At the risk of appearing to engage in unseemly schadenfreude, I am going to discuss Neil deGrasse Tyson in this post. Tyson, whom one wag labeled “the dumbest smart person on Twitter,” famously tweeted that we need a virtual country called “Rationalia,” with a one-line constitution – “All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence.” As Kevin Williamson noted shortly after the infamous tweet, “as men like him have done for ages, Tyson dreams of a world of self-evident choices, overseen by men of reason such as himself who occupy a position that we cannot help but notice is godlike.”
Of course, as Williamson notes, the impulse behind Tyson’s observation is far from new. In the fourth century BC, Plato argued in his Republic that to bring about a utopian polity, “philosophers [must] become kings.” Does anyone thing it is a mere coincidence that Plato was, ahem, a philosopher? From Plato, to medieval priests leveraging their position for secular power, to Jacobins and their Cult of Reason, to twenty-first century scientists blithering about Rationalia – the intelligentsia have always thought they should be in charge of the rest of us. Which brings me to Jonah Goldberg’s observation today:
In this way, scientism is a kind of priestcraft — a term coined by the writer James Harington to describe the way clergy would use their divine authority (back when everyone saw God as the ultimate source of truth) to serve their own interests. Or as Bill Murray says in Ghostbusters, “Back off man, I’m a scientist.” Neil deGrasse Tyson is a leading practitioner of this secular priestcraft, arguing that we should pick up where the Jacobins left off and organize society around the rule of scientific reason as determined by people, well, like him.
But are the priests of the new secular priestcraft — men like Tyson — any more objective and dispassionate because they have achieved success in a scientific field? Let us grant arguendo that Tyson is a very smart astrophysicist. Does that make him free from the passions and will to power that plague the rest of us? I suspect the four women who have accused him of sexual misconduct would argue that his educational achievements do not make him virtuously immune to his passions.
Plato also demonstrated that very smart people are just as bound up in the prejudices of their times as the rest of us and can hold views that will be considered morally abominable in retrospect. For example, he wrote that women are naturally inferior to men in virtue. With a quote like that on his record, Plato would have a hard time finding a job in any modern university. So does Tyson’s mastery of astrophysics allow him to rise above the prejudices of his time and social class? In this video, Tyson joins anthropologist Natalia Reagan in pushing the absurd idea that a man can be a woman if he wants to be badly enough. If Tyson really believes the nonsense he spouts in the video, he demonstrates that his mastery of a branch of physical science has not freed him from the silly prejudices of his time and class. And if he doesn’t believe it, he is just a hypocrite willing to betray science (what scientific fact is more certain than the binary nature of primate sexuality) when it is politically expedient. Whichever is true, Tyson clearly knows which side his bread is buttered on. He understands perfectly well that he must genuflect at the transgender alter lest he be excommunicated (I use that religiously freighted word advisedly) from his position of power and prestige.
Does anyone doubt that when Tyson observed that we should be ruled on the basis of reason, he had himself in mind as the perfect candidate for executing that rule? He implies that people like himself would rule through the application of dispassionate reason to self-evidently true empirical facts. Which makes recent revelations that men such as he are just as subject to passion, prejudice, hypocrisy and self-interest as the rest of us all the more ironic.