Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Neil deGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins

This is the video clip that so many of my colleagues are excited about. They think Neil deGrasse Tyson has hit the nail on the head. They agree with him that Dawkins is being "insensitive" when he criticizes religion.

I'm not familiar with Neil deGrasse Tyson. Is he famous in America? Is he a good educator? Is he effective? Has he been going around the country giving lectures where he gently and kindly urges his audiences to question their religious beliefs? Has he been softly pleading with Americans to respect atheists? Has he been speaking out, quietly, against the Ted Haggards and Jerry Falwells of this world? Is his strategy working?

Richard Dawkins has done more in the past two months to stimulate a dialogue on religion than all the rest of us have done in five decades. The blogs are full of excitement about atheism and religion. Dawkins has been at dozens of universities, appeared on dozens of TV shows, and been featured in major articles in most newspapers. The debate made the cover of Time magazine. There have been several symposia like the one Tyson was invited to. There wouldn't even have been a symposium without Dawkins.

People all over North America are questioning religion. I've seen it on the streets in my own neighborhood and overheard discussions in the restaurants. All of a sudden, people are realizing there are atheists in their midst—and they're not so bad after all. Ask yourself this: how does the Dawkins' form of education compare with the efforts of people like Neil deGrasse Tysons?

28 comments:

  1. I'm not familiar with Neil de Grasse Tyson. Is he famous in America?

    This is the first I've heard of him. He doesn't have a good name for fame in the USA; it sounds too, well, French or gay. If you want a nice, solid, heterosexual-sounding American name, check out Colonel Bo Gritz.

    I just did some Googling on deGrasse Tyson. It seems he is a host of NOVA scienceNOW, an educational TV program. I don't have a TV, which may explain why I haven't heard of him. It's public television, so I'm sure his ratings don't match those of Baywatch reruns.

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  2. Hi Larry - did you see some of the talks Tyson gave? They were wonderful and I think he is very similar in style to Dawkins and shares his beliefs.

    One of his talks was about the wonder he finds in looking at the universe that is probably identical to any other religious experience.

    In the other he finished off his talk about the dangers of ID by discussing 'naming rights' and how many stars have Arabic names and how they had a fertile science culture until religion got back control (via Hamid al-Ghazali). His words contain a sharp warning for America - let it happen to us and some other nation will get naming rights. Revelation, to paraphrase, should not replace investigation.

    Youtube has some of the video posted up - check it out.

    OH! Did you manage to see what Dawkins said that prompted Tyson's 'rebuke'? One talker suggested we try and explain evolution to religious people in a way they will understand, using religious analogy.

    Dawkins spat down at the idea, and said we should just teach it, its simple enough.

    Tyson replied as above.

    You can find the full videos here:

    http://beyondbelief2006.org/Watch/

    The Dawkins 'impromptu' speech is in the third session. I heartily recommend taking the time to watch the talks - if you can make it - it might help answer your questions about Tyson.

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  3. I wasn't aware that Tyson had made it his goal to promote atheism. He has, on the other hand, done quite a bit to promote good science. I respect both atheism and science (being both an atheist and a would-be scientist) but the two are not the same; nor should they be.

    Also, FYI, Tyson has a regular column in the science magazine,Natural History. I think he took over Stephen Jay Gould's old post after Gould died.

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  4. Tyson is an emerging scientific personality. As an astrophysicist, he is the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. He regularly contributed to the magazine Natural History (I don't know if he still does; it has been a while since I picked up a copy). He produced a program on our stellar origins (entitled Origins) and wrote an accompanying book. He also appears regularly on a variety of tv shows and seems to be the go-to guy on astronomical subjects for the popular audience. I've never heard him talk about religion or atheism, only science, so the Dawkin's remarks were probably atypical for him.

    Tyson is a good educator and a strong scientist who's only concern (as far as I can tell) is improving science education.

    p.s. From your original question, he's well known in certain circles but certainly hasn't reach Carl Sagan status yet.

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  5. No, he didn't take over for Gould. He was writing that column at the same time that Gould was doing his, and they have very different subjects: deGrasse Tyson. It's very good, although I recall one time he did direct some dismissive snark at the whole field of biology, which I found rather irritating.

    He is much, much better known in America than Larry Moran is in Canada (no offense intended). That isn't saying a lot, though, and I doubt that most people would have a clue who he is.

    I think he's working up towards a David Suzuki level of fame, though...but again, he's not a biologist, seems to know very little about biology, and his role is going to be more as someone who does consciousness-raising about science in general, not evolution.

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  6. Hmmm...it ate something in my comment. I wrote that "deGrasse Tyson is an astronomer" in that second sentence.

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  7. cameron says,

    Tyson is a good educator and a strong scientist who's only concern (as far as I can tell) is improving science education.

    Do you think science education is connected in any way to the rationalism versus superstition debate? Or, do you think those are very separate issues?

    Most scientists think the facts reveal an unguided, purposeless, universe. Is it part of science education to convey this conclusion to the general public?

    Most scientists reject miracles and see no evidence of a soul, and no evidence for a life after death. They believe in evidence-based knowledge. It's one of the reasons science has been so successful.

    Do you think good science education should emphasize this point? Do you think good science education should promote skepticism?

    Some people think that good science education is about describing wonderful facts of nature while avoiding all the implications, especially if those implications challenge the public's beliefs. Do you agree with such a defintion of good science education? It's a serious question for everyone, it depends on your definition of "education."

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  8. You have to see the context for Tyson's comments here. He's not criticising Dawkins on religion, Dawkins had just given a short response to another speaker's talk, and had made rather quick work of it. Tyson's own talk took a lot of shots at religion and I think he was closer in spirit to Dawkins and Sam Harris than he was to the naysayers at the conference.

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  9. Judging from the excerpts PZ has just posted on Pharyngula, modulous and the anonymous poster above are largely correct.

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  10. Most scientists reject miracles and see no evidence of a soul, and no evidence for a life after death. They believe in evidence-based knowledge.

    When scientists start telling us what they believe, especially based on an absence of hard evidence, I think they should go across campus and join the philosophy department (if not the theology department) where they belong.

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  11. Tyson's own talk took a lot of shots at religion and I think he was closer in spirit to Dawkins and Sam Harris than he was to the naysayers at the conference.

    Oh, quite. In his "Incompetent Design" talk, Tyson discussed the unlikelihood of "a benevolent anything out there." And when he responded to someone from the Templeton Foundation after Ramachandran's talk, he brought up prayer studies as evidence against a personal God, describing the concept as hubris-filled and not "sensible" when you understand the size of the universe.

    His comment at Dawkins was a much more general "Why not try to persuade people, instead of just telling them the truth?" Tyson said it was the first time he'd seen Dawkins in person, and that he'd been taken aback by his sharpness of tone. Which, from the appearances of Dawkins I've seen, was very unusual for him--but Roughgarden brings that out in a lot of people.

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  12. john,

    I claim you can substitute "trust" for beliefs in Larry's argument and it will mean the same.

    This trust is earned many times over.

    In this case the reason that souls and afterlife are debunked is because there exist hard evidence for minds. Or so they tell me.

    If the supernatural claim is specific, it is sooner or later debunked. That should tell us something, and brings us back to trust. Nothing like an observation, is it not?

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  13. I claim you can substitute "trust" for beliefs in Larry's argument and it will mean the same.

    I don't necessarily disagree. But "trust" is not an empiric measure as far as I can see. Every person has a different threshold for the amount of evidence they will require before trusting and, absent some objective standard, Larry is expressing the philosophical choice he and some other scientists make, not a scientific result.

    I'm not saying it isn't a perfectly reasonable philosophy (it would have to be, since it is near to my own), perhaps especially for a scientist. But Larry continues to confuse science with a philosophy (which Tyson may also) and then compounds the mistake by confusing it with his own philosophy.

    As for the rest, I am aware of many theists who would not deem their belief in a soul debunked by evidence of a physical mind. Which merely points up another problem in this debate. In order to determine what effect scientific results have in contradicting theology, one must understand theology at least as well as you understand science. Dawkins has already made this mistake.

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  14. Oy. And if you ask a creationist, they'll just tell you that science is a philosophy, as if that would discredit it.

    I'll just say that my materialist, naturalist, empirical philosophy is near enough to science that I find quibbling over these semantics pointless. If you get nit-picky enough, you'll end up convincing yourself that there is no such thing as science, it's all philosophy all the way down, and that's one patch of quicksand I'd rather skip.

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  15. Moran: "Do you think science education is connected in any way to the rationalism versus superstition debate?"

    So long as there are those who want to bring superstition into the classroom, the two are connected.

    That said, methinks that you confuse the rationalism versus superstition debate with the atheism versus theism debate. Atheism may be rational in and of itself, and theism irrational by the same token. However, I've seen theists who have compartmentalized their own superstitions and helped keep more pernicious ones out of the classroom, and I've seen atheists who give about as much evidence for the claim that theistic evolutionists are a threat to science as fundies give for their claim that gay marriage threatens families. In those two cases, the theist happens to stand against superstition while the atheist paradoxically mocks rationalism by his or her words.

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  16. "But "trust" is not an empiric measure as far as I can see. Every person has a different threshold for the amount of evidence they will require before trusting and, absent some objective standard, Larry is expressing the philosophical choice he and some other scientists make, not a scientific result."

    I wasn't aware that the method of science (evidence-based knowledge) needed a measure and a standard since "This trust is earned many times over".

    But I'm sure it can be arranged for those who mistrust science. It isn't a philosophical choice but an observation on performance, with a readily available baseline (doing nothing). A standard is a trifle. Would 10 successful theories suit you? Or do we need to name 20? Really, 30 separate theories is a bit of a stretch I think - we may need to start looking at individual hypotheses or explained data sets instead.

    "But Larry continues to confuse science with a philosophy (which Tyson may also) and then compounds the mistake by confusing it with his own philosophy."

    I don't think he is. But I think you may be confusing a simple observation (more evidence-based knowledge) with philosophy.

    "I am aware of many theists who would not deem their belief in a soul debunked by evidence of a physical mind."

    Of course not, nobody can debunk a (hardcore) belief. But it is debunked as a possible alternate theory, since mind is enough and has the natural causes and correlations that the proposed soul lacked.

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  17. I'll just say that my materialist, naturalist, empirical philosophy is near enough to science that I find quibbling over these semantics pointless.

    Which is just another way of saying "I don't care where the truth of the matter lies, I'm just going to believe what I want to believe." Again, that's your right and not necessarily a bad philosophy, but your philosophical (as opposed to methodological) materialism, naturalism and empiricism should not be taught to students as if it is science. Otherwise, what are you doing but what the creationists do: confusing science with philosophy?

    And since when aren't scientists nit-picky about their work?

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  18. I wasn't aware that the method of science (evidence-based knowledge) needed a measure and a standard since "This trust is earned many times over".

    Hume described the problem with induction over 200 years ago and no one has come up with a real solution yet. However, the real point I'm making is that science is a process whereby humans share empiric evidence. "It's worked before so I'm guessing it'll work again" isn't empiric by any stretch of the imagination. The Ptolemaic system of astronomy "worked" for a thousand years, predicting the movements of the planets accurately for the level of available observation. It was still wrong. And our self-limited system of empiric investigation might just turn out to be wrong, no matter how many times its has seemed to have worked so far. Teach the process of science in science classes and leave the philosophy to philosophy classes.

    Would 10 successful theories suit you? Or do we need to name 20? Really, 30 separate theories is a bit of a stretch I think - we may need to start looking at individual hypotheses or explained data sets instead.

    Come back when science has discovered everything there is to be discovered and I'll let you know.

    I think you may be confusing a simple observation (more evidence-based knowledge) with philosophy.

    No, I'm not. But thanks for your concern ...

    Of course not, nobody can debunk a (hardcore) belief. But it is debunked as a possible alternate theory, since mind is enough and has the natural causes and correlations that the proposed soul lacked.

    Again this is the problem with confusing the levels of discussion. Theology (of the type we're discussing here) isn't interested in being an "alternate theory" in a scientific sense. To declare that only the scientific method can be brought to bear on theological questions is, itself, a philosophical (if not a theological) choice. And if that is what you are doing, introducing it in a sub rosa manner is either disingenuous or un-self-aware.

    Nor do I think you are describing the philosophy of science correctly. When do we know what is "enough" of an explanation of any phenomenon? And does a theory that is "good enough," like Ptolomy's, mean all others are "debunked"?

    I suppose I should have said that the theology I am speaking about holds that the physical mind is separate and apart from the soul and simply demonstrating a physical mind doesn't logically bear on the existence of a soul. We wouldn't want you arguing against a strawman.

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  19. There has to be a way of distinguishing science from other forms of human activity. That's why we have certain criteria that define science. One of these is that scientists stick to natural explanations that are based on evidence. Miracles and other appeals to the supernatural are not allowed in science. This process is called methodological naturalism.

    Thus, scientists, when they are doing science, see no evidence of purpose in the universe and no evidence of miracles.

    Part of good science education is communicating this to the general public. The average citizen needs to hear that there's no scientific support for the supernatural.

    Some scientists, like Ken Miller and Francis Collins, step outside the realm of science and embrace mysticism and superstition in their everyday lives. They are then faced with a problem: how to reconcile the findings of science with their belief in the supernatural. They usually do this by placing restrictive borders around science and finding their God in the gaps of our knowledge.

    Some scientists have not adopted belief in the supernatural as their outside-the-lab philosophy. For them, the results of science are taken at face value and there is no other magisterium where irrationality reigns supreme. This stance is referred to as "philosophical naturalism." It's the default philosophy for everyone who doesn't believe in God.

    John Pieret thinks that I'm confused about the difference between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism. He may be partially right since this is hard stuff to keep straight—we need help from a real philosopher (cue John Wilkins).

    But, John Pieret is mistaken more often than not. In this case he's dead wrong. Science says there's no evidence for miracles or God. That's not philosophical naturalism. Philosophical naturalism would be saying that that there is no God.

    Science says there's a conflict between religion, which claims that there's purpose and meaning in evolution, and science, which sees no evidence for such a thing. If you're religious, you resolve this conflict by saying that religion uses different kinds of reasoning (i.e., not rational) and different kinds of knowledge (i.e., not evidence-based) and these are outside of science, and they trump the methods of science whenever there's a conflict.

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  20. John Pieret thinks that I'm confused about the difference between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism.

    Right up to this point I agree with you and it is what I have been saying all along.

    He may be partially right since this is hard stuff to keep straight—we need help from a real philosopher (cue John Wilkins).

    Wilkins gave it to you but you disagreed with him too.

    But, John Pieret is mistaken more often than not. In this case he's dead wrong. Science says there's no evidence for miracles or God. That's not philosophical naturalism.

    Quite right. I agree with that and said so at PZ's place days ago.

    Philosophical naturalism would be saying that that there is no God.

    That certainly would be one defining attribute of philosophical naturalism, but it is not the sole definition. Denying that any evidence exists that is not based in naturalism is another.

    Science says there's a conflict between religion, which claims that there's purpose and meaning in evolution, and science, which sees no evidence for such a thing.

    This comes totally out of the blue and is not logically related to what came before. It is akin to saying that a belief that Shakespeare is the greatest English author is in conflict with science because there is no scientific evidence one way or the other and we expect none. As John already explained, the type of theology we are talking about does not posit actions of God that are subject to empiric confirmation or refutation. But you can prove me wrong -- provide that research proposal to scientifically investigate Ken Miller's theology.

    When you don't expect to find scientific evidence for or against something, the mere absence of any evidence in favor of it doesn't put science in conflict with the proposition. It means that science can't say one way or the other.

    If you're religious, you resolve this conflict by saying that religion uses different kinds of reasoning (i.e., not rational) and different kinds of knowledge (i.e., not evidence-based) and these are outside of science, and they trump the methods of science whenever there's a conflict.

    Or you simply recognize that they are two different subjects talking about two different subject matters ... like English Lit. and science ... and that aren't in conflict at all.

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  21. PZ Myers Said: I'll just say that my materialist, naturalist, empirical philosophy is near enough to science that I find quibbling over these semantics pointless.

    John Pieret replied: Which is just another way of saying "I don't care where the truth of the matter lies, I'm just going to believe what I want to believe."


    I suspect what PZ meant was more like "I've been down that road, and found it wanting of benefit".

    That is my opinion as well, because while the philosophers make excellent academic points in these conversations, they still can't ever come up with an epistemological standard other than science that performs worth a tinkers' damn. Yeah, sure, a person who believes the team that is 11-0 is going to lose to the team that is 0-11 is not certainly wrong. But lacking a solid logical factual argument, she would be rightfully be deemed irrational for believing so. And sciences' record against the "I believe what I wish in the absense of evidence" technique is a lot better than 11-0. Just how many times in history have those who believed in this or that in the absense of any evidence at all, been proven true over time when the facts WERE found? I can't think of one. We find no monsters when we sail past the horizon.

    That's what it boils down to John. Show me you can make better predictions than science with whatever your epistemology is, in whatever area of knowledge you choose so long as objective verification is possible, and then I'll be interested in hearing about it. Until then, I'm going to believe in scientific theories, and reject anything else, contrary evidence or no, not because I think I'll bat 100% that way. I'm extremely certain I won't. I'll do so because I haven't seen a superior option, and all other options are far too susceptible to one of humanity's worst habits: believing what we wish to be true, instead of what is.

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  22. "Some scientists, like Ken Miller and Francis Collins, step outside the realm of science and embrace mysticism and superstition in their everyday lives. They are then faced with a problem: how to reconcile the findings of science with their belief in the supernatural."

    What findings of science are supposed to conflict with Miller's belief in the supernatural? Now if I loosely define science as using logic and evidence to make sense of the world, I can quite a few ways to answer that question, but they would involve placing critical biblical scholarship, James Randi, and some of Hume's observations in the category of "science." However, none of those are likely to be encountered by Miller in his professional capacity as a biologist.

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  23. "Hume described the problem with induction over 200 years ago and no one has come up with a real solution yet."

    Of course we have - we use induction to propose hypotheses, but proof by contradiction with the data to reject one of two hypotheses in hypotheses testing. And wasn't Popper showing us that falsification with modus ponens is a good part of science? 'Science is induction' is one of my pet peeves - we know better.

    Specifically, I was setting up a hypotheses test above. Perhaps you didn't notice.

    "Come back when science has discovered everything there is to be discovered and I'll let you know."

    If that is your criteria for trust, this term is meaningless for you. It is also absurd - in hypotheses testing we can agree to say 3 sigma, which is why I said this is a minor problem. You are rejecting normal standards. Fine, but don't expect me to find it reasonable. The rest of us know that science works.

    Finally, it becomes humorous when you accuse Larry for philosophing or are discussing "the scientific method" as you yourself do everything to walk away from methods close to science.

    And I have no idea why you are injecting theology into a specific discussion of trust in science, it is seriously confused. My own comment was about increased trust from debunking of dualisms. (And a side dish of a snark on religion - not much of a point to argue about.)

    PZ got it right - you are using philosophy to achieve infinite regress. Which is a quicksand that any empiricist avoids. From experience, no less. ;-)

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  24. Referring to my reading of http://www.talkreason.org/articles/Yin.cfm reviewing Miller's "Finding Darwin's God. A Scientist's Search For Common Ground Between God And Evolution.":

    "One line of Miller's supposed proof of the validity of his faith is in appealing to the modern physics, in particular to the quantum indeterminacy found by science in nature."

    QM is deterministic when one follows the superpositions instead of the measurements that gives us genuine randomness in our view - no gaps, no gods. Miller is making an invalid assertion from science, perverting its results in the process.

    "While I have no intention of defending the position of anti-evolutionists who often indeed display miscomprehension of randomness, unfortunately Miller's own treatment of randomness is on amateurish level."

    "Miller discusses the big bang and asserts that the modern cosmological science supports the thesis of our universe having a beginning: "...science has confirmed, in remarkable detail, the distinctive beginning that theology has always required.""

    This is trivially wrong. There are proposed cosmologies without beginning, infinitely old or no-boundary, embedding bigbang in larger settings and removing the 'origin' Miller asserts.

    ""If evolution really did take place, then God must have rigged everything."
    Evolution isn't rigged. But Miller has problems with randomness...

    "I submit that the values of the physical constants, which seem to be precisely what they must be to enable the existence of life, in no way substantiate Miller's notion that these values were intentionally "set up." ... However Miller continues, "Nevertheless, if we once thought we had been dealt nothing more than a typical cosmic hand, a selection of cards with arbitrary choices, determined at random in the dust and chaos of the big bang, then we have some serious explaining to do.""

    Again trivially wrong, string theory or Ikeda-Jefferys argument shows that these values may not need explanation and that finetuning may point to a natural multiverse.

    I think it is clear that Miller makes invalid assertions from science. And worse, makes invalid assertions about science.

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  25. And I have no idea why you are injecting theology into a specific discussion of trust in science, it is seriously confused.

    I'm sorry. I had assumed you had read Larry's post and the rest of comments and knew the context of the discussion, which is Larry's claim that science and religion are in conflict, i.e. that the scientific method can be used to address theological claims. All my comments were in that context.

    As for the ordinary justification for using science in matters of the natural world, you can see where I agree with Larry as to those matters in my last post.

    Thanks for your input anyway.

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  26. John:

    I knew that cotext, but it doesn't seem relevant to answering the question "do we trust in science". One could argue that this is an example why religion is a detriment to science - it confuses matters and tries to inkect beliefs into it.

    But since that is what I want to argue outside from the specific point I guess I can't use that argument right here without it being tautological. But consistent. :-)

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  27. The writer seems to be happy that Dawkin's can gather more fuel to the fire at discussing religion than Tyson. I thought the purpose was to get more people to talk about science. I also thought questioning theories when you see a problems with them, is usually the norm in most areas of academia, isn't this how science grows?
    Dave the atheist, you are truly an honest man and have my respect.

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  28. The writer seems to be happy that Dawkin's can gather more fuel to the fire at discussing religion than Tyson. I thought the purpose was to get more people to talk about science. I also thought questioning theories when you see a problems with them, is usually the norm in most areas of academia, isn't this how science grows?
    Dave the atheist, you are truly an honest man and have my respect.

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