Book review

Celebrity Scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson Speaks — Excerpt From Everything You Believe Is Wrong

This excerpt comes in Chapter 20, Science. First comes the Science Is Self-Correcting Fallacy, followed by the My Grant Was Funded Therefore My Theory Is True Fallacy, which is a cousin of the My Paper Was Peer Reviewed Therefore My Theory Is True Fallacy, which itself is a spawn of the ageless Experts Agree My Theory Is True Fallacy.

From there we move to scientism and scidolatry, with their many depressing effects.

All that having been discussed, and before we come to the Peer Review Fallacy (not excerpted here) we move to everyone’s favorite scientist after Bill Nye, the one and only Neil deGrasse Tyson.

You may download a PDF of the entire first chapter (with Table of Contents).

Get the book at (Amazon, Barnes & Noble (paper and nook), Alibris (link), ABE Books (at a slight premium).

SCIENCE

Look To The Stars

Celebrity scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson provided perhaps the best, or at least tersest, example of Type II scientism. “The good thing about Science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it,” he said. That so? Let’s try replacing Science with other words. “The good thing about Philosophy is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it,” “The good thing about History is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it”, “The good thing about Economics is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it”, and “The good thing about Theology is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

Each of these propositions are just as true as Tyson’s original; which is to say, each is as meaningless or as confused.

Has every theory promulgated by Science, which is to say, by individual or groups of scientists, been true? As we learned above, obviously not. Therefore Science isn’t always true, and you’d best believe that. Has every theory put forth in Philosophy, History, etc. been true? Certainly not. Though some have. Is every economic model or theological conjecture been valuable? No. But some are. And so on.

Again, some will say “Science is self-correcting. That’s why it’s true.” If so, as we learned, it is an admission that it has things to correct; which is to say, Science knows it is often in error, and therefore what it puts forth should not always be believed in toto because what it says might very well be false and in need of correction. If you always believe Science, you will often believe what is false.

Again, Philosophy, History, etc. are self-correcting, too, and we know this in the same way we know Science is self-correcting. That is, we have seen in these fields errors identified, new evidence augmenting the old, new (or rediscovered) theories supplanting old ones, and so forth, just as happens in Science.

Perhaps Tyson, when confronted with these rebuttals, would reply, “What I really meant was Science was truer than any of those other things.”

True = True

But truth is truth: epistemically, no truth can be higher than another; all truths share the same logical status. Ontologically, truths can be ranked, such as in a moral or ethical sense. It’s true you should not murder your neighbor; it’s “truer” in an moral sense that you should not nuke a city for the fun of it. Sorting truth in that way admits Science is not the highest truth, because matters of ethics and morality belong to Philosophy, which is itself fed by History, Literature, Economics, and Art. Science can only say what is, Philosophy and Theology can say what you ought to do.

In From From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, Jacques Barzun said:

Ten succinct paragraphs of the Pensées [by Blase Pascal] state [the warning against scientism] with finality. Scientism is the fallacy of believing that the method of science must be used on all forms of experience and, given time, will settle every issue. Again and again, the bright thought has occurred, “If we can only define our terms, if we can only find the basic unit, if we can spot the right ‘indicators,’ we can then measure and reason flawlessly, we shall have created one more science.” And nearly as often, the shout has been heard: “Eureka! We are scientists,” the new science being some portion of the desired Science of Man—history, sociology, psychology, archaeology, linguistics, and other more or less short-lived ologies…

The motives behind scientism are culturally significant. They have been mixed, as usual; genuine curiosity in search of truth; the rage for certainty and for unity; and the snobbish desire to earn the label scientist when that became a high social and intellectual rank. But these efforts, even though in vain, have not been without harm, to the inventors and to the world at large. The “findings” have inspired policies affecting daily life that were enforced with the same absolute assurance as earlier ones based on religion…The case of Karl Marx is typical. Infatuated with the kudos of science, he persuaded himself and his millions of followers in and out of the Soviet Union that he had at last formulated the mechanics of history and could predict the future scientifically.

Here is what Pascal in the Pensées said: “The vanity of the sciences.—Physical science will not console me for the ignorance of morality in the time of affliction. But the science of ethics will always console me for the ignorance of the physical sciences.”

And [Pascal was an early discoverer of the midwit meme, an observation that occurred to me only now and is not in book.]

The world is a good judge of things, for it is in natural ignorance, which is man’s true state. The sciences have two extremes which meet. The first is the pure natural ignorance in which all men find themselves at birth. The other extreme is that reached by great intellects, who, having run through all that men can know, find they know nothing, and come back again to that same ignorance from which they set out; but this is a learned ignorance which is conscious of itself. Those between the two, who have departed from natural ignorance and not been able to reach the other, have some smattering of this vain knowledge, and pretend to be wise. These trouble the world, and are bad judges of everything. The people and the wise constitute the world; these despise it, and are despised. They judge badly of everything, and the world judges rightly of them.

An example of the sort of person Pascal had in mind might be Russell Foster. He wrote in The Times Higher Education of the ordeal of being invited to cocktail parties as a scientist. “The season is once again upon us when we scientists are asked to leave the safe embrace of our laboratories and enter the complex social matrix of unfamiliar relations, friends of friends and obligatory conversations with complete strangers.” He wondered and he fretted how he could explain to these the near illiterates he would meet what he does for a living. He considered avoiding the subject and saving everybody the mental trauma of engaging his superior mind, but he rejected this as beneath his vast intelligence. He now has at the ready, he claims, this speech:

“Well,” I say, “as a scientist my occupation grapples with the fundamental nature of truth. It is worth reflecting that before the emergence of a robust scientific class in the 19th century, truth was defined by the whim of the ruling class. Indeed, we scientists wrested truth away from the claws of religious dogma and liberated humanity from the leaden hand of ignorance and, in the process, provided the evidenced-based infrastructure required for a truly democratic society — namely individual liberty and equality of opportunity. I suppose I’m just part of that meritocratic force that has defined our civilisation.”

After his speech, he says he does this: “At this point I pause for both gas exchange and dramatic effect.”

Fun guy. Tad arrogant, perhaps. But maybe this Foster really does know more than anybody else. Or perhaps not.

Scientists, while admitting their subjects are in need of self-correction, think rather too well of themselves. It is no wonder how scientism came about.

From here we move to the Peer Review Fallacy and its brothers.

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Categories: Book review

28 replies »

  1. In my view, science is about degrees of uncertainty and truth is something else altogether.

    I would argue that anyone who states that science is “true” (independent of belief) is perhaps not a scientist. Maybe they should have been a lawyer.

  2. Tyson stole and mangled that bon mot from Philip K Dick, the science fiction author. Dick’s original quote was “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

    Last time I looked (it’s been a while), Tyson’s dissertation was available online. Look it up. Explains a lot.

  3. Pascal: ”…great intellects, who, having run through all that men can know, find they know nothing, and come back again to that same ignorance from which they set out.”

    What the devil can a man truly know, in this fallen world? Briggs, you are the maestro of uncertainty, perhaps your next book might take for its topic, Certainty: What a Man May Know Without Doubt. And then prove it.

    A slim volume, no doubt, with slimmer sales, but that never stopped you before. Kidding aside, it’s an interesting topic, and would make a nice bookend to your Uncertainty. And you never know, it might be a bestseller. But you can know for sure that if you don’t write that book then nix naught and nihil. And that’s one thing a man may know without doubt, just to get the ball rolling… in a midwit sort of way.

  4. The Science is Fauci and Fauci is The Science. So I am not sure why the need for more discussion.

  5. There are some things that ARE “true whether you believe in it or not”….these truths are intentionally and explicitly excluding from even the possibility of investigation by “Science”, by definition.

    It is also true that ALL of the really important things lie outside of the scope of Science.

  6. He said that?

    “… in the process, provided the evidenced-based infrastructure required for a truly democratic society — namely individual liberty and equality of opportunity. I suppose I’m just part of that meritocratic force that has defined our civilisation.”

    Meritocratic?

    My niece told me meritocracy is wrong and racist and represents white privilege!

    So Neil is a Racist and White Supremist … humpf

  7. *Scientific Truth* comes from man…

    *Absolute Truth* comes from God…

    Whether you believe in Him or not, God exists…

    I’m just a simple man, & those are my beliefs, you are certainly welcome to your own…

  8. The Hollow Men

    By T.S. Elliot

    Mistah Kurtz-he dead
                A penny for the Old Guy

                            I

        We are the hollow men
        We are the stuffed men
        Leaning together
        Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
        Our dried voices, when
        We whisper together
        Are quiet and meaningless
        As wind in dry grass
        Or rats’ feet over broken glass
        In our dry cellar
       
        Shape without form, shade without colour,
        Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
       
        Those who have crossed
        With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
        Remember us-if at all-not as lost
        Violent souls, but only
        As the hollow men
        The stuffed men.

                                  II

        Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
        In death’s dream kingdom
        These do not appear:
        There, the eyes are
        Sunlight on a broken column
        There, is a tree swinging
        And voices are
        In the wind’s singing
        More distant and more solemn
        Than a fading star.
       
        Let me be no nearer
        In death’s dream kingdom
        Let me also wear
        Such deliberate disguises
        Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
        In a field
        Behaving as the wind behaves
        No nearer-
       
        Not that final meeting
        In the twilight kingdom
       
                        III

        This is the dead land
        This is cactus land
        Here the stone images
        Are raised, here they receive
        The supplication of a dead man’s hand
        Under the twinkle of a fading star.
       
        Is it like this
        In death’s other kingdom
        Waking alone
        At the hour when we are
        Trembling with tenderness
        Lips that would kiss
        Form prayers to broken stone.

                          IV

        The eyes are not here
        There are no eyes here
        In this valley of dying stars
        In this hollow valley
        This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms
       
        In this last of meeting places
        We grope together
        And avoid speech
        Gathered on this beach of the tumid river
       
        Sightless, unless
        The eyes reappear
        As the perpetual star
        Multifoliate rose
        Of death’s twilight kingdom
        The hope only
        Of empty men.

                                V

        Here we go round the prickly pear
        Prickly pear prickly pear
        Here we go round the prickly pear
        At five o’clock in the morning.
       
        Between the idea
        And the reality
        Between the motion
        And the act
        Falls the Shadow
                                        For Thine is the Kingdom
       
        Between the conception
        And the creation
        Between the emotion
        And the response
        Falls the Shadow
                                        Life is very long
       
        Between the desire
        And the spasm
        Between the potency
        And the existence
        Between the essence
        And the descent
        Falls the Shadow
                                        For Thine is the Kingdom
       
        For Thine is
        Life is
        For Thine is the
       
        This is the way the world ends
        This is the way the world ends
        This is the way the world ends
        Not with a bang but a whimper.

  9. Science can only say what is

    It is even more limited – science can only say what is in a material sense. It can only describe physcial phenomena. Outside of that, it has nothing to say.

  10. Foster sounds like the kind of pompous ass who would introduce himself to strangers as “Dr. Russell Foster”. Academic parties are stuffed with such pretentious fools.

  11. 1 – half of everything I know is wrong – including, for every specific thing, my knowledge of which half that falls into.

    2 – I do not know who Tyson was misquoting.. 😉 but the confusion is plain and the explanation simple: Science is a formal method for finding the answers to questions, not a set of accumulated results.

    A logical syllogism is always logical whether you think so or not. So:

    IF All A are B.
    And All C are A.
    Then all C are B.

    is always true whether or not reality eventually unfolds enough to show that not all A are B.

  12. Science, unlike every other subject on your list, often has direct implications for engineering.
    THAT is the unique power of science, a claim to truth it can at least, sometimes back up. And the most important thing of all about science is the Method. If someone is asserting something ‘scientific’ that wasn’t properly subjected to the scientific method, then yes, you do not have science, but instead a variety of sophistry.
    I’d really love to see proof that “Philosophy” ever ‘made progress’ or ‘corrected’ anything. It seems to me that much of ‘modern’ Philosophy is just elaborations on earlier Philosophies often Idealism or Sophistry. Certainly that would seem to be the dominant form in Academia, but outside Academia, even in Churches (Theology is often a debased form of Philosophy, but even in most churches Theology is dead), Philosophy has no power and the average person doesn’t seem cognizant of the “Great Philosophical Questions” at all.

    Meanwhile, Kip Hansens comment could have been made in a mental ward. Once you pull “Truth” from being connected to Observation (Remember, even Moses supposedly even SPOKE to God, and directly witnessed some miracles) you can believe anything and you might as well just join the “woke” and questioning your ‘Gender Identity’.

  13. Scientism has been surpassed by fact-checkerism.

    This is a methodology wherein if you read something somebody said that is true, that you do not like, or are paid not to like, you therefore seek out something else somebody else entirely said about what that somebody said which may have been too simplified or inaccurately summarized, or misunderstood, or been rephrased into the euphemisms of the common spoken tongue of the masses which is commonly profane and not the cultured technical jargonic language of the establishment learned, and treating that as the specific sentence that you are checking for hyper-literal fact-matching, that once accomplished then gives off the appearance that one has found an error in the original something that somebody said, but without actually addressing directly or in substance, in whole or in part, the actual something that one does not like or is paid not to like, which remains true or spoken regardless of whether or not a fact-checka likes it.

    Yet there are an army of morons who faithfully subscribe to these methods without any additional rigor.

    People worship idols. Today the craven images are pieces of paper or webpages that have very nice appearences of authority, paid for by the authorities and powers that are suspect in the first place.

  14. For fun, consider tyson, musk, bezos, zuckerberg, et al,
    as very well paid actors.
    Then, go from there.
    Btw, how’s Musk’s orbited car hanging?
    Saying cheese (moon’s green) presumes a smile…

  15. Science is a methodology, neither true nor false in and of itself. It is one of two methodologies that humans have developed for evaluating models (theories) and truth claims about the world. The other is the legal/historical method used to evaluate historical documents and eyewitness testimony. When a scientist says “science is truth” it is exactly like a lawyer saying “courtroom trials are true”; meaningless. A particular theory may be true or false, at under currently testable circumstances, just as a particular historical record may be true, false, or true with conditions (e.g. truthfully written by an author with a known bias).

  16. Anyone who has spent time in the R&D departments of Bell Labs, Xerox, IBM, Los Alomos, Fermilab, MIT, etc. knows that these scientists and engineers are basically engaging in little more than disciplined trial and error. The two main disciplines are: 1) documenting what results came from what experiments so that others can use that store of knowledge when time and budget preclude others from doing the same experiments – and note that such documentation requires precision which is almost always lacking (a point Briggs makes multiple times) and is not intended to prevent others from running the exact same experiment but is to encourage others to try the same experiment when feasible; and 2) the precision necessary for useful documentation requires discipline to avoid confounding factors that can lead to false conclusions (another of Briggs’ continuous points).

    A good scientist or engineer expects to be wrong most of the time. If he’s lucky he collaborates with other scientists and engineers willing to tell each other how wrong they are until the finally reach something that actually works and can stand up to criticism on its own without the need for an apparatus to defend it against such criticism.

    Discovery is science, engineering is applied science. And both are usually done sloppily and need constant improvement.

  17. We also must not forget that for some dupes, anything of science that has been long held in belief and rarely challenged becomes indistinguishable from Truth.

    An illustrative point some here may be familiar with is that once upon a time a certain tootyfish took umbrage that anyone would be so brazen as to question whether the ticker in our chests was actually pumping blood.

    For the heck of it I decided to dig in and be the advocate for the paper presented arguing that the circulation of blood in the body was a complex system of pressurized/depressurized vaccum areas spaced throughout the body where blood was moving in and out of and thus locomoting. This seemed a reasonable inference given the observation of blood moving in the early embryonic stages of life before the presence of a heart. So therefore, does the heart take over as a primary pumping organism to continue facilitating this sytem, or is the ‘heartbeat’ merely an artifact result of an organ that is facilitating a complex system of changing pressurized spaces that continue to channel the blood in a growing body?

    I personally couldn’t care less whether the paper’s thesis turns out to be true or not as there is no dogmatic attachment to the function of the heart on my part or any other rational normal person’s everyday life, and the Holy Bible has nothing to offer. But the observation of this particular heartfishy becoming so absolutely steaming livid mad at it was too good to pass up!

    His first attempt was to of course immediately attack the author and their credentials, as pseudoscience and pseudoscientist, and by that he screwed up and really only attacked the website’s host of the paper, who is one of several contributors to the paper and he had no idea which content or portion of the paper this man had contributed towards. But clearly he concluded, “This guy isn’t Saint Isaac Newton!” Then he had to be shamed into admitting that Newton was not infallible and also got things wrong that required correcting.

    Then he played his trump card! Pointing out that during heart surgery and transplants we use artificial pumping devices to keep the blood going. Whoa-ho-hoh! You mean to tell me that can be two or multiple different mechanical methods that can all produce the same phenomena and function??? Oh, if only someone informed the authors of the paper!! Oh, wait, they were already aware of this and were trying to point out that much like relativism, there can be distinctions without a difference of results, and we can’t just assume which one is true based on mere end observation when both methods produce the same effect.

    The question at the heart of the matter then goes back to the beginning – when there is no heart present in the early stages of life, how is the blood moving? We need an explanation for what we observe in embryos.

    To this the livid heartlessfish dismissed casually as “Who cares?! They’re so friggin’ small! Waaah! Waaaaah!” Then he ran off.

    So as we can observe, if such a mere routine questioning occurring within scientific circles that is not the least bit political or controversial can get some random internet guy so bent out of shape, then what goes on within the scientific community when there is something at stake career-wise or in competition for funding grants etc.?

    There is therefore no shortage of irrationality and religious zealotry even amongst scientists on the most mundane questioning long-standing ‘orthodoxy.’ These science-worshipping saps, largely atheists, moved into the nest of science and cuckoo’d their stupid eggs all over the place while kicking out any other baby bird that would upset their little cathedral of beliefs and spend their time opening their mouths wide for big-gov mama-bird to regurgitate its worms into their bellies and keep them fed.

    But when time comes to get out on the branch and see their theories fly on their own merits, they’d sooner burn down the tree than expose their failure and ineptitude to the light of day.

  18. Johnno, dude, that’s some funny shit. Sample this — twenty-year-old port………………… right? What I’m talking about, wigga.

  19. Johnno, that comment is definitely in the top ten, of all I’ve read on this blog. Smart, insightful, and funny. Thank you.

  20. Johnno.

    Methinks thou dost protest too much. As they say.

    Then he ran off.

    You say that every time. I wonder under what circumstances you wouldn’t say it? Maybe if I continued an argument with you for all of eternity? As I recollect, I won the argument (ask DAV), then got fed up with interacting with an arrogant, homophobic, intellectually dishonest, irrational, anti-scientific, obnoxious, narcissistic, sociopathic YEC. (That’s you, in case you didn’t realise.)

    when there is no heart present in the early stages of life, how is the blood moving?

    A: Placenta.

  21. Again, Philosophy, History, etc. are self-correcting, too

    I note you missed out Theology that time, probably because it would be ridiculous to claim that theology self-corrects.

    Science can only say what is, Philosophy and Theology can say what you ought to do.

    Morality is based on facts about the world – such as that pain is painful – so a scientific (i.e. evidence-based) approach to answering moral questions would be a lot more useful than a theological one.

  22. You say that every time. I wonder under what circumstances you wouldn’t say it? Maybe if I continued an argument with you for all of eternity?

    So you admit you ran away.

    As I recollect, I won the argument (ask DAV), then got fed up with interacting with an arrogant, homophobic, intellectually dishonest, irrational, anti-scientific, obnoxious, narcissistic, sociopathic YEC. (That’s you, in case you didn’t realise.)

    So you admit you ran away after yelling out “IT SO SMALL!” and “Look! An artificial Heart Pump!”

    (P.S. – DAV couldn’t answer the main question either.)

    A: Placenta.

    In the petri dish?

  23. Morality is based on facts about the world – such as that pain is painful – so a scientific (i.e. evidence-based) approach to answering moral questions would be a lot more useful than a theological one.

    BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

    Sex and surgery and hugs can be painful! So was fighting against Nazis in WWII! Guess we should stop! Nazism was very scientific!

    But once again, dum-dum here already assumes pain=painful=bad=do not do. But… whyyy???
    Show us the science! Because me inflicting pain on you can be very beneficial… to me! Why stop?

  24. Sap within trees, analogous to blood within humans, moves upward. But, trees are heartless. The sap isn’t getting pumped.

    What if the true purpose and function of the human heart is to electrify the blood, not pump it? What if blood losing electrical charge is the true cause of death when the heart gets damaged?

    It’s known beyond any doubt that there are humans who can slow or have their heartbeats slowed to rates so low that if the heart were a necessary pump those people would die from lack of sufficient blood flow. It goes without saying, they don’t. How come that is? (Bad grammar intended.)

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