There are no things, there are only truths.
April 22, 2016 1:42 PM   Subscribe

Something terrible happened to you in outer space. All you can remember are the last few moments, the sun fading to a speck as you and your crew broke free from the solar system, the ship’s systems suddenly shutting down, the panic and blackness inside, shouting and sobbing, outside the phosphorescent fringes of the wormhole as it opened up in front of you—and then you woke up, sweat-slick in your own bed at sunrise, with the birds singing outside, in another universe. You are trapped in the world of the popular TV astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and you know this, because here the sunrise isn’t a sunrise at all.
posted by Rustic Etruscan (102 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
Neil deGrasse Tyson strides onto stage to say that actually the Earth orbits the sun, that actually living beings gain their traits through evolutionary processes, that actually your hand has five fingers, that actually cows go moo, that actually poo comes out your bum—and you are then supposed to think yes, I knew that, and imagine someone else, someone who didn’t know it already, some idiot, and think: I’m better than that person, I’m so much smarter than everyone else.
[Rest of comment filled with thousands of 100 emoji]
posted by griphus at 1:44 PM on April 22, 2016 [18 favorites]


This post originally appeared on Idiot Joy Showland.

Sounds about right.
posted by belarius at 1:48 PM on April 22, 2016 [7 favorites]


That was a fucking terrible article. An epic failure worse than the aether. Far more painful, anyway.
posted by wierdo at 1:49 PM on April 22, 2016 [7 favorites]


What we humans call 'epic failure' is actually just another series of events in the great cosmic chain of cause and effect spinning out as a result of the Big Bang 13.799 billion years ago. Science teaches us that events are not discrete, and naming them has no basis in mathematics.
posted by beerperson at 1:53 PM on April 22, 2016 [27 favorites]


Here it is on Kriss's blog in case you find those Wired ad-blocker-blockers as annoying as I do
posted by RogerB at 1:54 PM on April 22, 2016 [17 favorites]


In fact, the earth is a sphere

Pfft, no, the Earth is an oblate spheroid. Article ruined.
posted by timdiggerm at 1:56 PM on April 22, 2016 [18 favorites]


There is scientifically no such thing as "darkness" and "cold," only the absence of light and heat in the eternal Godless universe we are cursed to wander, clutching at straws of knowledge and watching them slip through our hands, which are actually the same thing as feet but on a different part of you.
posted by griphus at 1:56 PM on April 22, 2016 [49 favorites]


You may not like the article, but it makes a valid point under the sarcasm. Caring about science used to mean caring about knowledge and appreciating the wonders of the universe. Now, caring about science often means you're a pedantic asshole.
posted by SansPoint at 2:02 PM on April 22, 2016 [34 favorites]


“Save the Earth” really means “Save the Humans” or "Save the Life on Earth”. Earth the planet will outlast all extinctions.
When the same sentiment is expressed as a comic with Earth personified, it gets passed all around the internet. I think the problem here is Twitter, not Tyson. 140 characters is not enough to eloquently express a point, so he ends up sounding terse and pedantic.
posted by Rangi at 2:03 PM on April 22, 2016 [5 favorites]


You may not like the article, but it makes a valid point under the sarcasm. Caring about science used to mean caring about knowledge and appreciating the wonders of the universe. Now, caring about science often means you're a pedantic asshole.

"Put the phone down and get out of there!" the policeman shouted. "Take the kids and go! We traced the calls and they are coming from within the house!"
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:04 PM on April 22, 2016 [13 favorites]


Now, caring about science often means you're a pedantic asshole.

But this criticism of science enthusiasts is nothing new: "These scientists want to quantify and measure and explain everything! They're such dull pedants! Why can't they just be satisfied with the beautiful notions where rainbows are God's promise to mankind instead of refraction, and flowers are beautiful objects instead of plant genitalia, and angels can live atop the clouds?"
posted by Johnny Assay at 2:08 PM on April 22, 2016 [15 favorites]


When the same sentiment is expressed as a comic with Earth personified, it gets passed all around the internet.

That comic is also harmfully incorrect. Humans are, indeed, having massive impacts on nearly every living creature on Earth; the fact that new species may arise over evolutionary time periods, or that "life always finds a way", function as dismissive platitudes that do not in any way absolve us for our role in the sixth mass extinction that is well underway.
posted by dialetheia at 2:08 PM on April 22, 2016 [20 favorites]


I personally hope Tyson keeps pointing out the ways in which we say thoughtless things because they sound good and are lazy about details in SF movies. He's not mean-spirited about it and it's good for me to reminded that I'm not as smart as I think I am. He's certainly a higher quality pedant than most.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 2:10 PM on April 22, 2016 [13 favorites]


Dude. Like, actually explaining things is so gauche.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 2:11 PM on April 22, 2016 [4 favorites]




SCIENCE
posted by beerperson at 2:14 PM on April 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


If there were ever a species for whom sex hurt, it surely went extinct long ago.

At the very least his pedantry about astrophysics is probably correct.
posted by griphus at 2:18 PM on April 22, 2016 [27 favorites]


Earth the planet will outlast all extinctions.

I'll bet a dollar that we manage to literally annihilate the planet on our way out.
posted by mattamatic at 2:22 PM on April 22, 2016 [8 favorites]


I just don't get it. It's like the author is from another universe, where human emotion works in some mysterious way that's different from our own. He thinks that knowing more about things makes them boring??? Does not compute.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:22 PM on April 22, 2016 [14 favorites]


I'm not sure exactly when it started. Maybe 6 months ago. Maybe more. But it's now OK, or more than OK, even required, to turn on Neil deGrasse Tyson.
posted by Obscure Reference at 2:23 PM on April 22, 2016 [7 favorites]


Sir, I think you'll find that, technically, a bet that one party or the other cannot feasibly uphold (say, in a scenario where the world had indeed been literally annihilated) is a paradoxical idea indeed.
posted by Copronymus at 2:26 PM on April 22, 2016 [4 favorites]


Metafilter: a passionate, useless, and embarrassing defence of the blindingly obvious.

Sorry, hadda do it.
posted by crazylegs at 2:37 PM on April 22, 2016 [6 favorites]


Seems to me it's this author who thinks "I’m better than that person, I’m so much smarter than everyone else." For all the $10 words and gratuitous suicide references, the only thing I took away from this is I probably shouldn't read anything else by Sam Kriss.
posted by ArugulaToRemember at 2:38 PM on April 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


This was a poorly put together article, but I fucking hate "I Fucking Love Science".
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 2:38 PM on April 22, 2016 [13 favorites]


What ‘I Fucking Love Science’ actually means is ‘I Fucking Love Existing Conditions.’

Ok, that part was both funny and true. Blowing stuff up and saying "I LOVE SCIENCE" is... well, those are two things, but they have no relationship to each other.

The rest of this is butthurt about being butthurt.
posted by GuyZero at 2:39 PM on April 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


But it's now OK, or more than OK, even required, to turn on Neil deGrasse Tyson.

I'll get out my assless chaps.
posted by GuyZero at 2:42 PM on April 22, 2016 [14 favorites]


Ha, I knew this piece would get attacked here, because MetaFilter is chock full to bursting of little atavistic Neil deGrasse Tysons! Come on, this isn't an engineering diagram or a sober analysis, it's a rant, and a great rant:
Or when his TV show Cosmos described the sixteeth-century astrologer Giordano Bruno as a martyr for science, executed by the Catholic church for proposing a heliocentric solar system. See how the idiots persecute us, the rational, with their superstition and their hostility to objective thought. The reality—that Bruno believed in magic, worshipped the ancient Egyptian god Thoth, and was executed not for heliocentrism but for denying the divinity of Christ—is ignored, because that isn’t Fucking Science Love. Or when he decided that ‘Italy valued cathedrals while Spain valued explorers. So worldwide, five times as many people speak Spanish than Italian.’ A spurious reconstruction of the past from present conditions, or the I Fucking Love Scientific theory of history: successful tribes were populated by little atavistic Carl Sagans; if Italians didn’t slaughter millions in the New World it isn’t because the peninsula was at the time fractured into multiple city-states (some of them occupied by, uh, Spain) which supplied significant amounts of capital rather than colonists, it’s because they weren’t interested in spaceships.
Y'all are acting as though he just killed your god hero. (Whew, I almost mentioned a nonexistent phenomenon and brought down a deluge of Spaghetti Monster references!)
posted by languagehat at 2:43 PM on April 22, 2016 [80 favorites]


Everyone who explains things for a living (and at one time or another that's most of us) can be a little overbearing, even condescending at times. Tyson is perhaps at his best and most genuine when he's completely spontaneous and unrehearsed: one of my favourite videos is him totally geeking out over a Saturn V rocket model (and poking a little fun at himself at the same time).
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 2:46 PM on April 22, 2016 [11 favorites]


neil degrasse tiresome
posted by koeselitz at 2:47 PM on April 22, 2016 [25 favorites]


I'm not sure exactly when it started. Maybe 6 months ago. Maybe more. But it's now OK, or more than OK, even required, to turn on Neil deGrasse Tyson.

There was this story about him being needlessly jerky at a private university event.
posted by anazgnos at 2:48 PM on April 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


The key point here is that Tyson's Twitter feed is really, really bad. If only it were explaining concepts and expanding readers' knowledge, or even just talking about general science news. Instead it's a combination of half-assed musings on fields he has no expertise in, quibbling about movies, and sub-trivial facts that would barely rate inclusion in the Did You Know?! section of Time Life's Astronomy for Kids.
posted by Copronymus at 2:50 PM on April 22, 2016 [26 favorites]


A great rant? No, it's shameful:

"Which is why it’s pointless to criticise Neil deGrasse Tyson or the I Fucking Love Scientists for being the pompous, self-important, and utterly cretinous pedants that they are: it’s just falling back into their own dismal, boring logic, insisting that a thing is what it is rather than something else."

"pompous, self-important, and utterly cretinous pedants"

I kind of want to hit kriss with a rolled-up newspaper* and rub his nose in that writing. A sentence is not done when there is nothing left to add. I'm sympathetic to half his incoherent point, but unless he's doing some next-level writing in forcing his readers to experience a torrent of actually that's not consistently correct, it's just not a good piece.

*Which, of course, I would never do to a puppy.
posted by The Gaffer at 2:50 PM on April 22, 2016 [4 favorites]


"You may not like the article, but it makes a valid point under the sarcasm. Caring about science used to mean caring about knowledge and appreciating the wonders of the universe. Now, caring about science often means you're a pedantic asshole."


If I'm understanding this right, you're saying that some people are just trying to show off how educated they are (or how ignorant everyone else is) and don't really care about the things they're discussing.

But honestly, I don't think I've ever encountered this in real life. The vast majority of the time nerdy explainers like Tyson (and most of us here, no doubt) are just enthusiastic and trying to stimulate a deeper level of discussion. Maybe that's the true source of irritation. Some people want to get into deep discussions on twitter or whatever, while other people just want to spend a couple seconds reading and move on.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:51 PM on April 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


Everyone who explains things for a living can be a little overbearing, even condescending at times.

I disagree that science, physics especially, is really about explaining. The more you learn the less you understand, and the more questions you have. Theoretical physicists, for example, aren't particularly interested in smugly explaining a bunch of assumed facts to the unsophisticated rubes. If anything, they are interested in exploring theories that upturn the assumed facts.

An anti-scientific flavor of hubris is part of what bothers me about NDT's authoritative corrections.
posted by naju at 2:51 PM on April 22, 2016 [9 favorites]


Isn't this article also just cynical signaling to other people who want to feel good about being above middlebrow pop sci?
posted by en forme de poire at 2:53 PM on April 22, 2016 [11 favorites]


Sorry, but MetaFilter's quota for "turning on a pop culture hero" is currently filled by Stephen Fry (who IS suffering a much worse Public Statement Batting Average right now). We may not get around to The Second Greatest Three-Name Neil Guy (after N. Patrick Harris) until after the Bernie Backlash is over. (But we will get to him before Terence Stamp or Michael Shannon... because Neil Before Zod).
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:53 PM on April 22, 2016 [38 favorites]


and flowers are beautiful objects instead of plant genitalia,

That's basically exactly the point; flowers are both beautiful objects and plant genitals at the same time, and seeing someone appreciate flowers as beautiful objects and responding to that by saying that they're wrong and stupid for not thinking about flowers as plant genitals has nothing to do with science and everything to do with thinking that asshole pedantry is the highest form of humour.
posted by bracems at 2:53 PM on April 22, 2016 [26 favorites]


If we could work "smug" in here somehow we could cross the streams.
posted by octobersurprise at 2:56 PM on April 22, 2016 [9 favorites]


Whew, I almost mentioned a nonexistent phenomenon and brought down a deluge of Spaghetti Monster references!

Might have been true in '08, but on a pop-sci-related thread in MeFi of '16 I think you're more likely to get references to scientism, eugenics, p-hacking, or Feyerabend
posted by en forme de poire at 2:57 PM on April 22, 2016


A sentence is not done when there is nothing left to add.

Another thing far too much of the Internet enlightenment Fucking Loves is propounding arbitrary stylistic doxa as if it were uncontestably universal truth. Minimalism is not the only style.
posted by RogerB at 2:59 PM on April 22, 2016 [11 favorites]


As I've said recently, are we entirely sure his twitter account hasn't been taken over by a parodist?

NDT's spiritual predecessor, Carl Sagan, managed to do popular science programming and other public outreach without the pedantic asshole part.
posted by Celsius1414 at 3:00 PM on April 22, 2016 [10 favorites]


I, too, think that there were some good ideas behind this article but that it lacked any sort of coherent thesis and should have been axed. But then, on the Internet printer’s ink is free.

On the other hand, I think that Jon Ronson’s portrait of Insane Clown Posse, or at least the discussion of “Fuckin’ magnets, how do they work?” hints at a few of these points much more obliquely.
posted by Going To Maine at 3:01 PM on April 22, 2016


I fucking love magnets.
posted by octobersurprise at 3:03 PM on April 22, 2016 [5 favorites]


From Copronymus's comment, it sounds like this article is something you need to read Twitter to really understand.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:05 PM on April 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


Y'all are acting as though he just killed your god hero. (Whew, I almost mentioned a nonexistent phenomenon and brought down a deluge of Spaghetti Monster references!)

C'mon now, people haven't brought up His Noodliness around these parts for years.

It is pedantic, but it is righteous pedantry. Because all these things in the culture that misrepresent science in artistic ways get taken for the way the universe actually works, when actually, as (of all people) H.P. Lovecraft realized, the further away your context gets away from Earth-normal, the stranger the universe actually looks.

There is no air in space. That means there is no sound in space. Everyone knows that. But it also means there is no temperature in space! Heat requires a medium to conduct it, and no matter, no heat! That's why spaceships have to be carefully designed to minimize heat sources, because they can easily overheat without a medium to conduct away that energy.

"But that's not true," some knowledgeable people are now saying to themselves, "because heat can be transmitted by electromagnetic waves!" Yes, this is why spaceships are usually colored white, among other considerations, because effectively the only to get rid of what heat is created is to radiate it away. It's hard to talk about these things without getting caught up in excepts. But that doesn't mean the excepts aren't important.

Space travel is a weird thing, it always has been, and it doesn't at all work like it does in the movies that have been shown, basically, since the 1930s. With some exceptions (like 2001), the media has retained the same ridiculous depictions of space travel since the cinema started staging stories in space, and for better or worse, that's where most people get their notion of what space is like.

That doesn't mean that those movies are wrong morally, only factually. They're fun! Insisting on factual accuracy from Star Wars is missing the point. Yet, people will continue to take it as a depiction of how space actually works, because most people don't care to learn about science, and that is a problem, because popular understandings of things tend to eventually take on a kind of truth once they get up the level of policy makers, and that sometimes causes deeply stupid decisions to be made.

So, I'm prepared to accept a bit of frustrated pedantry from Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Carl Sagan, and whatever astrophysicists complain about it, because in a sense that's the price we have to pay for action-filled pew-pew movies, because these ideas have to be held in check somehow.
posted by JHarris at 3:15 PM on April 22, 2016 [19 favorites]


I mean NDT's apparently made off-the-cuff comments that were pretty ignorant about the value of philosophy and philosophy of science. But the article itself doesn't go after strains of thought like that, instead it goes after his Tweeting stuff The Martian got wrong about space travel or whatever, which, who cares tbh.
posted by en forme de poire at 3:20 PM on April 22, 2016 [5 favorites]


So, I'm prepared to accept a bit of frustrated pedantry from Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Carl Sagan, and whatever astrophysicists complain about it, because in a sense that's the price we have to pay for action-filled pew-pew movies, because these ideas have to be held in check somehow.

This is a false binary. One can get one's points across without violating Wheaton's Law.
posted by Celsius1414 at 3:22 PM on April 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


We should have known Tyson was in decline when he celebrated December 25th, 2014 ... as Isaac Newton's birthday. Still, based on some of his videos, he does come thisclose to worshiping Newton, who is quoted "If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants." And we often need to remember that, while standing upon the shoulders of giants, it's never a good idea to break into a funky dance.

And this really is nothing new, NdGT was getting widely criticized five years ago for his pedantic style. (Scroll down for a great quote from Carl Sagan that ends with "It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.")
posted by oneswellfoop at 3:27 PM on April 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


So, I'm prepared to accept a bit of frustrated pedantry from Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Carl Sagan, and whatever astrophysicists complain about it, because in a sense that's the price we have to pay for action-filled pew-pew movies, because these ideas have to be held in check somehow.

The people who don't know that these ideas are silly fictions don't care and aren't listening. Meanwhile the I Fucking Love Congratulating Myself for Loving Fucking Science circle jerk continues to smugly spunk off all over my social media feeds.

There are lots of things that people don't know. Richard Dawkins doesn't know the first fucking thing about epistemology (and he embarasses himself regularly as a result), but that hasn't done his work as an evolutionary biologist the slightest bit of harm. The idea that SCIENCE! is the one form of knowing we mustn't neglect, while all other forms of knowing are disposable and second rate, is what I Fucking Love Science actually stands for, and it's just as idiotic and dangerous as the denial of scientific knowledge is.
posted by howfar at 3:28 PM on April 22, 2016 [32 favorites]


For me, science has provided sub-text, layers of meaning to experience. The knowledge it provides enriches, like knowing how a painting was made, that the artist painted a certain way because they were reacting to a previous painter, and that they in turn were reacted to again by someone else, and that that places your experience of a particular work in another, larger context.

Tyson is a bit shouty (and sometimes a bit snotty), but he's mostly the shouty of an excited kid who wants to share.
posted by bonehead at 3:29 PM on April 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure exactly when it started. Maybe 6 months ago. Maybe more. But it's now OK, or more than OK, even required, to turn on Neil deGrasse Tyson.

You will probably not be shocked to know that this originates in Republican quarters and is mostly promulgated by people who are so insecure about their intellect that they think that someone else conspicuously knowing things is some kind of personal attack on them.
posted by IAmUnaware at 3:30 PM on April 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


Another thing far too much of the Internet enlightenment Fucking Loves is propounding arbitrary stylistic doxa as if it were uncontestably universal truth. Minimalism is not the only style.

Baroque don't mean rococo.

Anyhow, the IFLS thing is real annoying, but in practice it's more fremdshamen for me than anything else.
posted by The Gaffer at 3:30 PM on April 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


popular understandings of things tend to eventually take on a kind of truth once they get up the level of policy makers, and that sometimes causes deeply stupid decisions to be made

Wait, are you seriously claiming that George Lucas's movies caused the Strategic Defense Initiative to be funded? Like, if he'd only made hard SF instead, or if Carl Sagan had only explained a little better at the time, then Reagan's defense-industry cronies would've had to go kick rocks? If political history were done in the language of the hard sciences then this contention would surely count as "not even wrong."
posted by RogerB at 3:32 PM on April 22, 2016 [7 favorites]


So, I'm prepared to accept a bit of frustrated pedantry from Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Carl Sagan, and whatever astrophysicists complain about it, because in a sense that's the price we have to pay for action-filled pew-pew movies, because these ideas have to be held in check somehow.

Portraying snarky tweets by astrophysicists about movies as the fingers in the dike that are holding back scientific illiteracy seems like an oversimplification of how the battle against scientific illiteracy in public policy is being fought. I’m not saying that those aren’t a part of Tyson’s pop-culture persona, but I’m not sure that their value can be assessed in a granular way. At least, not to their credit.
posted by Going To Maine at 3:34 PM on April 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


Space travel is a weird thing, it always has been, and it doesn't at all work like it does in the movies that have been shown, basically, since the 1930s. With some exceptions (like 2001), the media has retained the same ridiculous depictions of space travel since the cinema started staging stories in space, and for better or worse, that's where most people get their notion of what space is like.

My favorite example of this is Interstellar, where the big last-hope spaceship launched from earth on a giant Saturn-esque booster, then proceeds to land on and take off from several other worlds (some described as having stronger gravity than Earth) with nothing but a small shuttle-sized ship. Because in cinema taking off from Earth always takes big rockets, but taking off from alien planets never does.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 3:38 PM on April 22, 2016 [20 favorites]


Neil DeGrassless Chaps?
posted by chavenet at 3:48 PM on April 22, 2016 [4 favorites]


Come on, this isn't an engineering diagram or a sober analysis, it's a rant, and a great rant:

Yeah if you read anything else by Sam Kriss you'll see he doesn't take himself all that seriously. Sticking up for B.O.B.'s conspiracy-mongering as harmless eccentricity isn't really a great look given that he uses the same song to shout out a Holocaust denier. I mean I think I could write my own essay about how his paranoid denial in the face of the obvious is in fact representative of something quite pernicious - but hey, NDT didn't actually catch that bit either!
posted by atoxyl at 3:49 PM on April 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


OK I just looked at his Twitter feed and it is actually a lot more irritating than I remembered it being, or even than the article makes it sound imho (as well as kind of "not even wrong" about biology in a few places, prepare for counter-pedantry I guess). Maybe it's the cumulative effect. So mea culpa on that one.
posted by en forme de poire at 3:54 PM on April 22, 2016 [7 favorites]


Wait, are you seriously claiming that George Lucas's movies caused the Strategic Defense Initiative to be funded?

Not to that extreme degree, no. I'm claiming that SDI was a ridiculous thing that seemed more plausible because of cultural perceptions of space. The "(boldface)causes" of SDI were complex, but one thing that could have prevented it was a more realistic model of the science in the public mind.
posted by JHarris at 3:56 PM on April 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


You will probably not be shocked to know that this originates in Republican quarters

Is this actually true? Like, is there evidence for it?

To me it just feels like the witless positivism that cloaks itself in "science" has just gotten on too many people's nerves too many times, and the lousy record of the "science loving" and "sceptic" communities on identity politics has made a lot of people on the left feel that, whatever culture war we may have to fight, these aren't the sort of allies we need.
posted by howfar at 3:57 PM on April 22, 2016 [17 favorites]


My favorite example of this is Interstellar, where the big last-hope spaceship launched from earth on a giant Saturn-esque booster, then proceeds to land on and take off from several other worlds (some described as having stronger gravity than Earth) with nothing but a small shuttle-sized ship. Because in cinema taking off from Earth always takes big rockets, but taking off from alien planets never does.

This wouldn't bother me so much if I hadn't been playing Kerbal Space Program.
posted by JHarris at 4:00 PM on April 22, 2016 [6 favorites]


Have some pity for Neil deGrasse Tyson. In his youth, he really was a scientist, but he somehow got sidetracked into administration, into publicity. It began with noble intentions, he tells himself, a desire to spread the joy of learning, or to give back. But maybe it was simpler than that. Maybe being a guy who talks about science, rather than actually doing it, was just easier. And it got easier and easier over the years, didn't it, as all that training and discipline slipped away, and the banalities about how many schoolbusses wide the moon is, and how many years it would take a schoolbus to drive to Alpha Centauri, and how many schoolbus's worth of mass the sun emits every second, built up on his mind like fat on the ass of a high school quarterback who peaked at eighteen, eighteen years ago. Now they send him to interview real researchers, people who actually get to do some work, and he wants to beg them to just remember how lucky they are, to never let them take it away, but when the cameras are off he can't meet their eyes. He has nothing to tell them anyway. No matter how small and incremental their contributions are, they are making a difference. They are players. And he... why, he is just the mascot.
posted by officer_fred at 4:06 PM on April 22, 2016 [12 favorites]


Being educated enough to know something like Star Wars is a fantasy doesn't give you clairvoyance enough to figure out where the fantasy ends and reality begins. And sometimes it's good to know that.

Of course more relevant to every day life is stuff like "how much is a reasonable amount of alcohol to be drinking" and "how much would getting hit by something like that actually mess you up" but still...

Also this caricature of science and grim and deterministic and boring is also a bullshit story. So what if nebulas aren't pretty with our current eyes because they're adapted to what we need to survive in a terrestrial atmosphere? We make new eyes, telescopes that are tuned to the frequencies of the building blocks of the universe, and see the splendor of what is really there but hidden. For each mystery you solve, for each question you make mundane by having a thorough answer, more open up. Things get weirder and more complicated and more unexpected.

I feel like this criticism of science as boring, as some woefully incomplete and arrogant way of knowing, haven't really thought about the possibilities that our scientific knowledge open up for encountering the world in new and unique ways. So many different creatures on the Earth, see differently, sense different, experience time differently. Bees see colors that we can't, sharks can sense the electric fields that are all around them in water but are totally unknown to our senses. There is just so much that is hidden if we take life at face value with just our human senses. Not to mention the power that understanding can have when making sense of seemingly random things.

I think there are very real problems with the way science is treated in popular culture. It's a fine line to walk when pointing out that cutting edge science is nowhere near authoritative and involves so, so much stumbling around in the dark, when there are so many politicians, hucksters, and charlatans who wish to take advantage of people's ignorance, and pretend that their 100% bullshit certainty is better than the uncertainty of reality.
posted by Zalzidrax at 4:06 PM on April 22, 2016 [8 favorites]


Seriously though I don't actually agree with some of the things he's saying here either but Sam Kriss deserves better than the kneejerk reactions he's going to get for this.
posted by atoxyl at 4:08 PM on April 22, 2016


“All right," said Susan. "I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need... fantasies to make life bearable."

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

"Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—"

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

"So we can believe the big ones?"

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

"They're not the same at all!"

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME...SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

"Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what's the point—"

MY POINT EXACTLY.”
posted by jenkinsEar at 4:18 PM on April 22, 2016 [18 favorites]


I feel like this criticism of science as boring, as some woefully incomplete and arrogant way of knowing,

No-one is saying that science is more incomplete than any other way of knowing. Science is clearly and emphatically not what is being criticised here.
posted by howfar at 4:21 PM on April 22, 2016 [9 favorites]


RT @neiltyson Actually, Death does not have any human qualities such that it can be anthropomorphized. For example, Death cannot speak, and it certainly can't speak English
posted by naju at 4:22 PM on April 22, 2016 [19 favorites]


Kriss actually gets at a subtle point in his rant, which is that "naive empiricism" or "scientism," as advocated by people like NDT, leads to a kind of end state where the world becomes a collection of "scientific" facts immune even to observation, hence NDT's view of history presented a series of tautologies devoid of context or even truth. NDT's twitter feed is bad not because he is an asshole because he's not a very good thinker and it shows, when he gets away from his domain of maximum pedantry.

so, what does it say when a renowned "public intellectual" turns out to not be a very good thinker? his audience dismisses his comments as assholery because they are actually comforted by a world made up of scientific facts rather than very delicately contingent observations.

The recent article Scientific Regress gets at why this isn't just a philosophical problem but actually damaging to science itself:
And yet the flight to physics rather gives the game away, since measured any way you like—volume of papers, number of working researchers, total amount of funding—deductive, theory-building physics in the mold of Newton and Lagrange, Maxwell and Einstein, is a tiny fraction of modern science as a whole. In fact, it also makes up a tiny fraction of modern physics. Far more common is the delicate and subtle art of scouring inconceivably vast volumes of noise with advanced software and mathematical tools in search of the faintest signal of some hypothesized but never before observed phenomenon, whether an astrophysical event or the decay of a subatomic particle. This sort of work is difficult and beautiful in its own way, but it is not at all self-evident in the manner of a falling apple or an elliptical planetary orbit, and it is very sensitive to the same sorts of accidental contamination, deliberate fraud, and unconscious bias as the medical and social-scientific studies we have discussed. Two of the most vaunted physics results of the past few years—the announced discovery of both cosmic inflation and gravitational waves at the BICEP2 experiment in Antarctica, and the supposed discovery of superluminal neutrinos at the Swiss-Italian border—have now been retracted, with far less fanfare than when they were first published.
naive empiricism is philosophically wrong, but worse, practically applied, is actually an impossible basis for science. it turns all knowledge into the hard AI problem which no one has solved...
posted by ennui.bz at 4:24 PM on April 22, 2016 [15 favorites]


That "Scientific Regress" article is doing at least as much selective, distorted axe grinding as the popularizers it critiques, though: it's correct that the actual process of doing science is much more contingent and messy than the impression you'd get from IFLS-boosters, but then goes straight to the opposite caricature, that science as practiced today is basically an actively harmful leech on society ("an ever more bloated scientific bureaucracy churn[ing] out masses of research results, the majority of which are likely outright false").
posted by en forme de poire at 4:42 PM on April 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


Try this one.
posted by atoxyl at 4:55 PM on April 22, 2016




Reminder that a liberal arts degree is useful

That doesn’t require a liberal arts degree. That requires you to not be a dang fool.
posted by Going To Maine at 5:12 PM on April 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


Derrick Pitts, Chief Astronomer and Planetarium Programs Director, Senior Scientist Franklin Institute Science Museum, is far more cool. He is MSNBC's favorite astronomer, too.
posted by Carol Anne at 5:19 PM on April 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


I wonder sometimes if people notice how much the "woo science" social media thing has been picked up by women. You know, those of us who were not encouraged to think science was cool when we were kids, because we were girls, and were never encouraged to think overmuch about the way the universe worked, and now, yes, things which are not particularly advanced concepts are cool because we're only just now realizing we're allowed to enjoy them. We can both enjoy our media and enjoy the pedantic corrections to our media, because knowing that the space travel is unrealistic does not actually ruin Star Wars, but knowing how real space travel might work is in fact information we didn't have before.

Meanwhile, this sort of pedantry is trying to take away the enjoyment of the things we enjoy, because we're Liking Science Wrong, apparently, if we share cool facts on Facebook or Tumblr.

Finding out nifty facts about things should not be the entirety of science. But it does help the populace understand why science (and funding for science) is important. And it's an entry point for people who remember the sciences only as the classes they hated in high school. I'm really failing to see who loses from this kind of promotion. I don't think Tyson should be the be-all and end-all of science in media, by a long shot, but I'm not sure what people hope to gain from discouraging the "I Fucking Love Science" stuff if that's what people are actually taking an interest in. They aren't engaging in IFLS instead of with Serious Science. They're engaging with that after previously not engaging with science at all.
posted by Sequence at 5:26 PM on April 22, 2016 [16 favorites]


I thought most IFLS cheerleaders are male and more along the lines of the mythical fedora-wearing redditor mold.
posted by Apocryphon at 5:36 PM on April 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


Finding out nifty facts about things should not be the entirety of science. But it does help the populace understand why science (and funding for science) is important.

This is surely the rub, because while nifty facts make science popular, finding out nifty facts has nil to do with the quotidian practice of science. And in many ways, it's also the nothing of justifying why science should be funded. If you tell the NSF that you want to breed a bunch of fruit flies because it’ll be a hoot, that won’t get you scratch. If you tell them that it’ll lead to better understanding of disease, the doors will open. (I confess to having no idea to how this applies to astrophysics, though, and would be interested to hear.)
posted by Going To Maine at 5:39 PM on April 22, 2016


(I confess to having no idea to how this applies to astrophysics, though, and would be interested to hear.)

to the extent that astrophysics is funded it's through large expensive intrsuments/experiments. if you want to get grant funding for theoretical work it will almost always be tied into a larger experimental grant. as a result, it's actually pretty difficult to have a career doing purely theoretical astrophysics starting with a phd in astrophysics. as of the turn of the century, most if not all active general relativity research groups were focused on numerical black hole collisions as part of the LIGO grant. this meant that if you wanted to do a PhD in general relativity as an astrophysics, it was most likely going to be some part of a black hole collision modelling problem.

the way funding is tied to "fact" collecting in astrophysics nicely illustrates why this isn't about axe-grinding but how our culture is harming the future of science.
posted by ennui.bz at 5:53 PM on April 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


If you tell the NSF that you want to breed a bunch of fruit flies because it’ll be a hoot, that won’t get you scratch. If you tell them that it’ll lead to better understanding of disease, the doors will open.

My understanding is that focusing on human disease would actually be a liability with the NSF -- that's the NIH's mission and they are pretty serious about not wanting to duplicate effort in that sense. (Plant disease does fall within the NSF scope's.) Anyway, it's a matter of degree, but I'd at least argue that some govt funding agencies are more receptive to "basic biology" arguments than others. My guess is that if you had a fruit-fly breeding grant from the NSF, the justification would probably be weighted more towards, trying to estimate some population genetics parameter or making tools to detect some historical evolutionary events, vs. trying to lay the groundwork for personalized medicine or whatever.
posted by en forme de poire at 6:35 PM on April 22, 2016


Scientific facts that are boring in their obviousness to you are not obvious or even known to everyone, especially if they were deprived of a proper scientific education. The range of human scientific understanding ranges from having no clue how babby is formed to advanced postdoctorate research. I don't mind Tyson helping people get a little further from the first even if they never reach the latter as long as I don't have to go to a movie with him.
posted by double block and bleed at 6:50 PM on April 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


In fact, the earth is a sphere
Pfft, no, the Earth is an oblate spheroid. Article ruined.
No, the world is a vampire.
posted by maryr at 8:03 PM on April 22, 2016 [5 favorites]


But this criticism of science enthusiasts is nothing new: "These scientists want to quantify and measure and explain everything!

This is not what Tyson does, though, at all. Tyson is the guy who listens to a nice song and then says, "ACTUALLY, neither Irish eyes, nor any eyes, can smile at all."
posted by kenko at 8:10 PM on April 22, 2016 [20 favorites]


I appreciate that the article writer is trying to point out a few places where Tyson is Wrong about social sciences and history, because it's good for people to be aware of those, but, like, if you're going to debunk something said by a pedant, shouldn't you make sure to be, you know, right?

Because saying the things the article says about Giordano Bruno is... okay, it's not wrong wrong. You can support portions of this argument from the records we have. But it isn't right, either.

It is, in fact, just about as wrong as Tyson's statements about Bruno, only in the opposite direction. Both statements are extreme simplifications of the facts, useful mostly for political argument: Giordano Bruno was an early heliocentrist and therefore a Martyr to Science, so we should all like him now, vs. actually, Bruno was a literal magician and the beliefs he died for are tangential to what we now think of as Science, and therefore stop claiming him as a martyr.

When, of course, history is far more complicated than that, and Bruno was both magician and early scientist, both a martyr for the truth as he saw it and executed because he was phenomenally gifted at saying obnoxious things to the wrong people, and could not make a graceful apology literally to save his life. We are dealing here with someone so outside modern categories of thinking-- because he did not think in the modern patterns of thought-- that the way people deal with his place in history is to boil his life down into a pat political aphorism or two, so that nobody has to get into just how truly different from us the early humanist movement was.

I disapprove extremely of attempting to battle an incorrect statement by making an equally incorrect, opposite statement, and I can't tell if the writer of the article knows that that's what he's doing. In trying to point out one of the failure modes of pop science, which is that scientists with a large audience share often get more attention than their authority warrants when they talk about things they do not understand, this writer has slipped into exactly the same mode.

/tl;dr: has read Giordano Bruno, became annoyed on his behalf
posted by Rush-That-Speaks at 8:13 PM on April 22, 2016 [23 favorites]


My favorite example of this is Interstellar

I sort of feel like Neil deGrasse Tyson tricked me into seeing that movie. He said something to the effect that the movie was pretty good for "scientific" plausibility, until the part where it goes too far wrong at the end. You know, where the power of love conquers gravity or whatever.

That's backwards. The part where special relativity is stretched and abused to the point of absurdity, that is the part of the movie to object to if you want to object to this sort of thing, not the part where it's ignored entirely. It's not merely taking off from worlds "described as having stronger gravity than Earth" that is made to seem easier than launching from Earth, it's accelerating out from a point so far down the gravity well of a black hole that time dilation is up there in the 90-something percent of the speed of light area, I mean I don't know exactly, but somewhere totally implausible if you have an approximate idea of how the equations work. There was more pseudo-scientific wrongness added into this movie than was strictly necessary for the plot.

It's where the movie makes an effort to introduce us to cool facts about black holes and such things that it gets into Neil deGrasse Tyson territory, and some science-based pedantry aimed there might have been useful to some of us. In the deliberate depiction of movie aliens doing something with no apparent relationship to any scientific understanding of reality, on the other hand, there is no mistake that can be corrected with astrophysics.
posted by sfenders at 8:15 PM on April 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


this writer has slipped into exactly the same mode

mcbain_thats_the_joke.gif
posted by RogerB at 8:33 PM on April 22, 2016 [4 favorites]


That's backwards. The part where special relativity is stretched and abused to the point of absurdity, that is the part of the movie to object to if you want to object to this sort of thing

I thought it was the part where the question of what's inside of black holes? turned out to be the back of that one girl's bookcase.
posted by JHarris at 8:47 PM on April 22, 2016 [9 favorites]


I thought it was the part where the question of what's inside of black holes? turned out to be the back of that one girl's bookcase.

You reverse this a little, and it becomes a very horrific, very brief version of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.
posted by Going To Maine at 11:20 PM on April 22, 2016 [4 favorites]


To each his own I guess, but it's librarians I'd turn to, not astrophysicists, for professional expertise in the theory of alien-powered haunted bookcases.
posted by sfenders at 9:45 AM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


More on Tyson from yours truly, about his faux-befuddlement that he needed a passport to cross borders. This is not actual scientific curiosity, it's mindless sneering at human institutions, and, as I said there, the point is just to make a bunch of thirteen-year-olds go "Wow" and feel superior.
posted by kenko at 9:53 AM on April 23, 2016 [5 favorites]


I thought it was the part where the question of what's inside of black holes? turned out to be the back of that one girl's bookcase.

So Interstellar was indeed silly, especially the bit where it takes a huge launcher to get off of earth but not to take off from a planet it a huge deep gravity well. But this criticism reminds me of the "Jodie Foster's dad is an alien?" criticisms of Contact.

The aliens were our far-future descendants who created or modified the black hole and put the wormhole in place to create the time-loop that allowed humanity to survive and create or turn into them. McConaughey's character actually says this.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:17 AM on April 23, 2016 [3 favorites]




‘Science’ here has very little to do with the scientific method itself; it means ontological physicalism, not believing in our Lord Jesus Christ, hating the spectrally stupid, and, more than anything, pretty pictures of nebulae and tree frogs.

Suspected agenda confirmed. Tab closed.
posted by ambulocetus at 11:07 AM on April 23, 2016


Suspected agenda confirmed. Tab closed.

Ah, the fathomless capacity for irony of the T-800 model Terminator
posted by RogerB at 11:14 AM on April 23, 2016 [10 favorites]


I thought most IFLS cheerleaders are male and more along the lines of the mythical fedora-wearing redditor mold.

It's possible that my experiences are INCREDIBLY atypical, but I get a lot of reblogs of the same sort of stuff on Tumblr from women who I quite like, and my first exposure to IFLS was from female friends. Not that I'm sure there aren't also guys who like it, but the fedora-wearing Redditor sort is also not the kind of person who hangs out a lot on Facebook. (If you go to places like KotakuInAction or TheRedPill or any of those other subs, they love to trash "social media" and women's use of social media being some kind of a failing.) IFLS was, for that matter, started by a woman named Elise Andrew. So.

Those guys don't worship science, they worship STEM; there's a difference.
posted by Sequence at 11:26 AM on April 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


The aliens were our far-future descendants who created or modified the black hole and put the wormhole in place to create the time-loop that allowed humanity to survive and create or turn into them. McConaughey's character actually says this.

Yep. But it's still a huge deus ex machina. I'm not going to accept hearing voices from behind a wall back on Earth to be acceptable foreshadowing for this, not when nothing else in the two-and-a-half hour movie points to the existence of hyper evolved god people.

Once you accept that magic-alien-future-us could both spatially and temporally connect the center of a black hole to the back of a piece of furniture way back on Earth some twenty years before, looking for sciencey answers to the movie's unanswered questions tends to make one feel silly, because obviously eventually humanity reaches a stage where science laws are more suggestions than hard rules. How about also sending back a solution to why all the crops are failing? Why'd they send back McConaughey to a time where he'd be younger than his daughter? At that point, saying "because they can't" sounds suspiciously close to "because the screenwriter didn't want them to."

I'm not saying you can't eventually come up with plausible answers to those questions. But those answers don't come from the movie, they come from you, and the movie shouldn't get credit for them.
posted by JHarris at 11:59 AM on April 23, 2016


What a time to be alive, when serious scientific explanations for the ending to Interstellar are in the air, and everyone expects it won't be long before the Wile E Coyote theory of gravity is finally reconciled with quantum mechanics.
posted by sfenders at 1:23 PM on April 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


But it's still a huge deus ex machina.

Welcome to the corpus of Christopher Nolan.
posted by Apocryphon at 7:14 PM on April 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


They didn't send him back to a time when he'd be younger. Time dilated for him due to gravity. The relatively short amount of time he spent inside the black hole mapped to many, many years outside the black hole. By the time he came out, something like 50 years had passed for his daughter. It had nothing to do with the future humans doing something for/to him.
posted by Bugbread at 6:39 AM on April 24, 2016


Naw, we know that they can fuck with time because the "other end" of the black hole dingus is in McConaughey's past and because they can project (at least one end of) a wormhole into their own past. There might be some handwavium reason why they "couldn't" send McConaughey back to the solar system through a different wormhole where our end is a few minutes after the giant rocket they for some reason launched even though the lander doesn't seem to need it, or through whatever means they used to project both ends of the wormhole into our time if that's what they did, but either of those are just post-hoc [tech] the [tech] justifications for the LURRRRRVE CONQUERS ALLLLLLL plot point.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:20 AM on April 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


NDT's spiritual predecessor, Carl Sagan, managed to do popular science programming and other public outreach without the pedantic asshole part.

Speaking as someone old enough to remember the 70s well, let me assure you plenty of people accused Sagan of being a pedantic asshole, though there was no trendy ubiquitous meme insta-propagation network back then to instantly deliver the indignant opinions of the critics and satirists to everyone's eyes within seconds. Remember, he was an Ivy League professor who made no secret of being an atheist with a show on public television. (Flashback time: "Good tax dollars wasted spreading Satan's lies!" "Okay, Grandma, just turn the tv back to Price is Right.")
posted by aught at 9:55 AM on April 24, 2016 [5 favorites]


They can't fuck with time. I feel like a lot of people understood and disliked the movie, which is fine, but a lot of people disliked the movie without really understanding the key concept involved: gravity is the only thing that violates the arrow of time. What happened in the past can be seen in the future (just like in real life), but what happens in the future cannot be seen in the past, because only gravity violates time. They don't transport anyone anywhere in time. They create some sort of device in the future which warps gravity. The effects of that gravity propagate backwards to the present, creating a black hole-like anomaly, basically a machine which itself is made of gravity. This device can be used to manipulate gravity in the past, so McConaughey fiddles with gravity to send a message to the past. At no point does anybody, or any thing, or any force other than gravity, travel through time (well, except for the way we normally travel through time by existing).
posted by Bugbread at 3:24 PM on April 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (previously) pointed out on twitter (starting here) that this article is pretty problematic for a lot of reasons, starting with the title referring to one of the most prominent black American scientists as a "black hole of suck."
posted by miguelcervantes at 2:39 PM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


And here is her piece on medium about this article.
posted by miguelcervantes at 9:06 PM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


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