Neil deGrasse Tyson and Nerdist throw astrophysics in the crab-bucket? - blog by Gurdur


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Neil deGrasse Tyson and Nerdist throw astrophysics in the crab-bucket?
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Posted 14-May-2014 at 01:13 AM (01:13) by Gurdur
Updated 14-May-2014 at 06:29 AM (06:29) by Never (fixed typos)

Astrophysics, what use is it? The stars are far away, and as Cassius in Shakespeare's play says, the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings. You could add the fault is in ourselves, not in our stars, when we are ignorant, or simply stupid. Put all that in a different way: when I was a teenager, working in cruddy factories and on worse building-sites, reading a book was seen socially as a bad thing, akin to Communism or being gay. Reading a book was a major no-no. Oddly enough, in practice reading books led to learning how to fight mean and dirty. Funny, how these things work out. The constant cry of the book-haters was, what use is it all? And to them, it was all of little use indeed. A book on astrophysics would have left them angry, frustrated and scornful. What use is astrophysics to them? They were all very, very sure they knew all the answers that could possibly matter to them. They were also determined no-one should question the ruling order, that no-one should step out of the boundaries by reading books. They were totally determined to control the crab-bucket of our daily lives back then.

Such an attitude is not rare. Hey, right now there's Russell Brand in effect telling students that study is useless. Hey, Russell Brand got where he is without any good qualifications, so ... Of course, you can ask the obvious question: how many people get anywhere good without study, without some sort of qualification, whether as skilled tradesman or whatever? Just how many manage to get where Russell Brand is, on his level of income, without any kind of good qualification? The less you're qualified, the worse your chances are of making any kind of decent wages, of escaping the crab-bucket of life on low income. Did Russell Brand bother thinking about that? No; Russell Brand makes a thing of not thinking too much, as when he told young people not to bother voting. A whole lot of young people told him back they preferred to be taken seriously by politicians rather than follow Brand's posturing. You can of course take Russell Brand's word as gospel, and not bother studying or voting, and you can gather with all the other angry, resentful losers, whine about your life, and try making sure no-one reads a book or escapes from your crab-bucket. Or you can study, vote, and ask questions.

Back to the alleged uselessness of astrophysics. If you're willing to step outside your own narrow, narrow world for just a minute, you realize that astrophysics may have quite a bit of use. It's all part of what's called "basic research", research that may or may not lead to any useful result, but should be done just in case it leads to some useful result far down the line, far away in the future. Basic research is a way of exploring questions, not immediately giving practical answers. As for astrophysics, we may reach the stars one day, we've already reached the Moon, we've set probes to Mars and elsewhere. But again, someone might say, so what? What is the actual use of it? And their attitude is, ideals and hopes be damned, give me the cash-value of the thing right now. Welcome to the crab-bucket, it's easier than asking questions.

Now Neil deGrasse Tyson joins in on the act. He dismisses philosophy, and tells people not to bother studying it. He does all this along with a couple of self-satisfied bores in a Nerdist podcast which is just jam-packed with unintentional irony. For example, Tyson dismisses philosophy as a whole using the example of, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"

Only, that example doesn't come from philosophy; it's actually a Zen Buddhist koan, and it has a purpose. Part of its purpose was breaking through the intense self-consciousness so many felt and feel in Japanese culture. Tyson could have easily found that out; instead he uses it as a strawman to condemn philosophy. It gets really ironic when in the podcast deGrasse Tyson advocates science as a way of finding out what the facts really are; he should be getting a lot of facts right about philosophy.

One unnamed host of the Nerdist podcast (@NerdistDotCom) bitches about philosophy asking too many questions. Well, if you want easy certainties, go down to the pub on losers' night and listen to everyone tell you why it's stupid to read books, which is just as useful and valid as listening to this Nerdist podcast or to Russell Brand on the value of study and voting.

Not once during a whole hour do deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) or the Nerdist podcasters get around to accurately describing what philosophy actually is. Instead you get treated to a whole lot of vague posturing and condemnation of asking too many questions, followed up in all unintentional irony by deGrasse Tyson citing both the Moody Blues and Rainer Maria Rilke on the value of asking questions. Sure, there's some pretense throughout the podcast that somehow philosophy is asking the "wrong" questions, or that science teaches you how to ask the right questions. Except that's all pretence. Asking the right questions is a matter of learning one hell of a lot, and that's not at all limited to science. Part of what's needed is experience, another part among many is logic; guess where logic comes from? Oh, it comes from philosophy, not science. Whoops.

I knew once a professor who taught the yearly philosophy course in logic in the uni. He made the observation that many people failed the course, even though it was not very advanced logic. Almost all the failures were men; he said the young men too often came into the course thinking they knew it all already, and had no need to learn any philosophy nonsense. They ended up failing fairly basic logic.

That gets us onto what philosophy actually is. You hear a lot of posturing nonsense about how philosophy is just people blathering at each other (maybe they should attend an astrophysics conference, or far worse, listen to Nerdist podcasts). Except philosophy isn't that; trying to reduce philosophy down to whatever empty symbol you despise is exactly like reducing astrophysics down to some dweeb chuntering about some star far away. It's just ignorance. Philosophy is one huge bundle of different fields, ranging from language, to symbols, to morals and ethics, to the limits of scientific knowledge, and how we can model processes to understand them. It's all that and more, much more. It's also very difficult, and it takes a lot of learning. Just like logic, a very small sub-field of philosophy, you don't understand or know it just because you think so out of ignorance.

Massimo Pigliucci, who professionally does both science and philosophy, has also answered deGrasse Tyson. All the answers in the world won't do any good for someone who refuses to listen. Tyson made a reply to Pigliucci which didn't say answer a thing Pigliucci had said. Next time some Congressman in the USA stands up and denounces pure science, or denounces NASA funding,he could use all the same arguments deGrasse Tyson and the Nerdist podcast use against philosophy. He too can create ignorant strawmen, and denounce astrophysics as being a useless and expensive talking-shop for layabouts. He too can rabbit smugly about how he knows the real truth, and how those academic smartypants just need to get out into the real world. He too can use all these arguments and postures just like anyone telling you that reading books is for gay Commies.

But deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist, and one of the leading science communicators in the States. Maybe he should actually get his facts right before this kind of thing. The pursuit of science itself depends on an explorative spirit, and philosophy too is all about exploration, just of a different kind. As for the Nerdist podcast, I listened to it all and did not learn one single thing. I learned nothing new - beyond that deGrasse Tyson, whom I otherwise greatly admire for his work, can have a really off-day, and that the Nerdist podcast people can sound just as uselessly ignorant as any loser in a factory or pub telling you that reading books is bad for your health. By using such tactics, Nerdist and deGrasse Tyson only strengthen ignorance and the advocation of ignorance. The same sort of smugly self-satisfied dumping can just as easily be used to dump on astrophysics, or anything else. When Neil deGrasse Tyson and Nerdist throw philosophy into the crab-bucket and declare it unworthy of study, every single tactic and type of argument they use goes just as well for astrophysics.

No need to take my word for it. Ask questions. Get out there and learn what philosophy actually is. Study some of it, hard. Get out there and learn what science is. Get out there and learn why science doesn't magically give you logic nor ethics. Ask questions, and don't accept fatuously empty posturing. If you still don't like philosophy or reading books after trying, that's fine. No-one is demanding you should like it or find it worthy; the only things asked of you are:
  • If you're going to condemn something, at least do it on a factual basis, not with crappy strawmen and rhetoric.
  • Learn that just because you think something is worthless for you yourself does not make it worthless on the whole.



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  1. Old Comment
    Gurdur's Avatar
    Of relevance:

    Posted 14-May-2014 at 07:40 PM (19:40) by Gurdur Gurdur is offline
  2. Old Comment
    This is really disappointing to read, especially so because i like deGrasse Tyson too. I mean his famous defense of astrophysics is inspiring precisely because he tells his audience to look beyond their noses (or more precisely beyond their pockets) and farther into the future, to see things in context, to see consequences which are not readily apparent.
    His stance on philosophy makes him essentially a hypocryte.

    The thing is, i am really surprised that someone as intelligent as him could be so misinformed and ignorant. Did he never question common wisdom, 'self evident truth' or moral prescription before? Did he never use logic to find a contradiction in an argument? I simply find it hard to believe that could be the case for a thinker such as him. Because that IS philosophy.

    I remember one occassion where an interviewer asked him if he would like to live forever, and he answered 'no'. The interviewer responded 'i am not that good'. I was immediately struct by a question - why? Why is it that even the interviewer who himself apparently disagreed considered him 'good' because of that answer? Not one of the other guests even stopped to think about it. Not one of them asked the question. And yet, i don't think it is a useless question - the answer can have profound impact on one's wolrdview. But to get the answer, you first have to ask. It seems he thinks there is something wrong with that ...
    Posted 15-Aug-2014 at 11:01 PM (23:01) by Lucifer Lucifer is offline
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