yet again the examples given disprove the point Tyson is trying to make in the article, (and his insistence that truths are independent of perception undercuts what he says elsewhere, since this means they are also independent of consensus). The value of pi was discovered thousands of years before modern science (though, of course, we still do not know exactly what pi is, nor will we ever know, since it is an “irrational number.” Indeed, modern science and technology has enabled us to compute trillions of digits of pi, which, for 99.999% of purposes, is not any more helpful than knowing the several digits we have known for thousands of years). E=mc^2 was not developed using the tools of modern empirical science, but was rather deduced mathematically using only theoretical abstract thought.
Meanwhile, personal truths are what you may hold dear, but have no real way of convincing others who disagree, except by heated argument, coercion or by force. These are the foundations of most people’s opinions. Is Jesus your savior? Is Mohammad God’s last prophet on Earth? Should the government support poor people? Is Beyoncé a cultural queen? Kirk or Picard?
Here Tyson asserts not merely at the absurd, but the diabolical.
2,000 years ago, a man named Jesus claimed Divinity, performed many miracles (including raising Himself from the dead), founded a Church which persists to this day, and asserted that He was the one and only way to salvation, while demanding allegiance from all people until the end of time, at which point He promised to come again to Judge the living and the dead. These simple assertions pertain to historical events — what a certain man did and said in a certain time and place. They are either objectively true or objectively false (hint: they’re objectively true, and we can know this with absolute certainty: pp 35-41); but one thing they definitely are not is mere “personal truths” that are somehow ontologically inferior to the “objective truths of science.”
Where Tyson came up with the idea that historical events are mere “personal truths,” for which the truth has “no real way” of being arrived at is beyond me. The most important debates that occur in society — court cases — are about precisely that: settling the facts regarding what transpired in the past. Once Tyson himself dies (which will be relatively soon), debates will ensue regarding what he actually said/did. Dear Dr. Tyson: will these debates be mere “personal matters” that cannot be settled as matters of objective truth? Should each person have a right to decide for himself what you said or did? Should, even now, we each be allowed to have our “own personal opinion” regarding whether you, Dr. Tyson, are a sexual predator — or should objectively discerning the facts of the situation decide the matter?
Indeed, the data obtained through empirical science is just one if infinitely many realms which are objective matters of fact which can, and must, have their truth or falsity discovered and abided by.
In particular, what has transpired in the past is as objective-truth-relevant a question as one can possibly ask: something either did, or did not, happen; and once we know the answer, it cannot possibly change — whereas virtually everything the “consensus of scientists” asserts about their field can indeed change (any scientist who actually publishes admits this), and often does change (Tyson should look into the Phlogiston consensus).
Science only appears like a steady march towards truth — an unvarying accumulation of more and more objective knowledge of reality — to one who has never delved any deeper than the popular textbooks made for the masses. Tyson, apparently, has read only these. He may be well versed in the minutiae of astrophysics, but when it comes to science as such, he is not even a dilettante — for it appears he has not even dabbled. He appears not even aware of the fact that there is such a thing as the study of science itself, as not even the most elementary introductions to that study contain the naivete Tyson here displays. For when one delves into the study of science as such, one quickly realizes that science’s most famous moments are much more so a pseudo-rational march of conflicting paradigms, as opposed to a triumphant ascendancy closer and closer to Truth and Reality itself.
The sheer folly of Tyson insinuating that — when it comes to the fundamental Truths of the Christian Faith, all we can do is “have no real way of convincing others who disagree” as opposed to empirical science, which alone can provide objectively true answers — boggles the mind. If truths of the moral law, truths about God, truths about the historicity of past events, truths about human nature, metaphysical truths of reason about the universe, etc., are somehow “outside the boundaries of objective truth,” then science is also helplessly outside of this same boundary.
As Tyson himself admits; science hypothesizes, tests, observes: repeat. If this process has any hope of attaining objective truth, it presupposes the objective-truth-capability of each of its own steps. Hypothesis: logic, reason, philosophy. Observation: common sense, authority of the 5 senses, intelligibility and lawfulness of reality. Test: metaphysical framework, epistemological framework, linguistic framework. All of this must be capable of ascertaining objective truth in order for modern science itself to be capable of ascertaining objective truth. How, therefore, can Tyson expect to be taken seriously if he arbitrarily insists that these very premises of science itself — the very tools science itself absolutely depends upon — can only be licitly used in discovering truth within empirical science?
These tools are superior to empirical science and existed before empirical science. One might as well use his old hammer to drive in a new brand of framing nails and proceed to insist that the only legitimate use of the hammer is to drive in these very nails. Instead of presenting an entire treatise here, I will focus on just one point: the authority of the senses. The scientific discoveries Tyson here exalts consist in observing — with the senses, whether the senses observe something directly or observe some instrument’s readout — time and time again, certain occurrences which consistently abide by a certain hypothesized generalized rule. Eventually, this rule is declared a “law” if exceptions are not found. But the persuasive force of that “scientific law” rests entirely upon that which was relied upon to discover it: the senses. When, therefore, the authority of the senses indisputably tells us something else — perhaps beyond the domain of empirical science, such as miracles — then it is utter logical bankruptcy to appeal to the very “laws of science,” which themselves only exist thanks to the authority of the senses, in order to attempt to dispute that which the authority of the senses indisputably attests!
Differences in opinion define the cultural diversity of a nation, and should be cherished in any free society. You don’t have to like gay marriage. Nobody will ever force you to gay-marry. But to create a law preventing fellow citizens from doing so is to force your personal truths on others. Political attempts to require that others share your personal truths are, in their limit, dictatorships.
Yet again, Tyson starkly contradicts himself. One cannot tout the superlative importance of knowing and heeding objective truths while at the same time insisting that we should “cherish” contradictory views on these very truths. His point on gay “marriage” is particularly self-contradictory. The Faithful rightly oppose gay “marriage” not because we fear we might one day be forced into one. We oppose gay marriage because it is a lie: because it contradicts objective truth. It seeks to bless as good that which is, in fact, objectively disordered. We oppose it for the same reason Tyson would no doubt oppose government funding of flat-earth theory promulgation. The primary problem with gay “marriage” is, of course, that it contradicts objective truths of philosophy (reason) and theology (faith), but it also contradicts objective truths of science (empiricism): namely, biology. If Tyson cannot see this, we are confronted with yet another testimony to his own blindness. The complementarity of the sexes, the fundamental nature of marriage, and the disordered nature of two people of the same sex sharing a romantic/sexual relationship, are not mere “personal truths;” they are, rather, objective truths far more solidly set in stone than any alleged law of modern empirical science.
Note further that in science, conformity is anathema to success. The persistent accusations that we are all trying to agree with one another is laughable to scientists attempting to advance their careers. The best way to get famous in your own lifetime is to pose an idea that is counter to prevailing research and which ultimately earns a consistency of observations and experiment. This ensures healthy disagreement at all times while working on the bleeding edge of discovery.
Tyson is famous because he is a crowd-pleaser; extremely few real scientists are famous. Only one who, like Tyson, has never bothered to “pose an idea that is counter to prevailing research” could speak so highly to the likelihood of doing this generating success today. These days, whoever dares contradict the mainstream scientific narrative is immediately censored, attacked, and persecuted.
Besides, Tyson here is just succumbing to the fallacy of the survivor bias. The only people we remember for countering their peers are the scarce few who succeeded in doing so and later were exalted for it. The vast, vast majority who do so are forgotten precisely because of how much they are ridiculed. There are, for example, multitudes of scientists who reject macroevolution. One scarcely ever hears of them in mainstream sources, however.
In 1863, a year when he clearly had more pressing matters to attend to, Abraham Lincoln—the first Republican president—signed into existence the National Academy of Sciences, based on an Act of Congress. This august body would provide independent, objective advice to the nation on matters relating to science and technology.
Wonderful. Any single member of that academy when founded by Lincoln would abhor what Tyson is saying in this article.
Today, other government agencies with scientific missions serve similar purpose, including NASA, which explores space and aeronautics; NIST, which explores standards of scientific measurement, on which all other measurements are based; DOE, which explores energy in all usable forms; and NOAA, which explores Earth’s weather and climate.
Thank goodness we have all of these magisterial bodies capable of governing us in accordance with their “infallible consensus-of-scientists-discovered-objective-truths”! Who could ever dream of any of these branches of the Federal Government ever issuing anything but impeccable decrees of immutable truths? They would never do so, right?, Right? Right? Right? Right? Right?
These centers of research, as well as other trusted sources of published science, can empower politicians in ways that lead to enlightened and informed governance. But this won’t happen until the people in charge, and the people who vote for them, come to understand how and why science works.
First, scientists like Tyson will have to understand how science works, and what its limitations are. Then, and only then, will science be able to help us — as opposed to what it is doing today, which is by and large destroying us.