Unfortunate that it needs an article in Popular Science to explain why Neil DeGrasse Tyson is wrong. Even more unfortunate that the article can get no closer to why Tyson is wrong than the problem of selection bias. And worst of all is that the comments section for the Popular Science article includes many comments from people who have little awareness of the important philosophical discourses on society, reason, human interaction, and the wealth of complex topics that Tyson’s sentimental call for evidence and reason raises.
Tyson’s conception of Rationalia, a country ruled by the weight of evidence, is curiously sentimental — it is an idea founded on an awkward desire to believe something because it provides a curious and warm feeling to those who were introduced to science at an impressionable point in their lives: that delightful discovery of science in its post-experimental beauty and the appeal of its simple derivation from pure fact and concrete evidence (but, of course, we never notice that pure and concrete here are emotions attached to facts and evidence, not tangible descriptors).
The guess-work, imagination, and emotions, including emotions as simple as plain curiosity, disappear in the retelling; they are lost as we refashion our tales of great science into the myth of pure reason and perfect evidence. Even the role of belief has been expelled from the modern myth of science and reason. Scientists don’t believe, they fact. At least that is the way i’ve heard it put from people who don’t seem to understand that believe is a verb, fact a noun. The process of validating facts is so easily short-changed by thinkers who would rather place concepts like believe and reason into isolated categories than to understand the more complex overlapping of these modes of thought.
This simplification, this extreme desire not to deal with the complexity of the world we live in — this is the essence of a curious kind of sentimentality. It is the simple, direct, warm emotions of order, of the placid feeling we have when it seems that everything is in its right place that coalesces into a kind of blind sentimentality. From Tyson through his followers, this is the sentimentality of reason — and I must admit that at times in my life it has had its sweet pull for me, its promise of perfection, its yellow-brick-road to the OZ of pure rationality. But no such place exists — there is no Rationalia — no separate world away from the messiness of being human.
For me that messiness, the apparent, unseemly ordure of humanity, has had to take on its own sentimentality. I have had to lead myself to understand that in our messiness, in our being truly human, we are not lost in some nihilistic waste, anymore than we are less human because we fall for some Neil-istic simplification. No, in both we are human. In both we can find comfort.
But only in messiness can we find truth.