Neil deGrasse Tyson is Wrong

4 03 2012

I like Neil deGrasse Tyson.  I think he is a warm and engaging face for science on television.  He’s no Adam Savage or Jaime Hyneman—I have yet to see him blow up anything.  To my eyes, he’s no Bill Nye.  That is one titanic bowtie to try to fill.  But, as celebrities of the hard sciences go, Neil deGrasse Tyson is a shining example.

As host of Nova scienceNOW on PBS, he has proven to be engaging and photogenic.  He makes astrophysics something that at least seems accessible to a large audience.  He is the director of the Hayden Planetarium and a research associate in astrophysics at the Museum of Natural History.  When it comes to astrophysics, Neil deGrasse Tyson knows his stuff.  However, when it comes to the cultural mindsets of the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries, he is mistaken.

Clip of Feb. 27 Interview on The Daily Show

I am basing my criticism on an interview he gave last week with Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, promoting his book, Space Chronicles:  Facing the Ultimate Frontier.  Stewart characterizes the book as lamenting the fact that the United States, as a culture, no longer prioritizes space exploration.  Tyson acknowledges that the Cold War, fear, and the military industrial complex were the driving force behind the rapid advancements in space exploration from the 1960s until 1972, the last manned mission to the moon.  I will add that moon missions stopped around the same time the Vietnam War ended, drawing to a close the hot part of the Cold War.

Tyson claims that it was the space race that inspired society to “think about ‘Tomorrow’—the Homes of Tomorrow, the Cities of Tomorrow… all of this was focused on enabling people to make Tomorrow come.”  This is where he is wrong.  The space race was a symptom of this mindset, but it the mindset of modernism he is talking about, not just of the space age.  A focus on technological progress is one of the most rudimentary tenets of modernism, with its roots in the Enlightenment.  We see it in the Industrial Revolution, we see it in the advancement of movements in Modern Art, and we see it in the development of technology for war, transportation and communication before, during, and after the space race:  from airplanes to telephones to ipods.  Tyson even cites The World’s Fair as an example of an event geared around the space race.  While the World’s Fairs of the 1960s certainly reflected the interest in space exploration in particular, the institution itself has roots in early modernism—in the Nineteenth Century.

Chicago World's Fair, 1893--long before the space race

Despite being incorrect about its origins, Tyson is correct in pointing out that the drive for progress was the great economic engine of the Twentieth Century, and that careers in science and technology were essential for that progress.  The combined factors of fear, war, and modernist pursuit of progress meant that those careers were celebrated as important for the betterment of society.  Little Jimmy wanted to be an astronaut or a rocket scientist because it was a glamorous and important part of society, an attitude that was reflected in films, news broadcasts, and federal funding.

Stewart assumes that the diminished interest in space exploration had to do with expectations of achievements were not matching the pace of their execution—that we expected to be on Mars by 1970 and since we weren’t there, we got tired of waiting.  Tyson augments his assumption, saying that the diminished interest came from not advancing a frontier.  “The Space Shuttle boldly went where hundreds had gone before.”  This is not the frontier exploration that gains headlines in a world looking for better, faster, stronger, bolder, and further.

Aside from being wrong about the societal motivation behind the space race and the connected advancements in technology, Neil deGrasse Tyson clings to that modernist mindset.  His solution for society is to increase funding for NASA in order to mount a manned mission to Mars, which he believes will excite the populace to value the activity of scientists and technologists, thus fueling the economies of the Twenty-first Century.

Maybe Tyson just wants to revive the careers of Gary Sinise and Tim Robbins. It does promise to be thrilling and exhilarating.

As I have written before, I am skeptical about the notion that we are in an era outside of modernist influence.  While originality in art or even in invention is not necessarily the hallmark of progress that it used to be, advancement is nonetheless necessary for success in our creative, corporate, and governmental evaluations.  A person only needs to look at one very celebrated company—Apple—to understand that advancement and progress are still very much parts of our ideology, and that is the second instance where Tyson is wrong.

Contemporary society does value the activity of scientists.  It might not value the same kinds of scientists that made big, physical advancements like space exploration or the atom bomb, but it does value the kinds of scientific advancements that power the new economic driver: information.  According to postmodern theorist Jean-François Lyotard, the purpose of science is no longer the “pure” goal of its Enlightenment origins. “Instead of hovering above, legitimation descends to the level of practice and becomes immanent in it.”  For Lyotard, scientists are no longer trying to find an absolute “Truth” about the universe (that might come from the exploration of, say, space), but seeking to advance the commoditization of knowledge—the consumption of information.

In a way, Tyson one-ups Lyotard.  By acknowledging the driving force of fear in the space race, he acknowledges that the societal motivation for scientific advancement was outcome-based (winning the Cold War), rather than ideologically-based Truth-seeking.  Even at the height of modernism, pure science was a myth.  Nonetheless, the ideas of Lyotard underlie the entire undertaking of contemporary science.  It isn’t about an authoritative Truth, it’s about consumable truths. For scientists, those consumable truths are technological advancements—however minute, however arbitrary. We do value scientists, as long as they are working toward something we can consume.

The fact that, in this photo, the iphone resembles the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey is pure coincidence.

The space race produced consumables—Tang, Velcro, the Tempur-Pedic bed—those were indirect in reaching the consumer market.  Today’s advancements directly aimed at consumers with tablet computers, smart phones, and cars that park themselves.  These advancements aren’t a byproduct of some high-minded pursuit of pure scientific exploration, but directly researched, experimented upon, and produced for us.

I sympathize with Neil deGrasse Tyson.  He wants a modernist society where the pursuit of Truth motivates a populace and advances a culture.  But, as he acknowledges, that pure science may never have been the real motivator at all.  Science is now inextricably linked to product value in technology.  The advancements are more accessible, but they are less tangible.

Works Cited:

Tyson, Neil deGrasse. Interview by Jon Stewart. The Daily Show. Comedy Central. Comedy Partners, New York.  Feb. 27,2012. Television.

Fraser, Nancy and Nicholson, Linda.  “Social Criticism Without Philosophy:  An Encounter Between Feminism and Postmodernism,” Universal Abandon:  The Politics of Postmodernism.  Ross, Andrew, ed. Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1988, p. 87.

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