Scientific Arrogance

The other day, Ed Yong linked to an essay by Ethan Siegel.  Mr Siegel extols the virtues of science, both Science the process for gaining knowledge about nature and Science the body of knowledge that humans have acquired by means of that process.  Mr Siegel then quotes an interview Neil deGrasse Tyson gave to Nerdist, in which Mr Tyson expressed reservations about the value of philosophical study as part of the education of a young scientist.  In that interview, Mr Tyson and his interlocutors made some rather harsh-sounding remarks.  Take this segment, for example, as transcribed by Massimo Pigliucci:

interviewer: At a certain point it’s just futile.

dGT: Yeah, yeah, exactly, exactly. My concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. And to the scientist it’s, what are you doing? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?

(another) interviewer: I think a healthy balance of both is good.

dGT: Well, I’m still worried even about a healthy balance. Yeah, if you are distracted by your questions so that you can’t move forward, you are not being a productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world. And so the scientist knows when the question “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” is a pointless delay in our progress.

[insert predictable joke by one interviewer, imitating the clapping of one hand]

dGT: How do you define clapping? All of a sudden it devolves into a discussion of the definition of words. And I’d rather keep the conversation about ideas. And when you do that don’t derail yourself on questions that you think are important because philosophy class tells you this. The scientist says look, I got all this world of unknown out there, I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind. You can’t even cross the street because you are distracted by what you are sure are deep questions you’ve asked yourself. I don’t have the time for that.

interviewer: I also felt that it was a fat load of crap, as one could define what crap is and the essential qualities that make up crap: how you grade a philosophy paper?

dGT [laughing]: Of course I think we all agree you turned out okay.

interviewer: Philosophy was a good Major for comedy, I think, because it does get you to ask a lot of ridiculous questions about things.

dGT: No, you need people to laugh at your ridiculous questions.

interviewers: It’s a bottomless pit. It just becomes nihilism.

dGT: nihilism is a kind of philosophy.

Mr Tyson’s remarks have come in for criticism from many quarters.  The post by Massimo Pigliucci from which I take the transcription above is among the most notable.

I must say that I think some of the criticism is overdone.  In context, it is clear to me that Mr Tyson and his interlocutors are thinking mainly of the training of young scientists, of what sort of learning is necessary as a background to scientific research.  In that context, it’s quite reasonable to caution against too wide a range of interests.  It would certainly not be wise to wait until one had developed a deep understanding of philosophy, history, literature, music, art, etc, before getting down to business in one’s chosen field.

It’s true that Mr Tyson’s recent fame as narrator of the remake of the television series Cosmos puts a bit of an edge on his statements; that show is an attempt to present the history of science to the general public, and to promote a particular view of the place of science in human affairs.  It would be fair to say that the makers of Cosmos, Mr Tyson among them, have exposed some of their rather sizable blind spots in the course of the project (most famously in regard to Giordano Bruno,) and a bit of time spent studying the philosophy of science may very well have served to temper the bumptious self-assurance that let them parade their howlers in worldwide television broadcasts.  And it is true, as Mr Pigliucci documents, that Mr Tyson has a history of making flip and ill-informed remarks dismissing the value of philosophy and other subjects aside from his own.  Still, the remarks from the Nerdist podcast are pretty narrow in their intended scope of application, and within that scope, having to do with apprentice scientists, I wouldn’t say that they are examples of arrogance, or that they are even wrong.

I’m reminded of a problem that has faced those who would teach Latin and ancient Greek to English speakers over the centuries.  The languages are different enough from English that it seems like a shame to start them later than early childhood.  If a student starts Latin at five and Greek at six, as was the norm for boys destined for the German Gymnasia or the English public schools in the nineteenth century, that student will likely attain a reading proficiency in the classical languages at about eight or nine years of age that a student who starts them in later life may never attain.  However, the point of learning the languages is to be able to read classical literature.  What is a nine-year-old to make of Horace or Pindar or Vergil or Sophocles or Thucydides or Tacitus?  Few of the real masterworks are intelligible as anything other than linguistic puzzles to anyone under 40.  It often happens to me that I assign such things to students who are returning to college in middle age.  They usually come to me afterward and tell me that they were surprised.  They had read them when they were in the 18-25 age bracket that includes most of my students, and hadn’t found anything of interest in them.  Rereading them later in life, the books meant a tremendous amount to them.  I trot out a very old line on these occasions, and say “It isn’t just you reading the book- the book also reads you.”  Meaning that the more life experience the reader brings, the greater the riches the reading offers.

I suppose the best thing to do would be to learn the languages in early childhood while studying mathematics and the natural sciences, to study ancient literary works for several years as specimens in the scientific study of linguistics or as aids to archaeology, and to come back to them later in life, when one can benefit from reading them on their own terms.  The same might apply to philosophy, bits of which might be slipped in to the education of those aged 25 and younger, but which ought really to be introduced systematically only to those who have already confronted in practice the sorts of crises that have spurred its development over the centuries.

Be that as it may, the concept of scientific arrogance is one that has been deftly handled by one of my favorite commentators, cartoonist Zach Weiner.  I’d recommend two Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal strips on the theme, this one about emeritus disease and this one about generalized reverence for specialized expertise.

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1 Comment

  1. Here’s an indispensable post about this topic from John Wilkins:


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