There has been a lot of discussion about Neil deGrass Tyson’s recent statement opposed to philosophical lines of questioning. Laura Rabinow has previously written in this blog, responding to Tyson’s comments. She argues that Tyson’s comments do cultural work that already has negative consequences. I would agree. For many of the students of science who Tyson speaks to, philosophy is not the only field perceived as having questionable relevance to their lives and careers. All of the humanities and social science often get lumped together as navel gazing distractions. This general aversion to questions of social relevance within science education is particularly problematic, it contributes to the weeding out mentality which I have also discussed on a previous blog post. Tyson’s language also invokes a progress narrative that encourages blindly plunging forward with technoscientific innovation without adequate consideration of the consequences.
I would like to add to the discussion on Tyson by asking, what can we learn from Tyson’s critique? While I would describe Tyson’s comment as not well thought out, I don’t think that his position should be immediately discredited. We might learn more about Tyson’s position by looking at the context in which his statement is situated. His words do not exist in a vacuum, and the same context that can problematize his statement can give us the tools to learn from it.
Aside from the fact that Tyson’s statement was made on a comedy podcast, many critiques of Tyson’s position on philosophy extend that position to the humanities and social sciences more generally. The Week makes this presumption most plainly when paraphrasing Tyson’s position: “Don’t waste your time with philosophy! (And, one presumes, literature, history, the arts, or religion.) Only science will get you where you want to go!” If Tyson’s argument that that all questions outside of the natural science disciplines are a waste of time, then one might have a hard time explaining why Tyson involves himself with questions of gender and racial equality in science. Tyson has taken advantage of his position as a science popularizer to spotlight issues of race and gender inequality in science. He has utilized his remake of the show “Cosmos” to point out the historic erasure of women’s’ contributions to science, and to attack systems of inequality as damaging to scientific knowledge. It is thus clear that Tyson is fundamentally concerned with questions of social equality. He has also argued that his goal is not to create more scientists, but to improve scientific literacy for a more democratic polity. He does not seem to be interested in science as its own end (at least not as the only end), but science as a means for a better democracy: not for a more powerful scientific elite. Tyson draws a fundamental connection between science and democracy. Whether or not you agree with this connection, it becomes clearer that Tyson is not interested exclusively in tightly bounded natural science questions. Given this context, it seems pretty unbelievable that Tyson’s goal is to steer students of science away from all non-scientific lines of inquiry, despite what the actual outcome may be.
Tyson did mess up with this statement. Given the context of science education, in which students often already conflate all forms of humanities and social science (these departments are often even mushed together in technical colleges and universities), and in which students are likely already discouraged from non-scientific pursuits, his statement about philosophical lines of questioning are likely to push more students of science away from social consciousness. He cannot escape the dominant discourse of the natural sciences, which his comment on philosophy is a part of. But given Tyson’s own context, it seems likely that such an outcome would be contrary to most of the social work that Tyson, himself, engages in. I am left to wonder why so many within STS jump at the chance to attack Tyson for his mistake when much of what Tyson does seems to be compatible with our own social goals of democratic and equitable science? Tyson has worked with Republicans, climate deniers, and creationists, (for example David Koch supports the Hayden Planetarium) and yet I am unfamiliar with any instance of his inclusion by academics in STS. Much like Science for the People, Tyson can be a social justice minded scientist, one that STS has little positive interaction with, but perhaps should.
Tyson’s positions seem compatible with much of STS. He seems like more of a potential ally to be courted rather than an enemy to be attacked. Tyson’s goals of scientific literacy, science popularization, and social equality in scientific practice could benefit greatly from the scholarly tools of STS. Tyson’s strategy in science popularization operates largely within the deficit model: the idea that the public has a deficit of knowledge which explains a lack of support, and filling that deficit with knowledge will translate into greater support. Research in STS has not only demonstrated that more scientific knowledge does not necessarily translate into support for science, but contains many suggestions for how to better involve publics to participate in science. Furthermore, in Tyson is interested in scientific literacy. There is a robust discussion within the field of STS about what it means to be scientifically literate. I am with Tyson in being aware of the potential problems with epistemic naval gazing, but he should have a better idea of what he is working towards, and if what he is working towards is compatible with the technoscientific future he envisions. I’m not sure what the best substantiation of such an alliance would look like, as there are many potentials here (invite Tyson to 4S, an STS department might ask Tyson to come speak, he could be invited to participate in a roundtable, and probably many other suggests I can’t think of on my own). If the boundary between Tyson and STS were a little more porous, perhaps Tyson would have a better understanding of the work his discourse performs. Perhaps then, he would make fewer remarks that steer science students away from working on social equality in the sciences, and could do his own work more effectively.