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Smug condescension, other signatures of Sagan, Tyson eras

Honza U. sent me a link to a wonderful text by Robert Tracinski,

Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Science of Smug Condescension (
That website seems to be all about Neil deGrasse Tyson whom I don't consider too important in one way or another (perhaps just because I have never been exposed to his recent TV program: I have no idea whether I would like most of it!) but he plays the role of the "symbol" of some undesirable trends in the attitude to science that the laymen are being led to in this world.

Neil deGrasse Tyson – and before him, to some extent, even Carl Sagan – often create the picture that it's important for the viewers to get familiar with the scientific thinking, have appreciation for it, and ignore the invalidity or inaccuracy of the facts that are sometimes sold to make a "bigger point".

But as Tracinski rightfully mentions, the respect for the facts – and for accuracy – is really a cornerstone of the actual scientific method so there's no way for the Tyson "facts-ignoring" and "facts-twisting" style to educate people to think in a way that is actually scientific. Instead, these methods only strengthen the point that "it is the show that matters" and create low-brow cults of personality and not really any understanding for science. If a presenter is as smart and as educated as an average undergrad, he is also likely to err equally frequently – but the cult of an "infallible science guy" prevents some people from understanding this simple point.

A photograph and some stories added by the author remind us that these Nyes and Tysons – symbols of this era – love to sleep with the powerful. They love to claim that complex questions – such as whether there exists a "climatic threat" – are being claimed to boil down to basic physics even though this is demonstrably not the case. Tracinski enumerates many of the usual facts and complexities in the climate debate that the alarmists love to obfuscate and deny, while being very proud about it.

The basic scientific claims behind the ideology are "moving targets" and they get silently modified ("global cooling" threat becomes "global warming" threat, the "hiatus", once a heresy, becomes something ordinary they must have expected, and so on) if it is needed for the true cornerstone of this would-be scientific viewpoint to be preserved. And the true cornerstone is smug condescension and the desire to feel superior in comparison with everyone who actually dares to think instead of just embracing extremely oversimplified slogans along with the lie that this is how science may actually answer some questions.

There are many other points and formulations in the article that I appreciated. It's not a 100% original text – all of us realize these things in one way or another – but they are formulated in somewhat novel ways and the author's choice of Tyson as a symbol of these bad things made me think about all these well-known problems (and about the question whether they're quite new) in a fresh new way.

Well, I would say that the idea that the "vigorous repetition of simple, extremely oversimplified slogans creates a special bond between a person and science" is relevant well beyond the climate debate and other things sometimes distorted by the likes of Tyson. Shm*its and H*rgans of the world are really doing the very analogous things. They make their simple-minded listeners believe that slogans such as "science isn't allowed to have many Universes, theories with non-unique predictions about something are unscientific" turn them into scientists or better people who acquire the capital to correct top physicists and feel superior relatively to them.

While the slogan may be "correlated with the truth" in some contexts, it's clearly not a valid universal principle across science and the evidence makes it pretty clear that it's mostly wrong in fundamental physics. But those people can't get these points because they have already been brainwashed into thinking that a mindless repetition that "an XY slogan makes them good at science" while "those who dare to disagree must be unscientific" has been hardwired into these gullible people's nerves.

If those people have ever had the potential to think scientifically – to critically evaluate their assumptions by a comparison with the evidence – then this ability has been killed as these people have been turned into mindless zombies and annoying brainwashed prejudiced parrots (apologies to the birds: I don't really mean that every exotic bird must be as stupid as a Shm*it or H*rgan follower).

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reader br said...

"ignore the invalidity or inaccuracy of the facts that are sometimes sold to make a "bigger point"."
Which clearly contrasts with Feynman, who always seemed to include in his public lectures a sentence like 'I will not describe it with an analogy to something familiar, I will simply describe it' . He seemed to be quite popular, though I wonder what he would have done if given a big budget and a TV series :)

reader Luboš Motl said...

Right - and I am confident that he would struggle for accuracy even if he were a host of long TV series.

What may be explained may be limited but it's extremely important for one's understanding of science if he fully and accurately masters at least *one* problem, perhaps a simpler one, far from the cutting edge. That's really needed for one to understand the striking difference between the true understanding - in which one not only knows what the right answers are but also where the knowledge about them really comes from, in an active way that allows one to derive generalizations etc. - and just repeating some bogus, incomplete, or misleading "explanations".

A person who hasn't yet experienced the deep difference between these two sensations couldn't have started to approach the world scientifically yet.

reader Dilaton said...

This reminds me of the saying that repeating a lie (or a bad wrong slogan) X times does not make it more true ...