Neil deGrasse Tyson: pedantry in space
by Sam Kriss
Something terrible happened to you in outer space. All you can remember are the last few moments, the sun fading to a speck as you and your crew broke free from the solar system, the ship’s systems suddenly shutting down, the panic and blackness inside, shouting and sobbing, outside the phosphorescent fringes of the wormhole as it opened up in front of you – and then you woke up, sweat-slick in your own bed at sunrise, with the birds singing outside, in another universe. You are trapped in the world of the popular TV astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and you know this, because here the sunrise isn’t a sunrise at all. In fact, the earth is a sphere orbiting the sun, so the sun does not in any sense actually ‘rise’ – it’s just that you happen to be positioned right on the moving line, known as the ‘terminator’, that separates the illuminated portion of the planet from its dark side. And the birds singing aren’t really singing – actually, they’re just emitting a series of noises without any of the tonal qualities that distinguish singing from other vocal emissions. And the bed isn’t yours, because scientists have never been able to find any way of isolating ‘ownership’ in the physical composition of any object. You jump out of bed and start banging frantically at the walls. Is there no way out? Where are your crew? You rush to the window, and almost collapse in horror. It’s all there, spread out in front of you, exactly like home: everything is exactly the same, but in this sick parody of a universe it’s all been twisted into something hollow, meaningless, and mercilessly dull.
Pink strands of cloud fizzle up from the horizon, and you know that actually the horizon is just the curvature of the earth, and that the clouds, which were once believed to be inhabited by angels, house nothing of the sort. A few people are already outside in the streets below you, jogging, going to work, but they’re not really people. Actually, they’re just apes of the family Hominidae, most closely related to the genus Pan, going about their ape-business, which remains primarily motivated by the ape-needs of food, shelter, and sex. There is nothing that isn’t instantly boring. It’s too much. You rush into the kitchen, rattling the drawer in sheer panic (actually just dyspnea, tachycardia and dilation of the pupils caused by a surge of epinephrine in your body), pull out the knife (actually just a piece of metal attached to a piece of wood), and open your wrists. The blood (which was once thought to be one of the four humours, governing personality traits, but which is actually primarily used to transmit oxygen) glugs out, darker in colour and slower than you’d expected. It’ll be over now, you think. But actually, you’re not dying: you’re just a collection of atoms, and every single one of those atoms will remain. Not only are you in this universe, this universe is in you.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is, supposedly, an educator and a populariser of science; it’s his job to excite people about the mysteries of the universe, communicate information, and correct popular misconceptions. This is a noble, arduous, and thankless job, which might be why he doesn’t do it. What he actually does is make the universe boring, tell people things that they already know, and dispel misconceptions that nobody actually holds. In his TV appearances, puppeted by an invisible army of scriptwriters, this tendency is barely held in check, but in his lectures or on the internet it’s torrential; a seeping flood of grey goo, paring down the world to its driest, dullest, most colourless essentials. He likes to watch scifi films, and point out all the inaccuracies. Actually, lasers wouldn’t make any sound in space; actually a light year is a unit of space rather than time; actually, none of this is real, it’s just a collection of still images projected at speed to present the illusion of movement, and all the characters are just actors who have never really been into outer space. When the rapper B.o.B. started loudly declaring that there’s a vast conspiracy to hide that fact that the world is really flat, Neil deGrasse Tyson immediately jumped in to refute him, even featuring on a eye-stabbingly awful rap song insisting that ‘B.o.B. gotta know that the planet is a sphere, G’ – a passionate, useless, and embarrassing defence of the blindingly obvious. In a world that’s simply given, brute fact, any attempt to imagine it into an entirely different shape must be stamped out. Why? The subject-matter is cosmic and transcendental, the object-cause is petty and stupid. Neil deGrasse Tyson strides onto stage to say that actually the Earth orbits the sun, that actually living beings gain their traits through evolutionary processes, that actually your hand has five fingers, that actually cows go moo, that actually poo comes out your bum – and you are then supposed to think yes, I knew that, and imagine someone else, someone who didn’t know it already, some idiot, and think: I’m better than that person, I’m so much smarter than everyone else.
A decent name for this tendency, for stars and spaceships recast as the instruments of a joyless and pedantic class spite, would be I Fucking Love Science. ‘Science’ here has very little to do with the scientific method itself; it means ontological physicalism, not believing in our Lord Jesus Christ, hating the spectrally stupid, and, more than anything, pretty pictures of nebulae and tree frogs. ‘Science’ comes to metonymically refer to the natural world, the object of science; it’s like describing a crime as ‘the police,’ or the ocean as ‘drinking.’ What ‘I Fucking Love Science’ actually means is ‘I Fucking Love Existing Conditions.’ But because the word ‘science’ still pings about between the limits of a discourse that depends on the exclusion of alternate modes of knowledge, the natural world of I Fucking Love Science is presented as being essentially a series of factual statements. There are no things, there are only truths. The fact that the earth is a sphere is vast and ponderous: you stand on its grinding surface, as that fact carries you on its heavy plod around our nearest star. The fact that the forms of organic life emerge through Darwinian evolution is fractal and distributed, so that little fragments of that fact will bark at you in the street or dart chirping overhead. The fact that there is no God, being a negative statement, is invisible, but you know for certain that it’s out there.
Which is not to say that there’s any requirement that these facts be true. None of this is real. Those multicoloured nebulae are not real objects, they exist only in fantastic pictures overlaid with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s face and some vague sentiments about how wonderful the universe is when it’s very far away from human life. The images are digitally stitched together, the colours are fake, the shapes are not anything that could actually be seen out the window of your spaceship, a real-life nebula is about as exciting as a damp fog. If you’re going to love the natural world, really Fucking Love it, it’s best that you know as little about it as possible, or it might start to seem less lovable. Like when Neil DeGrasse Tyson quipped that ‘if ever there were a species for which sex hurt, it surely went extinct long ago.’ It’s a perfect Tyson fact, true because it’s basically tautologous, its scientific quality having everything to do with the idea that actual phenomena are just instantiations of abstract laws, and nothing to do with any scientific observation, such as listening to the yelps of cats fucking at night, or to women. Or when his TV show Cosmos described the sixteeth-century astrologer Giordano Bruno as a martyr for science, executed by the Catholic church for proposing a heliocentric solar system. See how the idiots persecute us, the rational, with their superstition and their hostility to objective thought. The reality – that Bruno believed in magic, worshipped the ancient Egyptian god Thoth, and was executed not for heliocentrism but for denying the divinity of Christ – is ignored, because that isn’t Fucking Science Love. Or when he decided that ‘Italy valued cathedrals while Spain valued explorers. So worldwide, five times as many people speak Spanish than Italian.’ A spurious reconstruction of the past from present conditions, or the I Fucking Love Scientific theory of history: successful tribes were populated by little atavistic Carl Sagans; if Italians didn’t slaughter millions in the New World it isn’t because the peninsula was at the time fractured into multiple city-states (some of them occupied by, uh, Spain) which supplied significant amounts of capital rather than colonists, it’s because they weren’t interested in spaceships.
But all this is pedantry, the perverse insistence on how the world is, the total apathy to how it could be different. Pedantry could be broadly defined as a hostility to metaphor, the demand that every object stand for itself and nothing else, that words function in the same way as numbers. Which is why it’s pointless to criticise Neil deGrasse Tyson or the I Fucking Love Scientists for being the pompous, self-important, and utterly cretinous pedants that they are: it’s just falling back into their own dismal, boring logic, insisting that a thing is what it is rather than something else. It won’t help you, lying dazed on the lino, the blood now spluttering in half-congealed dribs from your arms, running diagonally to the corner of the room, where the cat is skittishly starting to lap it up with tiny flicks of its tongue. You lie there, and you try to remember if you ever did really go into outer space. It was so black out there, you remember. And all the stars were so far apart.
[…] Kaynak: Neil deGrasse Tyson: pedantry in space […]
I wish i could read this because it is just dots that form symbols that are only meaningful for a short period of time to a special group that congregates to agree on the meaning of “is”.
When I read that ridiculous battle between BoB and Tyson, I thought of you, Sam. And I thought, how much more interesting is BoB’s position, how much more it has to teach us.
What, precisely, does that particular position, as held by BoB, have to “teach” us?
That the earth is flat idiot
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This is fucking excellent.
They have no subjectivity. They take the intrinsic value out of everything and reduce each thing to What It Can Do, For Us. No beauty, no soul, just plain, pedantic empiricism. Their breed is an extreme. I will compare them with mythological extremists, as a polar-opposition.
According to Imre Lakatos (modern scholar on Philosophy of Science) “Scientific research programmes may take decades before they get off the ground and become empirically progressive”. If Science turns into this cleaver of unempirical ideas, scientific progress itself will be harmed as a result.
I challenge you to debunk flat earth Bob did not know what he was doing otherwise ndt would not have said a darn thing.please do so and get back to me with your results.I have tried and guess what you cant.but I can debunk the lies they feed us imagine that.funny how he says the eat is a sphere part of the time and then go and listen to the shape he truly says it is and you people think flat earth is crazy.ask your self one thing if all nasa has to do is take pictures of the planet from different angles to disprove flat earth than why do we only have composite drawings lmfao.believe what you want to believe or wake up and see everything they have fed you is a lie.
Look- I’d like to respond to your thoughts here…but I can’t really parse out what you are saying. Could you perhaps rephrase ina less confusing manner?
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This is really excellent, one of your best.
And I miss Bruno
Reblogged this on Public Goods.
This was brilliant! Reminded me of this post:
This reminds me of a story about Wittgenstein. He once asked a student why it seemed natural us to assume that the sun rotated around the earth, and not vice versa. The student replied ‘because it looks that way’ and he in turn: ‘but what would it look like for the earth to rotate around the sun?’.
Of course now we have to reverse the order of questioning, but the question remains. It seems so natural to assume that the earth rotates around the sun, but that point in itself, as you imply, has no intrinsic feeling to it… Is it awesome? Is it terrifying? Either response is legitimate.
Are we meant to fucking love the heat death of the universe, just because it’s likely true, because it’s SCIENCE? You could portray the problem you talk of in the positive way, not with someone dying of boredom, or deciding to end it all, but with someone dying in a rapture of Science-Love, dousing themselves with uranium and garbling in pseudoscientific tongues. Iiiiii ffffuucckkiiiing looooove sciiieeenceeeaaaaaaaahhhhh
Amazing how people confuse orbit with rotation.
Of course, to ask whether the earth rotates around the sun(axis) or the sun rotates around the earth(axis) while ignoring the subtleties of what an orbit is, gets the sense across perfectly well, as you demonstrated by grasping what I meant in order to correct it. A case of the pedantry this article is written against.
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In truth, what a volleyball team does when it gets the serve is a revolutionary act.
the curved path of a celestial object or spacecraft around a star, planet, or moon, especially a periodic elliptical revolution.
synonyms: course, path, circuit, track, trajectory, rotation, revolution, circle;
“the monthly orbit of the Moon”
One of the listed synonyms is rotation. It isn’t incorrect to use the word rotate this way. Don’t be obtuse.
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Man, I drive an eteronef; it’s a spaceship that travels through ether. Ether doesn’t exist, I know, yet my ship still uses it. So I love fucking science.
Reblogged this on Musings On The Right and commented:
Finally someone says it. In reality their love of “science” is often simply a mix of toxic signalling, yelling me too, bro! to no one in particular.
[…] had a lot of fun with him over at Twitter this weekend, but this is the best piece I’ve seen describing why he’s such an obnoxious, bigoted […]
I HAVE NEVER BEEN TO THIS BLOG AND I WILL MAYBE NEVER COME AGAIN, BUT FOR THIS ONE FLEETING MOMENT I FELT THE GLOW OF CONNECTION BETWEEN TWO PEOPLE BEING DISGUSTED AT THE SAME THING; AND SHARING THAT MOMENT WITH YOU FROM OVER HERE MAYBE DOESN’T COUNT IN THE BIG SCHEME OF THINGS, BUT THEN AGAIN MAYBE IT DOES. IF YOU EVER WANT TO READ HENRY CORBIN AT EACH OTHER AS BROTHERS, PLEASE LET ME KNOW.
This reply is beautiful and transcendent. Thank you so much for that.
Fuck Tyson, I said fuck that idiot back in 2008 way before it was even cool. He said the Riemann hypothesis had nothing to do with black holes at an appearance at UT Arlington. I knew right then he was all show and no substance
He and many celebrity scientists of his mold in recent times seem to harbor hostility toward any body of knowledge which claims certainty yet is not reducible to physical empiricism, such as philosophy, art, theology, etc. But I knew this guy was a bad thinker several years ago when I came across a little video, not knowing who he was, where he explains to an audience why extraterrestrials, if they exist, have not contacted us. His answer, although trivial, was also pretty condescending and offensive towards the human species (kids especially) — that basically we’re not smart enough for superior aliens to care for or bother with. Our greatest achievements (scientific of course) seem like a child’s macaroni art compared to the work (technological of course) of other sentient beings. Excuse me, but an astrophysicist parent’s measureless value for her little one’s refrigerator “masterpiece” isn’t based on IQ or craftsmanship. And a disabled person’s small milestone of learning to feed himself in no way decreases or increases that person’s infinite worth and dignity in any intelligent being’s eyes. All that even touches upon the “divine condescension” God initiates with us, to “stoop” down to our level out of love so that we may grasp, even in a limited way, the infinite Truth and Love he wants to share. If aliens (and pop-scientists like Neil) are that snobbish, elitist, ignorant, and cruel, then they can stay in their own little worlds and entertain themselves with their own fantasies while we puny Earthlings feed the hungry, visit the sick, hug our children, create art, explore real science, counsel the doubtful, and comfort the sorrowful among the many other things we do here on this big blue marble hurtling through space. Frankly, I think aliens, if they’re out there, should take issue with this guy stereotyping them as passionless and haughty brains wink emoticon
The only thing “aliens” would do if they knew of us would be to bomb us from space to make sure we never got a chance to get any smarter. The human species is a cancer and everything we have done has been on the backs of slavery and thru force. Just because we have some toys we can point to is not that impressive considering how long we have been around with our delusion of Gods and our selves.
Pretty dumb comment. Surely the aliens built their civilization on “the backs of slavery” as well. They made it to an advanced state because they had the good sense to not commit societal suicide as you would have us do.
Yes cows are enslaved, and chickens. Poor people are enslaved. Chimps and pandas are largely imprisoned. West Africans were enslaved because they were barely above the state of wild animals when Europeans found them… and now they benefit from all of the same modern comforts that Europeans do. Everyone is happy with moving forward, even if it means having to catch up with other groups, everyone except people like you who have more shame than ambition. Such people will inevitably go extinct eventually.
Thank you. I have several friends in their twenties who are over the moon about Tyson, so to speak. So I recorded his TV interview show. I got through one and a half episodes before I deleted the rest. I also love how some of these people assume I know nothing because I am in my sixties.
[…] March 16, 2016 at 03:26AM via Digg […]
Loved it. So much how I feel and think. Couldn’t have put any better. Always a fan.
oh good. the tyson backlash begins. buttering my popcorn and getting comfortable. god, he’s a smarmy prig.
Majestic if crude — but who’s to say they’re incompatible?
“Is there anything incompatible between monasticism and trigonometry?”
— James Hilton via Lost Horizon
Very nicely storified. To backhandedly relativize Tyson, he’s just a dork who’s garnered too much attention, so inevitably gets things wrong. Dawkins is all of the above, and also wilfully a dick.
If Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks there’s no species for who sex hurts, he’s never investigated ducks or cats.
Being *compelled* to do something does not require you to *enjoy* it.
“Did you know that a cat’s penis is sharply barbed along it’s shaft? I know for a fact the females were not consulted about that.”
Castiel, Rogue angel of the lord
THANKS FOR THIS.
Neil deGrasse Tyson will say or DO pretty much anything to remain in the spotlight ….. anything that he can pull off to keep his mug on the screens, he’ll do it. He’s like Canada’s media whore David Suzuki a crap scientist who done poor research who people watch on TV because he’s all sciency and stuff! :-) Neil has discovered that popping up on the tube everywhere makes it much easier to get decent tables at restaurant’s and it’s WAY easier then filling out grant applications – either way BOTH beat having to work for a living !
He’s basically the Trump of the science world.
I enjoyed the piece and had many shared opinions to the author’s. I would like to point out, however, that Tyson’s reference to Spaniards relishing exploring and Italians relishing artistic religious culture is not “spurious” but has been discussed before. There has also been considerable discussions on why certain cultures with advanced seafaring technology opted for trade ships only while others opted for exploration ships. It is a legitimate and fascinating topic which I first briefly read about in Daniel Boorstin’s The Explorers (from his famous trilogy).
I like Tyson’s podcast because he has some great guests. But it’s annoying when one of them is in the middle of a really interesting point and Tyson interrupts about something like the history of how a comment in the wrong place in a sentence, blah, blah, blah. He totally sidetracks the guest in the middle of an important point because he can’t stand to let more than 90 seconds go by without hearing his own voice.
I used to appreciate this guy, but he definitely has an attitude problem. For a scientist he also has a problem understanding how science works. I thought he was better until I saw this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Z_Cxxj-sOs. Brian Greene needs no help to defend himself, as a Rhodes scholar from Oxford in his own right, and given his specialty, likely far more knowledgeable in theoretical physics than Tyson. Tyson’s position is absurd. Breakthroughs in science don’t work on a schedule. His comparison of string theory’s progress to others’ work (Einstein or whoever), is ridiculous and Greene rightly tells him so. If strings really exist, then they’re theoretically the size of the Planck constant (a millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimeter), which is far beyond anything our best technology can possibly see (not even close). Finding a way to verify their existence and/or run experiments so more can be learned is incredibly difficult. Progress is inherently slow because of the very nature of what they’re researching. So what’s Tyson’s point? That progress isn’t fast enough so maybe they should abandon or question the entire theory? The theory has a lot of promise (unifying relativity and quantum mechanics for instance), so it might ultimately be proven right, even if it takes another 1000 years to unravel. So his point is completely untenable. As a so-called scientist he should know better (but beyond that, he could learn a thing or to about being respectful – he comes across as a smug and arrogant jerk in the video).
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I don’t watch TV and have no idea who Tyson is, but this is an exceptional article, and I’m saying this on behalf of science in the first place.
Oh thank you. I’ve wanted to read someone ELSE say this for so long. Along with others like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, they take the worthy cause of educating people on the realities of science and scientific method and transform it into a mean spirited.. dare I say.. crusade.
I can’t even imagine how many people could have been given a new insight into scientific method who have been so turned off by the antics of these fellows.
This is such a wonderful stream of cathartic hate. From a working physicist: thank you.
Thanks for savaging of the IFLS – celebrity scientist nexus, here. Sadly, even many trained scientists don’t understand the scientific method. And they don’t seem to care.
“…the sun fading to a speck as you and your crew broke free from the solar system, the ship’s systems suddenly shutting down, the panic and blackness inside, shouting and sobbing, outside the phosphorescent fringes of the wormhole as it opened up in front of you”
Man, this is excellent writing! I was hooked from the first couple lines. Nicely done.
[…] Sam Kriss has a delightful takedown of Neil deGrasse Tyson and I F—–g Love Science*. He makes this point: […]
The TV show was nice but your post brings a whole new perspective…..Love it.,..
The painful sex tweet and Cosmos mis-portrayal of Bruno are only the tip of the ice berg. Tyson’s been saying wrong stuff for years.
No need for rigor if you’re a pompous celebrity scientist.
[…] Tim and Tom talk about Easter, both the ancient and modern traditions. They look at a great essay by British writer Sam Kriss about Neil deGrasse Tyson, and they look back at a wonderful little […]
“I have always found that Angels have the vanity to speak of themselves as the Only Wise. This they do with a confident insolence sprouting from systematic reasoning.
Thus Swedenborg boasts that what he writes is new; tho’ it is only the Contents or Index of already publish’d books.
A man carried a monkey about for a show, and because he was a little wiser than the monkey, grew vain, and conceiv’d himself as much wiser than seven men. It is so with Swedenborg: he shows the folly of churches, and exposes hypocrites, till he imagines that all are religious, and himself the single one on earth that ever broke a net.”
Blake had it down 200 years ago.
I’m not a very clever person, but I do enjoy experiencing the world around me. I’ve been struggling for a while to express how frustrating it can be to be a person who simply enjoys ‘being’ and ‘seeing’ in the current age of ‘I Fucking Love Science’, but you just did it for me in a way I could never articulate. Just wanted to stop by and say… yeah, thank you.
I guess I did not put this comment here when I read this, or maybe it got lost somewhere. Anyway, this reminded me of Robert Musil.
“We can begin at once with the peculiar predilection of scientific thinking for mechanical, statistical, and physical explanations that have, as it were, the heart cut out of them. The scientific mind sees kindness only as a special form of egotism; brings emotions into line with glandular secretions; notes that eight or nine tenths of a human being consists of water; explains our celebrated moral freedom as an automatic mental by-product of free trade; reduces beauty to good digestion and the proper distribution of fatty tissue; graphs the annual statistical curves of births and suicides to show that our most intimate personal decisions are programmed behavior; sees a connection between ecstasy and mental disease; equates the anus and the mouth as the rectal and oral openings at either end of the same tube — such ideas, which expose the trick, as it were, behind the magic of human illusions, can always count on a kind of prejudice in their favor as being impeccably scientific. Certainly they demonstrate a love of truth. But surrounding this clear, shining love is a predilection for disillusionment, compulsiveness, ruthlessness, cold intimidation, and dry rebuke, a spiteful predilection, or at least an involuntary emanation of such a kind.”
It couldn’t be a coincidence that this reminded me of Musil, too. Especially of the beginning of The Man Without Qualities (“Which, remarkably enough, does not get anyone anywhere.”): “THERE was a depression over the Atlantic. It was travelling eastwards, towards an area of high pressure over Russia, and still showed no tendency to move northwards around it. The isotherms and isotheres were fulfilling their functions. The atmospheric temperature was in proper relation to the average annual temperature, the temperature of the coldest as well as of the hottest month, and the a-periodic monthly variation in temperature. The rising and setting of the sun and of the moon, the phases of the moon, Venus and Saturn’s rings, and many other important phenomena, were in accordance with the forecasts in the astronomical year books. The vapour in the air was at its highest tension, and the moisture in the air was at it slowest. In short, to use an expression that describes the facts pretty satisfactorily, even though it is somewhat old-fashioned: it was a fine August day in the year 1913.” – Ironically, yet his mocking this kind of scientific lingo is way too poetic.
And Sam, thank you, always enjoying reading your work!
‘”In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of….”‘
[…] indeed, there is a distinctly cultish, obsessive bent to scientific thought that is covered well by Sam Kriss in his essay here. I was struck looking at the Great Chain at what it reminded me of; this has, in many ways, been […]
Yes! Exactly. Bravo.
That’s the best definition of pedantry I’ve ever heard.
Well technically I read it. I didn’t “hear” it. Unless you count the subvocalization inside my own head as I read the words as hearing.
I never got the chance to castrate Carl Sagan, so finding the link to this article was a joy. Television has a way of turning pretentious dicks into PRETENTIOUS DICKS. So I’ll see you a Tyson, and raise you a Bill Nye the Science Guy.
Wonderfully apt and beautiful piece by someone who, from the content of the rest of the site, appears to be a leftist laboring under the delusion that Donald Trump is a fascist and not just another progressive. I thought all you socialists were scientistic materialists! Well done and thank you.
This is beautiful. What makes it even more better is that one of the realted tags is Philosophy as we know his public opinion on the subject of Philosophy