Please Save Me from Neil DeGrasse Tyson

This post was written by Elisabeth Loveland, HC Student Fellow

“I believe in science” is a common mantra these days, but for all its commonality, I do not fully understand what the “science pious” mean by it . . . in fact, given the vulgar conception of belief, it seems to profess a leap of faith in science, and indeed, the cadence of the song “I believe in Christ” isn’t worse for the wear when supplanted with the new religion: “I believe in science; it is my King!”

Pity my mind’s eye–suddenly I am imagining Neil deGrasse Tyson singing “I believe in science” and then giddly reporting to his test tubes, “God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance” with a self-righteous wink.  

And there he is again!–flying in v-formation with his science-pious compadres: Richard Dawkins and Bill Nye the Science Guy and flocks of Reddit users, armed with the new faith and harassing ethicists, artists, historians, writers, and the like, harder to shoo than pigeons, informing us that

“Somebody as intelligent as Jesus would have been an atheist if he had known what we know today,”

and

“Science progresses and philosophy doesn’t,”

and my favorite,

“What they teach in the humanities is not ‘skepticism’ or ‘critical thinking.’ It’s mental masturbation disguised as critical thinking.”

But simply dabbling in the humanities is not enough for the science pious. Overused to their authority, they bombard us with the noxious insinuations of cultural scientism, sometimes in brash form, as when Neil deGrasse Tyson warned that philosophy “can really mess you up.” At least he takes care to explain “my concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature,” a valid concern given that all philosophers do is make etch-a-sketch doodles and bake peach pies.

Speaking of philosophers, philosopher Julian Baggini expresses similar concern with the rise of scientism and notes that “when physics is compared with the humanities and social sciences, it is easy for the scientists to feel smug.” Why? Because scientists get results. No, not the kind that would make epistemologists or poets skip, but nonetheless results of enormous instrumentality: self-driving cars, vaccinations, computers, etc., etc., etc. And we, the beneficiaries of science, are rightfully grateful and admiring of the people we once called “dweeb” and “four-eyes” in middle school. But deference and praise encourage what Baggini calls “mission creep” or “imperialist ambitions” in the sciences, and science-culture is beginning to invite in the very leviathan it once defeated: dogmatic, spoiled, intolerant faith, the same that had Galileo locked away and the writings of Copernicus banned. The result is pedantic lectures from labcoats on a wide and strange variety of subjects, and because we are awed with the prestige of science, we nod until we have whiplash.

This faithful devotion is too-often ill-starred. For one major example, there are overwhelming reasons to be seriously skeptical that any is statement about the world–the only sorts of statements the scientific method can produce–can ever render (or translate into) an ought statement. In particular, I am concerned with that most important of ought statements, how we ought to live. If we ditch Dickens and Hume and defer instead to Dawkins, we may just miss the answer. My suggestion? Solicit the aid and advice of our longsuffering humanities scholars, the patrons of such oughts. That’s not to say that Dawkins can’t be helpful; he does, after all, remind us, “faith can be very very dangerous.”

Image via Wikicommons and NY Daily News

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