Thursday, May 8, 2014

A Limited Defense of Neil deGrasse Tyson's Views on Philosophy

Evan brings my attention to Neil deGrasse Tyson downplaying philosophy and "big questions" (or more precisely, he brings my attention Damon Linker calling Tyson a "philistine" for it). I might not have phrased it the same way he does, but I think he has more of a point than Linker gives him credit for. I am not a philosopher, so feel free to correct any of this - but since nobody is really engaging Tyson's claims as serious claims I think it's worth me putting out a non-philosopher first draft of a defense for people to reflect on. I think that (1.) Tyson is not as unaware of what goes on in philosophy as people suggest, (2.) I think a lot of philosophy of science is bad (or at least a misnomer), and he is probably reacting to that, and (3.) I think a lot of people concerned with "big questions" have the wrong approach to science.

One last note before jumping into it - I'd rather not talk about the inaccuracies in the new Cosmos. Tyson is not a historian of science which strongly suggests to me that he was handed a script for a cartoon narration. I don't think it has much of anything to do with the claims he makes here.


OK, first Tyson doesn't have an especially inaccurate view of what goes on in philosophy (although it's abbreviated, impromptu, unscripted, and for all of those reasons a necessarily underdeveloped view). He remarks that a lot of what philosophers grapple with amounts to arguing about the meaning of words. This is, more or less, true. He may not get the nuances of it like a philosopher would, but he's simply noting the "linguistic turn" in philosophy which is quite real and not just some invention of Tyson's. Moreover, it is a position of respected philosophers (I think principally of Rorty here who is among the few proper philosophers I've spent some time reading) that it is precisely because of these developments that we need to be cautious about philosophers thinking too highly of themselves, that the significance of philosophical progress is overstated (or at least misunderstood), and that philosophy is it's own sort of literature asking questions in its own way, but not fundamental or foundational in the way that many claim. So I think if you take philosophy seriously (and I don't see a reason to assume Tyson doesn't), you ought to take these claims and critiques seriously because philosophers themselves are engaging them seriously (albeit in a much more sophisticated way than Tyson does here).

Second, my (again, under-educated) sense is that a lot of what goes by the name "philosophy of science" is actually epistemology and has little to do with actual science. I am thinking specifically of things like Popper saying that natural selection is not a scientific theory but (in his words) a "metaphysical research programme." At that point I am forced to simply say that that's nice as philosophical demarcation exercise, but at this point we've exited a discussion of science. This is not true of all philosophy of science by a long stretch (for all I know it's not even true of all of Popper - you'll have to ask someone that reads more Popper). Philosophers who spend more time thinking like philosophers as they inquire into the daily work of scientists - like Kuhn or Lakatos - generally avoid these excesses (since I'm trying to emphasize the extent to which I am not a philosopher, I'll note here that I have read Kuhn but not Lakatos, and very, very small bits of Popper). Why do I bring all this up? Because it can be frustrating for scientists to get told how to do things by "methodologists" or "philosophers of science" that are really just epistemologists who don't actually spend a lot of time thinking about the scientific enterprise.

Third, if you'll allow me to move forward with Kuhn, I see a tendency particularly in the social sciences, probably among young scientists of all types, and perhaps in the natural sciences to a certain extent too, an enormous yearning to do paradigm shifts rather than normal science. To say that someone is engaged in "normal science" is typically not a compliment. I think this is some of what Tyson might be getting at when he criticizes the focus on the "big questions". The vast majority of scientific effort is tedious, slow work on normal science. Paradigm shifts do not come around often and they are not something you often plan for either. Economics is rife with interest in what is essentially paradigm shift thinking and I think a lot of it is misguided. Mainstream economic science has its puzzles, but it is not in the sort of crisis that would foster a shift, and we certainly are not going to get a shift from legions of young economists going out in search of one. If a paradigm shift comes some day it's going to be a fairly singular event and while older ways of thinking about problems often resurface in paradigm shifts* the shift itself doesn't usually come from reading old books (which is what a lot of "big question"/"new thinking"/"dare to be different" types in economics seem to think). You don't do science by thinking about these big pie in the sky questions or ideas. If you really want to do science that generally means that you want to do normal science. 99% of the people who set out to be visionary paradigm shifters are deluding themselves. Tyson himself is a normal scientist. Most Nobel laureates are normal scientists and a lot of the ones that people would claim are paradigm shifters probably aren't. If you feel like doing normal science is beneath you you probably shouldn't work in science.

I don't know if I'd put the point the way Tyson did, but he was speaking off the cuff so I find it difficult to fault him too much for that. I do think underlying his comments are some very serious and reasonable points that people would do well to consider.

* - Kuhn does an excellent job illustrating this in talking about Aristotle, Newton, and Einstein on gravity where he points out that Einstein's perspective on the problem was quite Aristotelian in the sense that he went back to the Aristotelian view of gravity as having to do with inherent properties of objects - a view that Newton abandoned. I can't track it down, though - if anyone knows where that is in Structure of Scientific Revolutions I'd be very interested in you letting me know in the comments.


  1. When I think of a typical table of contents for a philosophy of science journal, I think of 1) Bayesian probability, 2) articles relating to neuroscience, and 3) articles relating to developing subfields of evolutionary biology. Kuhn and Rorty are both dead, and they strike me as extreme ends of the spectrum on the questions of philosophy for which they were known... to use them as representative of philosophy of science strikes me as really risking caricature.

    If you look at a philosopher of science's CV, I think you more often see someone who put in some time doing scientific research and now does philosophical work on questions of science. I don't think they have any illusions about whether the daily grind of scientific work should be contemplating these epistemological questions in great depth before proceeding to flip on the centrifuge. But that doesn't mean the questions aren't important... and in rapidly changing fields (evolutionary biology, AI, neuroscience), I think the epistemological questions become much more important.

    To defend Tyson on historical inaccuracies seems kind of lame too. Peddling mythologies to sell a worldview is problematic whether it's a Christian fundamentalist or a scientist with his own TV show.

    1. "Kuhn and Rorty are both dead, and they strike me as extreme ends of the spectrum on the questions of philosophy for which they were known... to use them as representative of philosophy of science strikes me as really risking caricature."

      Well Rorty didn't really do philosophy of science - I'm not sure what your claim is there. But this is largely the point of what I was saying - much of philosophy of science. Take a look at one of the Bayesian papers in the most recent issue of Philosophy of Science - - (and I wonder... did you just skim that table of contents before typing this response). It's a great little epistemological exercise but "philosophy of science" is a little misleading a title for it. Epistemology? That's fine. Scientists get treated to methodologists and epistemologists telling them how to do their jobs right under the guise of philosophy of science. That is not necessarily the Kuhn/Lakatos approach and that's really my point - a lot of what goes on in philosophy of science circles is not like the Kuhn/Lakatos approach.

      The only guy I know that does straight epistemology but seems to have a real concern for what science actually is is Peirce, but as I've said I'm not a philosopher so of course you can take "the only guy I know" with a big grain of salt.

    2. "To defend Tyson on historical inaccuracies seems kind of lame too. Peddling mythologies to sell a worldview is problematic whether it's a Christian fundamentalist or a scientist with his own TV show."

      Is it your view that there was no linguistic turn, that Tyson is too dense to have been saying that there was a linguistic turn, or that Tyson - not a historian of science - should have served as the fact checker for Cosmos on something that he was not an expert in?

      None of those views seem defensible to me, but you're being so vague I'm not sure what you're saying.

    3. 1) I don't really know what Bayesian probability is beyond like the first paragraph of a wikipedia article's worth of information... my knowledge of what's in philosophy of science journals does come from skimming the tables of contents of them, but I've been doing that for years and not just because the topic came up on a blog post.
      2) I don't get why you take epistemology to be irrelevant. Lots of it is, surely, and it gets pretty technical in certain journals... but epistemology seems pretty central to scientific work, as far as philosophical questions go. Plus you get cool thought experiments involving undead cats.
      3) I don't expect Tyson to be a fact checker, at the same time you don't just get a pass whenever you want to be a Real Scientist instead of the star of a TV show that peddles mythologies via cartoon. To a certain extent he's choosing to be complicit in it. Also, while he's not a historian, he's surely a smart guy and could realize that that sort of canned narrative doesn't help the people watching his show understand science correctly. I assume that if he caught a scientific error in something he was supposed to say, he would bring it up unless it was just an oversimplification for pedagogical purposes.

  2. ...also... and I have no idea what students of the sciences do in school (I imagine it really depends on the type of institution you go to), but I don't think it would be bad to read a good bit of philosophy of science on the front end just to make sure they're considering what scientific knowledge and method entails, what its limits are, etc... reading some Poincare, Bohr, Reichenbach, Toulmin, and even some current philosophers would do them good whether or not they have think about them in the lab. Simply broadening one's perspective to the basic assumptions and possibilities of their field would be helpful.
    Presumably you understand the importance of that, given your gripe on facebook the other day about students who, now in grad school, still entirely misunderstand the purpose of modelling. That's a methodological issue that could be easily addressed if students of science were philosophically literate.

    1. "to make sure they're considering what scientific knowledge and method entails"

      I can't speak for other sciences, but we get that in econometrics classes.

      Reading philosophy obviously would do anyone good. Reading anything would do anyone some good for the most part. But you're moving the goalposts. That is a different question than the question of whether scientists should worry about what philosophers have to say about how they do science.

      "That's a methodological issue that could be easily addressed if students of science were philosophically literate."

      Quite the contrary, I think that's an issue that philosophers should learn from scientists (if they are interested in such questions).

    2. I think Tyson's criticism was more direct than "worry[ing] about what philosophers have to say about how they do science":

      Tyson: "My concern there is that the philosopher believes they're actually asking deep questions about nature, and to the scientist, it's 'what are you doing, why are you wasting your time? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?'"
      Interviewer: "Well I think a healthy balance of both is good, a healthy balance of both."
      Tyson: " I'm still even worried about a healthy balance. If you're distracted by your questions, so that you can't move forward, then you're not being a contributor to our understanding of the natural world."

      This just seems to say straight out that philosophy is a waste of time. I think he assumes that any scientist worth their salt doesn't care what a philosopher thinks.

    3. I see. So it's OK to say scientists should listen to philosophers about philosophical questions (a point I don't think he challenged), but Tyson can't say that philosophers should listen to scientists on important "deep questions about nature", or for that matter science?

      I don't see him saying it's a waste of time. But I do think (and I guess he thinks?) scientists can largely safely ignore philosophy (and vice versa). You don't seem to think very much of my take on the philosophy of science (which is fine), and I probably spend more time thinking about it than most educated non-philosophers. Somewhere idealistic visions of a liberal education have to butt up against the division of labor. I can't keep up with everything that's going on in labor economics, much less economics. Things not directly involved in what I do are entirely amateurish and extracurricular for me already, and you are dissatisfied with my take on the philosophy of science and think that to remedy that deficiency scientists generally (many of whom are worse read on it than me) need to dedicate more time to study it? It's a nice vision, but I think not.

      Not until philosophy majors are required to read William Greene at least.

  3. Speaking of linguistic nuance, are you a non-philosopher working toward a Doctor of Science degree, then, or Doctor of Philosophy?

    1. Doctor of philosophy. Go figure :)

      Only a handful of universities in the U.S. give the Doctor of Science.

  4. What's interesting is that if you listen to a few minutes before the philosophy stuff, Tyson is busting somebody for bringing up TMZ after Tyson was talking about Newton and calculus. So some things *are* deep and profound...namely the things Tyson wants to talk about. Everybody else is either a punk or navel gazer.

  5. One of my undergrad degrees is in philosophy. That was the mid 80s, so I am too rusty to discuss in a meaningful way. I do believe it did a lot of good for me, especially for discussion of things deeper than surface level. I deal with fellow scientists daily and I don't know any of them who even think about medium sized problems. For the most part, they seem to all have some great insight they gained ten years ago on some project - their own hammer - that they want to use on every nail.

    I see Kuhn's insights as having application on lower levels. Mini-paradigms that determ I need what gets funded, talked about and pursued. It's kind of depressing to look at the research focus and see fruitless projects pushed and promising projects sit on the sideline for a decade. I don't think reading more philosophy would increase innovation or creativity, though.

    I went to a cosmology lecture in Vancouver the other day (my son is in grad school for cosmology so it was a good father son thing to do). I found it interesting to see how sure of himself the speaker was when talking about what we "know" about dark matter. The word ether popped into my head.

  6. There's a distinction I think needs to be made, and that's a difference between the practice of science and the philosophy of science. I've always thought of the philosophy of science as being an attempt to provide a rational reconstruction of what it is scientists do. Since at least the late 19th century, most working (natural *or* social) scientists have not been practicing philosophers, and most philosophers of science, even if they were once practicing scientists (Kuhn, Gerald Holton), ceased doing science when they began doing philosophy. (To the best of my knowledge, Popper was never a practicing scientist; I think, as well, that Hilary Putnam was also never a practicing scientist; nor was Rudolph Carnap; I could go on listing philosophers of science who were not practicing scientists--Alex Rosenberg, Daniel Little...)

    Whether, as a practicing scientist, you're trying to solve problems (in Kuhn's "normal science" sense) or trying to overthrow the established order (which is what I take Paul Feyerabend to have been advocating, especially in Against Method), it's not clear to me that you need to be immersed in philosophical questions about "What is science and how is it (or should it be) practiced?"

    (I should note that I more-or-less quit reading the philosophy of science literature, particularly as it applies to economics in about 1990...I was too busy being an economist...)

    1. I Agree with you in general but there I think there is value in the added persoective. Then again, perhaps those that pursue philosophy in addition to science would have had the added perspective either way.


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