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Sciencism? September 16, 2014

Posted by Sobek in News.

I need a new word.  This is something that’s been bugging me for a long while now.  I need a word that means something like “a believer in the importance and efficacy of science.”  Normally you can throw the suffix “-ist” on the end of a word, like “humanist,” “jihadist” or “pacifist,” but I try to do that here, I end up with “scientist,” which means something else, or “sciencist,” which sounds horrible.

I’ve wondered about this for a while now, but mores in the past few days as people have been piling on Neal deGrasse Tyson for his, um, let’s call them ethical lapses.  Like falsely attributing the million dollar space pen to NASA, or egregiously misquoting George W. Bush to make him look dumb (you need to misquote him to do that?), or just flat-out making crap up.

Thing is, I’m no scientist.  So while I would like to call myself a Science-ist – that is, one who believes in the nature of science and the good results it can produce – I certainly can’t pretend I am a scientist, which is one who does science. Stuff like collecting data, analyzing it, proposing hypotheses, testing hypotheses.  You know, stuff that scientists do.  Not just looking at cool pictures of galaxies and pretending that makes me smart. (Um, NSFW language at that link)

It seems to me that Neal deGrasse Tyson is a scientist.  Heck, I don’t actually know, because I don’t read technical astronomy papers, but I assume he’s published something somewhere, actually done some science in his life.  But that doesn’t appear to be his current day job. His current job, near as I can tell, is carnival barker.  He’s a salesman, or an advertiser.  That’s not science.  Inspiring others to want to learn more may be laudable, but it’s not science.  Making crap up isn’t science, either, but I’ll let the serial stalkers at the Federalist worry about that.

Ace has an idea that he expressed today: “I have a theory. Call it the HuffPo Rule. If your “Science” gets linked by HuffPo, then it’s not science, because HuffPo readers are not scientists and are not interested in science. If they take self-congratulatory delight in it, it can’t be science.”

Well yeah.  I’m not a scientist, either.  I watched a series of astronomy lectures by Tyson, and was generally entertained and informed.  But the fact is, if an idiot like me can follow along with your astronomy lecture, then it’s not science.  It’s edutainment (ugh, need a new word for that, too), and it’s fortunately dumbed-down enough that I can follow, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with being a scientist.  Give me enough time and inclination and I, too, could prepare a presentation about what other people have discovered about the stars and the cosmos, but until I start doing science, I’m not a scientist, and my presentation will not be science.

One final thought about science and faith.  I accept an awful lot of things on faith, and that includes a lot of science stuff.  The reality is that I don’t have time, and neither do any of you, to accept most of modern science by anything other than faith.  Consider a few examples: I trust that my microwave works, and I guess I have some idea that it makes little bits of energy at a certain wavelength jiggle little bits of matter and that makes my food hot, but I have not tested or observed any of that stuff, beyond the part where my microwave works.  I trust that there are photons in the universe, but not because I’ve seen them.  I assume, probably correctly, that I could do some experiments and determine that there are photons, but I haven’t and I don’t plan on doing so, because I don’t have the time.  I assume the continents drift, but I can’t see them doing it, and I’ve never compared the rocks in Brazil with the rocks in Cameroon to verify that.  I trust that cells are powered by mitochondria and that sodium and chlorine combine to make salt – even though that makes no sense whatsoever.  I assume all kinds of things every day, never experimenting on or testing them to even the slightest degree, and that’s because I lack the time, inclination, education or all three to do so.  And because of how advanced Western science has become, no human alive can do so.  We all walk by faith, and live by the unseen, in every moment.  So when I see an airplane fly, I think, “that sure is neat that science can do that!” because I am a Science-ist – I believe in the power of science to do the things science can do – without ever becoming a scientist – the kind of person who experiments with airfoils and jet turbines and materials and fuels and drag and lift.  Now that’s an adulterated use of the word “faith,” but I mean it to generally refer to the trust in the unseen that I’ve been discussing here.


1. OBF - September 17, 2014

Me…I’m just going to out and buy a thin crust, double cheese, pizza. I’m into the science of yummy…but fattening.

2. Poster - September 17, 2014

I find it easier to attack the perversion of science as Scientism, myself, but I do agree — having a word that more clearly defines a trust in the essential core of science would be good. Until then, expect the “you’re against Science!” from the usual screeching monkeys to continue.

3. Pete D. - September 17, 2014

NdGT”s rehash of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” series was a total slap in the face to his memory. I found deGrasse -Tyson’s version nothing more than an excuse to promote the climate change agenda. His finger-wagging and condescending attitude toward the viewers was a complete insult to us all. The cheesy animation used to show historical periods of discovery was appallingly cheap and disruptive. What a total waste of my time and the taxpayers’ money. Yes, the production was paid for with govt. funding because it was pro-leftist opinionated and slanted towards the administration’s views. NdGT is a total sellout and should go back to selling snake oil at the side show.

4. j dominic frost (@jaxisaphysicist) - September 17, 2014

“It seems to me that Neal deGrasse Tyson is a scientist. Heck, I don’t actually know, because I don’t read technical astronomy papers, but I assume he’s published something somewhere, actually done some science in his life.”

you know what happens when you assume? you make an ass out of neal tyson when it’s pointed out that he has not, in fact, published A SINGLE PIECE of academic work since having talked some committee into accepting the dissertation it took him 11 years (and an expulsion!) to co-author.

no, seriously. if you don’t believe me, you can put his name into the search bar at arxiv.org, where practicing physicists post our preprints:

“Search gave no matches

No matches were found for your search: all:(neal AND tyson)

Please try again.”

the dirty secret about “popularisers of science” is that many of them are not actual scientists. i have plenty of respect for sam harris intellectually, and despite his terminal contrarianism, i think dr dawkins has drawn a lot of socially beneficial attention to the absurdity of rejecting evolutionary theory, but they aren’t scientists. dr dawkins, in his capacity as oxford professor, lectured on public science education — not, notably, evolutionary biology. harris, of course, got his phd and promptly began writing books about atheism, leaning ever so subtly on his external perception as a “neuroscientist” for credibility in matters of neurophysiology while never having actually published any scientific work in a peer-reviewed journal.

would we call a colour commentator who played the game during his university years a “football player”? would we call the family man who once picked his way thru the rudiments of the guitar to impress coeds a “musician”? acquiring a doctorate degree in the natural sciences is respectable, to be sure, but i’m not sure it’s sufficient to make one a scientist — particularly not when the totality of one’s scientific “career” was spent as a graduate student researching some forgotten problem from one’s advisor’s backlog.

5. j dominic frost (@jaxisaphysicist) - September 18, 2014

for the record, when one spells the name “neil”, as is correct, one recovers a single paper with tyson in the least prominent position among seven authors and listed as being associated with…the american museum of natural history (all other authors, of course, are associated with university physics departments).

it’s credible science (and was eventually published in Ap J), but the notion that tyson had anything meaningful to do with the data analysis is fatuous; the paper appears to be an instance of a famous scientist being enlisted to add his name to the author list in an attempt to raise the visibility of the paper (lawrence krauss is another notable offender of this type). several of the more prominently listed authors have produced related work in the field of galactic radiometry; tyson’s contribution, if any, cannot have been decisive.

anyway, i thought i should update to correct the record: tyson has apparently attached his name to a single paper in a reputable peer-reviewed journal since getting his phd after all.

6. Retired Geezer - September 18, 2014

Thank you for taking some of your valuable time to educate us.


7. Sobek - September 18, 2014

Huh, I didn’t expect to hear any of that, j dominic.

The number or kind of his publications doesn’t really affect my point – if he’s good at getting people interested in science, then more power to him (although at this point, I’d be interested in seeing evidence that his fans actually start enrolling in science courses, rather than just keep hitting “like” on Facebook pages with pics of galaxies). It’s an affirmative good to get people interested in science. I also have no objection to salesmanship, or even for self-promotion (which is just a subset of salesmanship). Salesmanship is an affirmative good. I just don’t get it confused with science.

8. geoff - September 18, 2014

…with pics of galaxies

Like Babia Majora.

9. Neil deGrasse Tyson And Lying | Tai-Chi Policy - September 19, 2014

[…] Meanwhile, as a “scientist”, he hasn’t published any papers in the 11 years since he got his doctorate. […]

10. ChuckLong - September 20, 2014

Tyson couldn’t care less about getting people interested in actual science. His job is to make smug Progressives indulge in their superiority complexes, and to pay him for giving them a reason to do so. That’s pretty much it. No one ever went broke stroking the fragile egos of leftists.

11. How Stretchy is Space? | Innocent Bystanders - November 25, 2017

[…] close by mentioning this old post I wrote, on “sciencism.” The speaker in that YouTube video touches a little bit on a […]

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