I like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and admire his work to advance science education. I think he’s an excellent spokesman for science, very articulate and likeable.
But I was disappointed by two aspects of the interview.
First, NGT’s aversion to “isms,” since they shut down conversation. He wants everyone to treat everyone else as individuals and nothing else. This is staggeringly naive. In the first place, social psychologists long ago demonstrated that people negotiate their social environment by categorizing people into groups. Group processes are fundamental to the way we as a species function. Classifying people into ingroups and outgroups is as basic as human outlook as it gets. That is, nobody is capable of treating absolutely everybody we meet purely as unique individuals. We always, without fail, automatically categorize people into some group or other. We can’t help ourselves. That is to say, you can’t escape groupishness in human thinking.
More importantly, it is not always the case that categorization leads to prejudice and stereotypical thinking. But it is certainly the case that, with certain “isms” you can instantly draw some conclusions about a person’s beliefs. If I meet a self-confessed Marxist, I automatically know some positions that person holds in order to be a Marxist. The same with a biblical fundamentalist or with a humanist. This does not mean I refuse to talk to them, just that there are some baseline issues I can take for granted in talking to them. Why would NGT find this somehow inhibiting and balk at it?
Second, the suggestion that vocal atheists like Dawkins or Hitchens should not address the public until we’ve all figured out why 7% of scientists are believers in religion is frankly preposterous. Indeed, its raw ridiculousness was demonstrated by the very story NGT told of his question to Francis Collins, geneticist and Christian. Collins’ refusal to say that he would rethink his beliefs should religion turn out to be a demonstrably neurophysical phenomenon is *precisely* illustrative of the faith-based mindset Dawkins and Hitchens and Harris rail against.
The faithful habitually accept things in their belief systems that are founded on simpering subjugation to some authority (God, the Bible, priests, mullahs, whatever), fly in the face of evidence and—here’s the crux—are immune to revision when presented with new evidence. Why would NGT expect Collins to revise his religious beliefs in the face of hard evidence? The faithful don’t do that. And that is precisely the habit of mind that Dawkins et al. rightly criticize. Insisting that they cease doing so until some new scientific discovery is in—a discovery the faithful will reject out of hand—is more evidence of an astonishing naivety, especially in a time and place where the failings of faith-based thinking in public policy are so glaringly on display.
And for NGT, I have this question: if you are an agnostic because, as you say, one day intercessory prayer might work or prayers might bring Jesus down from the clouds, what would it take for you to rethink your agnosticism? Christians have been praying and waiting for Jesus to return in every generation for two thousand years and counting. Doesn’t that make it rather unlikely his descent from the clouds is going to happen any time soon? If you think not, should we be still conducting alchemy experiments, on the chance that, any day now, one might actually work? Or astrology? Or phlogiston theory? Why aren’t intercessory prayers made on behalf of amputees, to get their limbs back? Because, I’d suggest, everyone really knows prayers don’t heal. Again—NGT shows what I think is an amazing naivety about these issues.
Perhaps he adppts such a soft approach to allay a public he wants to connect with. Fair enough. I’d rather he just says that than make intellectually incoherent pseudo-arguments.