Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The de Grasse Tyson Contretemps

A week or so ago I posted a piece on VP about Neil de Grasse Tyson's proclivity to stretch the truth past the snapping point. Tyson is the cosmologist, disciple of Carl Sagan, who hosted the recent remake of Sagan's Cosmos on PBS. The show was littered with misleading statements and outright errors about the history of the relationship between religion and science, and Tyson has come in for serious criticism for these and other whoppers he has been disseminating.

Much water has flowed over that dam since the original report of Tyson's tenuous commitment to the truth by Sean Davis at The Federalist.

Much has been revealed, too, about the intellectual dishonesty, not just of Tyson, but also his fans in the twitterverse and the disreputable tactics of Wikipedia which now wants to banish all mention of the controversy from its site in order to protect Tyson.

The consistently marvelous Mollie Hemmingway has a fine tongue-in-cheek summary of this bizarre episode here, and I recommend it to anyone who trusts scientists to be honest, objective, and non-political. If that describes you Hemmingway's column is sure to disillusion you.

The sordid account of Tyson's repeated disregard for objective facts tells us much about the view of truth in our post modern culture. What matters for many people is whether what is said reinforces or promotes the hearer's preferred narrative. If it does, then it's true - true for them - and that's the only truth that matters. What actually is the case is unimportant if it does no work in promoting an agenda or reinforcing a worldview that one just knows has to be correct, and can therefore be disregarded.

The ascension of secularism in the age of modernity eventually pulled out from under us any ground for believing that there is an objective moral right and wrong, and post moderns responded to this development by subjectivizing all values. Thus Tyson's mendacity is not wrong, in their eyes, and, if it's useful, if it works, the post modern will even say it's right.

This pragmatic view of truth - whatever works is right - is not only intellectually dishonest and lazy, it's dangerous. It reduces truth to a mere feeling and facilitates the reinforcement of our prejudices. It excuses our reluctance to hold our beliefs up to the light of objective facts to see if we really are right in what we believe. In this view, lying to people in the service of a larger truth - the truth of scientism, naturalism, or left-wing politics as in Tyson's case - is the morally proper thing to do.

Ideas have consequences and this inversion of common sense is one of the consequences of our embrace of the secular in the modern age.