Rationalia’s Rot

Neil DeGrasse Tyson drives a lot of people crazy, particularly when he makes ill-informed pronouncements about biology or public affairs.

His latest jeremiad, a Facebook post describing Rationalia, a rationalist utopia, seems to be eliciting a particularly vociferous response. Fine and good. I suspect that people who applaud technocratic solutions in other settings don’t like the assumptions behind technocracy stated so baldly, such that their weaknesses become obvious. Nevertheless: it’s helpful to clarify exactly why technocracy can’t be a universal basis for politics and policy and why attempts to reconstitute society on technocratic grounds are bound to fail.

That said, I think the real shame is that Tyson doesn’t appreciate his own noble calling.

Tyson is a science popularizer. I didn’t love the new Cosmos, in which Tyson starred, but my space-obsessed son did. I don’t love everything about the rebuilt Hayden Planetarium, which Tyson directs, but the kids I brought there many times over a period of years liked it a lot.

The message of Cosmos or the Hayden Planetarium or the American Museum of Natural History (of which the Planetarium is a part) is not, ultimately, that questions about the universe are easily resolvable through better data and more rigorous evidence, as Tyson’s description of Rationalia would suggest. (There are other TV programs, the old Mr. Wizard’s World, for example, and other museums- San Francisco’s Exploratorium, at least the last time I was there as a kid-  that do a much better job helping kids experience the scientific method for themselves.)

The message, instead, is that the universe is a beautiful, impossibly complex and interesting place. The best of the AMNH’s exhibits, the Hall of Ocean Life, works so well because, though you stand in the middle of one of the world’s great cities, with the help of some blue light, a really big room, and a 100 foot-long model whale, the illusion is created of being surrounded by water and an almost-infinite variety of oceanic life.   To me, this is a message of humility through exploration and discovery, through gradual uncovering of the beauty of nature, rather than the arrogance that utopian technocracy, including Rationalia, tends to involve.

Hall of Ocean Life

Richard Feynman, the physicist, was not a humble man, but he communicated extremely well this aspect of science, for example here:

The world looks so different after learning science. For example, trees are made of air, primarily. When they are burned, they go back to air, and in the flaming heat is released the flaming heat of the sun which was bound in to convert the air into tree. [A]nd in the ash is the small remnant of the part which did not come from air, that came from the solid earth, instead. These are beautiful things, and the content of science is wonderfully full of them. They are very inspiring, and they can be used to inspire others.

Which is a variant of the point he makes in this interview:

 

 

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