The Dogmatic Scientist
A vitriolic attack on astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson sparks controversy – and acts as a stark reminder of the need to love science but refute ‘scientism.’
Rich Whitworth |
“Neil deGrasse Tyson is, supposedly, an educator and a populariser of science; it’s his job to excite people about the mysteries of the universe, communicate information, and correct popular misconceptions. This is a noble, arduous, and thankless job, which might be why he doesn’t do it. What he actually does is make the universe boring, tell people things that they already know, and dispel misconceptions that nobody actually holds.”
So writes Sam Kriss in an opinion piece published by Wired (1). Harsh words – but it gets quite a bit worse. In fact, the ‘click-bait’ headline is worse: “Neil deGrasse Tyson Is a Black Hole, Sucking the Fun Out of the Universe.”
Unsurprisingly, below the article is a growing list of comments – 280 on the last count (April 25). There, you can find two running battles. On the one hand, there is a fight between scientists and non-scientists; this group appears to have missed the deeper thread of the article, perhaps thrown off by the occasionally juvenile prose. On the other hand, those who have considered the bigger picture struggle over the desire (or need) to educate the general public about the beauty of science (and the scientific method) and the dangers of pedantry, bigotry or dogmatic “scientism” – a worldview that gives science godlike status. I watched as the arguments ricocheted like shrapnel into sub-squabbles that inevitably descended into religion, politics, and even racism.
I clicked away from the page mindful of the true heart of science (and its methods): to ask questions while striving to find new or better answers. But that’s not always as easy as it sounds. As analytical scientists, are you immune to dogma? Chris Pohl warns against “taking as gospel what people think about a particular system.” (Click here).
But scientists should know better – what about the general public? Albert Heck (Click here) notes the importance of pitching science at the right level for a wider audience – in his case a video promoting proteomics. “It was important for us not to make it too complex – but also not to oversell it,” he notes. The latter point is an important rule that is often forgotten in attempts to make discoveries stand out from the crowd.
I hope that the majority of analytical scientists, by definition, have less trouble in separating, with excellent resolution, science from scientism. If you know otherwise, I’d love to hear from you.
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