Neil deGrasse Tyson And The Perils Of Facile Reductionism

You know the shtick by now–or at least, twitterers and tweeters do. Every few weeks, Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of America’s most popular public ‘scientific’ intellectuals, decides that it is time to describe some social construct in scientific language to show how ‘arbitrary’ and ‘made-up’ it all is–compared to the sheer factitude, the amazing reality-grounded non-arbitrariness of scientific knowledge. Consider for instance, this latest gem, now predictably provoking ridicule from those who found its issuance predictable and tired:

Not that anybody’s asked, but New Years Day on the Gregorian Calendar is a cosmically arbitrary event, carrying no Astronomical significance at all.

A week earlier, Tyson had tweeted:

Merry Christmas to the world’s 2.5 billion Christians. And to the remaining 5 billion people, including Muslims Atheists Hindus Buddhists Animists & Jews, Happy Monday.

Tyson, I think, imagines that he is bringing science to the masses; that he is dispelling the ignorance cast by the veil of imprecise, arbitrary, subjective language that ‘ordinary folk’ use by directing their attention to scientific language, which when used, shows how ridiculous those ‘ordinary folk’ affectations are. Your birthday? Just a date. That date? A ‘cosmically arbitrary event.’ Your child’s laughter? Just sound waves colliding with your eardrum. That friendly smile beamed at you by your school mate? Just facial muscles being stretched. And so on. It’s really easy; almost mechanical. I could, if I wanted, set up a bot-run Neil deGrasse Tyson Parody account on Twitter, and just issue these every once in a while. Easy pickings.

Does Tyson imagine that he is engaging in some form ‘scientific communication’ here, bringing science to the masses? Does he imagined he is introducing greater precision and fidelity to truth in our everyday conversation and discourse, cleaning up the degraded Augean stables of internet chatter? He might think so, but what Tyson is actually engaged in is displaying the perils of facile reductionism and the scientism it invariably accompanies and embellishes; anything can be redescribed in scientific language but that does not mean such redescription is necessary or desirable or even moderately useful. All too often such redescription results in not talking about the ‘same thing’ any more. (All that great literature? Just ink on paper! You know, a chemical pigment on a piece of treated wood pulp.)

There are many ways of talking about the world; science is one of them. Science lets us do many things; other ways of talking about the world let us other do things. Scientific language is a tool; it lets us solve some problems really well; other languages–like those of poetry, psychology, literature, legal theory–help us solve others. The views they introduce of this world show us many things; different objects appear in different views depending on the language adopted. As a result, we are ‘multi-scopic’ creatures; at any time, we entertain multiple perspectives on this world and work with them, shifting between each as my wants and needs require. To figure out what clothes to wear today, I consulted the resources of meteorology; in order to get a fellow human being to come to my aid, I used elementary folk psychology, not neuroscience; to crack a joke and break the ice with co-workers, I relied on humor which deployed imaginary entities. Different tasks; different languages; different tools; it is the basis of the pragmatic attitude, which underwrites the science that Tyson claims to revere.

Tyson has famously dissed philosophy of science and just philosophy in general; his tweeting shows that he would greatly benefit from a philosophy class or two himself.

7 thoughts on “Neil deGrasse Tyson And The Perils Of Facile Reductionism

  1. I could believe that in that New Year’s tweet Tyson is playing on his by now well earned reputation for such funkillery, hence, e.g., his exaggerated throat-clearing “Not that anybody asked…” It reminds me of–and I am *not* comparing the two in any other way–Megyn Kelly’s declaration a few years back that Santa Claus is white, appending, “I just want kids to know that.”

    But the context in each case makes the joke, if such it is, less funny. Kelly was peddling some
    spurious crap about the PC history police whitewashing (antiwhitewashing?) Christmas. Tyson, as the piece linked by George Gale above demonstrates (see also Sam Kriss on Tyson:, has nothing to say beyond whatever he says about science and seems to think no one else does either, much like the pitying, bemused smile a certain sort of churchgoer gives someone who’s just told her he’s an agnostic or atheist.

  2. Yeah, I’ve really come to dislike this genre of soft eliminativism.
    It just validates all those nitwits on the other end of the spectrum who maintain that, because there is no love particle coming out of the LHC, love must not be part of the rest of the world, and is not amenable to an explanatory reduction.
    Christmas has a deep history, and so does Monday, and your birthday.
    Happy fucking Tuesday!

  3. I stumbled on this comment by accident, and while I agree with your core message, I couldn’t help but find you overly antagonistic with Tyson. “Cosmically” speaking, to reuse the tweet’s wording, the New Year is not an astronomical event; I’d say that’s a useful thing to remind when there are people who believe in things like Astrology, Order in the Cosmos that is linked to our lives and all. I don’t see how that means the New Year cannot have any social meaning; the two thoughts are certainly not mutually exclusive, and by itself this tweet certainly doesn’t suggest Tyson would think otherwise.

    Again, I stumbled here by accident, maybe there would have been better places to post this comment. Perhaps you have other, bigger reasons to criticize Tyson and I just happened to see how it got (inadequately?) expressed on a minor issue. I’m very sorry if I’m intruding.

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