I took my biology student son to see Neil deGrasse Tyson. We wanted to hear about science, or at least about science education, but politics broke out and my son walked out.
Tyson does not style himself a politician, but he sold out the Fox Theater, and politics was what his audience hungered for. So he delivered, with a full-throated defense of liberal scientific values, the kind of talk Howard Dean gave against George W. Bush 12 years ago.
Then he backed away from the punch line, and left me with some hard questions to consider.
Science and progress want their country back.
Tyson’s speech was billed as an evening about science education, a celebration of this week’s Atlanta Science Festival. But Tyson stepped into a standing ovation from a sell-out crowd, and you could see from the look of his eyes, seeing thousands of people arrayed in neat rows rising to an artificial sky, that he was almost in shock at what his career had wrought.
Yet he plowed on. Tyson set the stakes high with pictures of currency, many bills showing scientists like Gauss and Tesla. Then he showed a bill from Iraq, with a picture of a mathematician on it. The word Algebra is Arabic, he said. We use Arabic numbers. But the Islamic world turned its back on science and math. It turned Omar Khayyam https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omar_Khayy%C3%A1m into Socrates, and excised his science from its memory. So Baghdad was sacked, repeatedly. America even sacked it, in the last decade.
So what are we doing now? Politicians are ignoring simple math, basic engineering, evolution, and the threat of climate change. Don’t like being lumped in with monkeys? On the new evolution “family tree,” a huge circle showing when the four basic types of organisms began and how they’ve evolved into what we have today, mankind stands, not next to the monkey (which we’ve nearly made extinct) but to mice. That’s why they make such great lab animals. Are we men or are we mice?
It was important at this point to ask how we got into this situation. In Tyson’s youth, in my own youth, the future was portrayed as being a great adventure, a world of flying cars, buildings that rose to the sky atop giant golf tees, and of space. Always of Space. Star Trek, 2001. Asimov’s robots. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.
Tyson sees Earth Day as representing hope for science, pointing to government agencies established, with bipartisan support, at that time. But it also represented a turn in our attitude toward scientists. Instead of seeing scientists as creating space utopias, many began seeing them as creating Earth-bound dystopias. Science fiction turned decisively negative in outlook after 1970, at first gradually, then more rapidly. Today’s young people have grown up with the future portrayed as a dead planet, with machines portrayed as always out to get us, with every great mind a potential Frankenstein.
This has come to be reflected in our politics. Liberals seek to keep science inside safe bounds, and march against genetically modified foods. They reject vaccines, and seek to impose a moralistic, ever-shrinking solution on the future in order to “save the planet.” Conservatives reject science outright, denying the reality of climate science for “reasons” (based not on research but on paid-for spokesmen throwing sand in its eyes), with even established sciences like evolution being expunged from kids’ textbooks and lesson plans.
This is dangerous stuff, and in the wake of the Great Crisis of 2008, it has reached a tipping point. Tyson’s audience knew this, and was looking for a call to action. But Tyson refused to give them one, to commit himself to anything like a political movement aimed at rolling back such nonsense. And this got him his biggest hand of the night.
It was this that was most frightening to me. Republicans today have explicitly placed scientists among their list of internal enemies. They have sought to bowdlerize science textbooks, denying everything but gravity. Yet those who are under assault sit, self-satisfied, in a theater and act like somehow we can stand above such things, that the whole issue is stupid, that there is really nothing to fear.
Think about it. What is the first question a candidate for public office is asked when they aspire to higher office? It’s what religion are you? If you don’t answer straight off, if you try to hem or haw, if you don’t commit to the Gospel of Jesus Christ (perhaps adding the Latter Day Saints), you are immediately rejected by most voters. Pew Research says that, for Presidential candidates, the top negative trait that will doom their chances is…atheism.
You can combine a life of science with a deep religious faith. Galileo was an observant Catholic. Isaac Newton was an Anglican. Charles Darwin was a Unitarian. Each one faced a crisis of faith when they moved toward their greatest discoveries. Each finally decided that, regardless of who created the universe, the how of that creation was available for man to discover. The lesson each gives us is that challenging religious authority in the name of science is always a willful act of courage.
Where is our courage?
The fact is we don’t have a choice any more. Rejecting science means rejecting progress. Rejecting progress means rejecting civilization. Rejecting civilization means rejecting everything that makes us human. And it’s this rejection that is the great threat to America today. America is losing its lead in science, as Tyson noted, to East Asia, to Europe, and even to Brazil, because Americans no longer value what made our country great.
Tyson gave his audience real reasons to fear, then pulled the rug out. When politicians attack you, no matter who you are, you must counter-attack, or you get rolled. You may not expect a kind of Spanish Inquisition but you must always be ready to stand against it. Gays finally did this. Blacks finally did this. Women have done this, now and then. Because they have done this the arc of history for them moves toward progress.
Well, they’re not funny. The men and women who would ban evolution, who would reject discovery, are not funny. They are in deadly earnest. And we must be in deadly earnest against them, or we will be rolled by them – we are being rolled by them – to eventually become like Baghdad.
In the first great battle of the 2016 campaign, Neil deGrasse Tyson blinked. The way is now open for a Republican to do his damnedest to destroy America, and that’s pretty damned damned. Dammit.