Saturday, 12 March 2016

Neil deGrasse Tyson made a mistake

Today I read in my FB news feed that Neil deGrasse Tyson made a factual error regarding biological evolution. Truthfully, it was a ridiculously minor error, and in a world where we are watching a bigot openly encouraging mob violence securing a nomination for the presidency of the United States it really doesn't seem that significant. As I reflected upon it though, I realized that it is actually a very instructive moment. I have no doubt that Dr. Tyson is a fantastic astrophysicist. I don't have the competence to evaluate his work, but he seems to be well-respected by his colleagues in the field, so that's good enough for me. But an astrophysicist he remains. The further he moves from his area of specialization the more likely he is to make an error, and as such when he moved from astrophysics to biology he messed up. It happens.

A number of interesting analogies can be drawn. I am a New Testament scholar and as such have the competence to speak with authority about the state of New Testament studies. The further one moves from that field the more reticent I become to do so. I have some but considerably less competence to speak about immediately adjacent fields, such as Hebrew Bible, Rabbinic, or Patristic scholarship. I have a degree in anthropology, and as such have more competence to speak to matters anthropological than most people, but significantly less than any working anthropologist. Get beyond such areas of the human sciences, and beyond the human sciences itself, and my competence begins to drop off significantly. Sure, I can teach a first-year course in World Religions or a second-year course in New Religious Movements, but if someone asked me to teach a graduate seminar in Buddhism I'd laugh out loud. And that's still within Religious Studies, the official title of my doctorate. Even within NT studies I've much greater competence to speak to historical Jesus or Johannine studies than to, say, Pauline studies. That's because knowledge is specialized: one can learn a great deal about a very narrow amount of material, or very little about a lot, but one cannot learn a great deal about a lot.

Now, let's think about many of the extremes of the new atheism. If Dr. Tyson, astrophysicist, is liable to error whilst speaking outside his area of specialization but still within the physical sciences how much more might a Dr. Dawkins, evolutionary biologist, be liable to error when he crosses into the social sciences or humanities? I'm sure that Dr. Dawkins could have been a fantastic scholar of religion, had he pursued such a specialization. But he didn't, and he is no more competent to pronounce upon matters related to the study of religion than I am on matters related to the study of biological evolution. That's why I won't be writing any books on evolution any time soon. In fairness to Dawkins, fundamentalists opened the door by engaging in evolution denialism, but the fact that they have overstepped their competence does not give him grounds to overstep his own. The very fact that he and his followers seem unable to recognize theological diversity but instead think it adequate to critique a generic "theism" (by which they seem almost invariably to mean fundamentalist Protestant theology) speaks to the fact that such persons are very far out of their area of expertise. What you end up with is a whole bunch of people saying a whole lot of stuff about a whole lot of things that they simply do not understand.

Now, let's think about denialism. Denialism has an invariant structure. Specialists in an area of knowledge uniformly agree that is the case: climate scientists say that climate change is occurring, biologists that species evolve, historians that the Holocaust took place, New Testament scholars that Jesus existed, etc. Then, non-specialists come along and say "No, specialists, you are all mistaken." So rarely is denialism driven by actual specialists that denialists of all stripes love nothing more than to trot out the one or two specialists in the entire world who actually agree with them: and in most cases a closer examination reveals that these persons are not specialists in the area at all (the classic example in my own field of studies is Richard Carrier: yes, he has a Ph.D. in Ancient History, but he's a specialist in Byzantine not New Testament studies, and certainly not in historical Jesus studies). Of course, Dr. Tyson is not engaged in any sort of denialism. I'm sure that he will acknowledge that he spoke in error, if he has not done so already. But the basic phenomenon, of a person speaking beyond their area of primary of competence and thus making an egregious error immediately evident to all actually competent persons, remains the same.

Lonergan argued that the recurrent, cultural inability to recognize and respect specialized knowledge is the genesis of longer cycles of societal decline. It means that decision-making is chronically made not on the bases of the best knowledge on matters at hand but rather on the bases of half-truths and full-out errors. It is a longer cycle of decline because it will be specialists who most acutely grasp the problems of not paying attention to specialist information, yet it is precisely specialists who are being ignored. I.e. when the problem is the neglect of that very thing that can solve the problem the possibility of finding a viable solution is greatly reduced if not outright vitiated. We are seeing the fruits of that now, painfully, in American politics, and persons is other countries should pay heed because our cultures are hardly immune to the same toxic populism driving what is happening in the US. At a time when the nation's institutions of government are in disarray, suffering obstructionism on an unprecedented scale, many seem to be utterly convinced that the solution lies in finding those leaders with the least familiarity with how those institutions should work. Ignorance of the domain in which the problem lies is seen as a virtue. The possibility that during such a crisis the best leaders will be precisely those with the best knowledge of how the American institutions of government are meant to operate seems virtually foreign to the discussion. Yet any rational analysis would reveal that it is in fact the only solution; it is precisely parallel to the decision-making that leads one to take one's car to a mechanic to be fixed or to go to the physician when ill. Instead what we see are a gaggle of buffoons tripping over each other, trying to prove which of them can act in the way that most clearly demonstrates that they are unfit to hold the office for which they are running.

Neil deGrasse Tyson made an error on a matter outside his primary area of competence. He'll probably acknowledge it. And that's a model for not just how the academy but in fact all of society should operate.


  1. Despite your assertion that Dawkins seems "unable to recognize theological diversity", he makes it clear in the God Delusion exactly what type of theology he is addressing:

    He presents the accusation: "You go after crude rabble-rousing chancres like Ted Haggard, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, rather than sophisticated theologians like Tillich or Bonhoeffer who teach the sort of religion i believe in."

    To which he replies:

    "If only such subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would surely be a better place, and I would have written a different book. The melancholy truth is that this kind of understated, decent, revisionist religion is numerically negligible. To the vast majority of believers around the world, religion all too closely resembles what you hear from the likes of Robertson, Falwell or Haggard, Osama bin Laden or the Ayatollah Khomeini. These are not straw men, they are all too influential, and everybody in the modern world has to deal with them."

    You could argue with Dawkins numbers and say that the numbers of nuanced religious followers are not "negligible". But you can't say that Dawkins doesn't distinguish between them. And the religion he does argue against is clearly not a straw man.

  2. Well stated! I only wish those who are voting for Trump had the desire and ability to read and understand a well-reasoned statement like this!