The Irrationality of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Rationalia

If only society could be governed by a rational elite, what a wonderful world it would be. Or at least various theorists have speculated since Plato penned the Republic.

Astrophysicist and science popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson is the latest in a long line of utopian theorists. He set off a spirited debate when, on June 29, he Tweeted: “Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence.”

Apparently at least some people found the idea appealing; over ten thousand people retweeted the remark, and over twenty-four thousand “liked” it. Of course, Tyson’s remark also drew pointed criticism. Robert F. Graboyes, Jeffrey Guhin, S. Shane Morris, Kevin D. Williamson, Kelsey D. Atherton (see also the follow-up), Jesse Singal, and David Roberts are among those who criticized Tyson.

The main thrust of the criticisms of Tyson, with which I heartily agree, is that self-proclaimed “rational” people very often, in fact, are not rational. Just consider how widespread eugenics was among the scientific elite not too many decades ago.

Another problem is that the natural sciences that Tyson invokes do not, by themselves, generally imply particular political conclusions, and thinking they do is hubris. For example, biology can tell us many interesting things about the fetus at various stages of development; it cannot, however, tell us whether or how to restrict abortion. And, as Roberts points out, the scientific facts about climate change do not, by themselves, tell us what we should do about it. (Alex Epstein plausibly argues we should respond to climate change by using more fossil fuels.)

Then there is the critical problem of who gets to decide who is sufficiently rational to be in charge. Who watches the watchers, who guards the guardians? People tried to create real-world Rationalias in the Twentieth Century, several times. Communism was supposed to be about rationally and scientifically planning the economy. Not only did this lead to allegedly rational planners governing by profound ignorance, causing widespread devastation; it led to despicable people taking charge. The Communists committed the worst mass murders in history in terms of number of victims, followed by the (allegedly also rational) National-Socialist German Workers’ Party. Socialist versions of Rationalia failed repeatedly and spectacularly.

Arch-skeptic Michael Shermer suggests the obvious cure for the problem of guarding the guardians: Set up government institutions that foster rational outcomes. Shermer is much more sensitive to the importance of government institutions than Tyson seems to be. He claims that “Rationalia already exists”; it is “the Enlightenment experiment running here since 1776.” It is the experiment of representative democracy, he adds, which further allows policy experimentation.

Certainly the Founders strove to be rational in setting up the United States government, looking to the guide of history and to the requirements of human nature. For example, as Federalist 51 points out, “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions”—mainly involving constitutional government with checks and balances.

Of course, the “Rationalia” of representative and constitutionally limited government hardly guarantees that rational people will run government—our experiences with this year’s presidential election should prove that beyond any doubt. Yet Shermer can sensibly claim (and I agree) that the general sort of government we have is the best we can rationally hope for (it allows for internal improvements, which we need), and that it gives us the best hope for rational outcomes. As the saying goes, constitutional democracy is terrible, but it is less terrible than other forms of governance.

We should keep in mind that Tyson is talking about a “virtual” country, not a real one. Yet he clearly means his virtual world to be in some respects a model for the real world. It is unclear (to me) whether and to what degree Tyson buys into the rational requirement of representative, constitutionally limited government. Without a means of real-world implementation, Tyson’s version of Rationalia remains purely utopian.

If Tyson is saying that a “rational” elite should run society—and his remarks can easily be interpreted that way—then he’s obviously and dangerously wrong.

Yet in a deeper sense I take Tyson’s side. Some of Tyson’s critics essentially argue that people cannot be fully rational, therefore Rationalia (in the real world) won’t work. I agree with Tyson that we can be rational, and we can, in fact, build a society on rational principles.

Tyson’s problem is that he doesn’t know which principles are rational in the realm of politics. His main error is smuggling in false philosophic premises as his standard for what counts as “rational” policy. Thus, my central criticism of Tyson is not that Rationalia is impossible—I think it is possible, in the sense outlined by Shermer—it is that Tyson’s particular version of Rationalia is fundamentally irrational.

Tyson offers a much more detailed account of his Rationalia in an August 7 Facebook post. Here we can see Tyson’s underlying fallacies at work.

I want to walk through Tyson’s key remarks and make some first-round criticisms, then step back and draw some broader conclusions.

Tyson says he uses the term “policy” broadly:

Examples of Policy would be a government’s choice to invest in R&D, and if so, by how much. Or whether a government should help the poor, and if so, in what ways. Or how much a municipality should support equal access to education. Or whether or not tariffs should be levied on goods and services from one country or another. Or what tax rate should be established, and on what kinds of income.

Clearly Tyson envisions a powerful government. He does not question whether government should impose taxation—that it should is a given in Tyson’s world—he allows room only for debating the nature of taxation. Government “investing” in scientific research is automatically neither in nor out on moral grounds; it depends on the “evidence” about it.

Tyson continues, “In Rationalia, since weight of evidence is built into the Constitution, everyone would be trained from an early age how to obtain and analyze evidence, and how to draw conclusions from it.”

Trained . . . by whom? Obviously Tyson has the government in mind. And if a parent does not wish his child to be “trained” by Tyson’s educators “from an early age,” what then? If Tyson really means “everyone,” then he means government should send agents with guns to forcibly remove children from noncompliant parents. I suspect Tyson would walk back some of his remarks if pressed; he doesn’t seem to have thought through some of them very carefully.

Next: “In Rationalia, you would have complete freedom to be irrational. You just don’t have the freedom to base policy on your ideas if the weight of evidence does not support it.”

Obviously Tyson does not really mean “complete freedom”; for example, people wouldn’t be free to murder others or (presumably) to engage in female genital mutilation. But what else would Tyson forbid? He’s not clear. Would religious parents have “complete freedom” to educate their children as they see fit?

A bit later in his piece, Tyson renegotiates his promise of “complete freedom” for the individual. Instead, he writes, “In Rationalia, research in psychology and neuroscience would establish what level risks we are all willing to take, and how much freedom we might need to forfeit, in exchange for comfort, health, wealth and security.” Hello, 1984.

Note here that Tyson seems to presume that an individual is automatically irrational if he demands freedoms that clash with the risk-aversion, “comfort, health, wealth [or] security” of others. Does Tyson mean a majority? Does he think some utilitarian collective happiness calculation is possible and desirable? He is entirely unclear. Obviously we are not “all” going to agree about appropriate levels of risk, “comfort,” and the like—so what is the standard by which the freedom of dissenters will be squashed?

Then there’s this: “In Rationalia, you could create an Office of Morality, where moral codes are proposed and debated”—and, presumably, imposed by force. Sort of like what the “rational” Communists did. (The practitioners of totalitarian Islam also have their Offices of Morality, which they’d claim are perfectly rational.)

I’m sure that Tyson does not intend a totalitarian outcome. I am equally sure that a future “scientific” totalitarian could plausibly claim to be in complete compliance with the terms for Rationalia that Tyson lays out.

That Tyson is deeply statist in political orientation is beyond reasonable doubt: He wants a powerful government to substantially control key aspects of each person’s life, including each person’s wealth, education, and morals. What is the source of this statism?

Undergirding Tyson’s statist vision of Rationalia is a philosophic presumption of collectivism, the view that society as a whole is the basic standard of value, and that individuals, their values, and their proclaimed rights may be sacrificed for the sake of society.

Does an individual not wish to subject his children to the government’s “training” regimen? Not wish to finance government-approved R&D or “art in schools” or government research into “the sciences that study human behavior” or whatever else the “rational” class might concoct? Not wish to surrender his freedoms for the proclaimed “comfort, health, wealth and [or] security” of others? Not wish to obey the dictates of the Office of Morality? Too bad. The individual, his values, his rights (not that Tyson seems to recognize the existence of rights), his liberties, his wealth, his children, presumably his very life, all may be demanded by the self-proclaimed “rational” rulers.

What is the rational basis of Tyson’s collectivism? He offers none. His entire “rational” structure is built on an irrational, unjustified (and unjustifiable) philosophic presumption.

Of course, in the scope of a short article such as this, I cannot justify the moral theory that an individual rightly pursues his own life and values, nor the political theory that individuals have rights. The point here is that, to establish that your politics are rational, you have to actually recognize the moral underpinnings of your politics and, ultimately, show that they, too, are rational. Tyson doesn’t even seem to realize that he’s presuming unjustified collectivist moral premises.

Some might deem my criticisms of Tyson overly harsh. Isn’t Tyson in important ways just arguing for the status quo? Obviously government today confiscates people’s wealth, runs schools, finances R&D, prohibits various “immoral” behaviors, and so on—in important ways Tyson follows convention, not reason. Yes, I decry the collectivism at work in today’s politics. But at least the (often implicit) collectivism of today is mixed with an (often explicit) individualism, and at least it does not formally bear the mantle of rationality. By claiming to base a society on rationality, and by grounding that society on collectivist premises, Tyson gives collectivism a dangerously broader sanction and potential. Quite simply, collectivism taken to its “rational” conclusions results in totalitarianism, always and necessarily.

I’ll pick up the fundamental moral debate another day. Here I will conclude by pointing out that Shermer’s version of Rationalia—the Founders’ version—is compatible with individualism: The view that each person morally pursues his own values and happiness, consonant with the rights of others. (I don’t agree with all of Shermer’s particular political conclusions.) The project of American governance is, at its core, based on people’s “unalienable Rights,” chiefly each person’s rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Tyson includes this gem in his discussion: “In Rationalia, . . . [e]veryone would have a heightened capacity to spot bullshit wherever and whenever it arose.” Thankfully, we don’t need to live in Tyson’s Orwellian version of Rationalia to spot his bullshit collectivist moral premises.

Image: NASA


Tyson Speaking Outside His Expertise

The problem Tyson exhibits is a common one among scientists, particularly celebrity scientists: they believe that their work in one area grants them expertise in ALL areas, even areas well outside any training they may have received. Gould did that fairly often (see his NOMA essay for a popular example), and Dawkins attempted to construct a career out of this error. This is one reason why virtually every book or essay on rhetoric and logic specifically points out that experts speaking outside their area of expertise are not to be trusted.

If it comes to an astronomy question, Tyson is a fantastic resource. When it comes to politics, he’s got no more chance of being correct than a hog farmer, and (due to the isolated nature of academic science and the fact that the majority is funded by federal grants) likely a lot less.

The fact that Tyson fails to realize this basic principle of logic is one reason I have never been impressed by him. Along with other statements he’s made, this paints the picture of someone who believes himself to be above the rules of logic and reason—while at the same time posing as their champion.


Ari Armstrong replies: We shouldn’t necessarily trust someone speaking outside his or her area of expertise, but, then again, we shouldn’t necessarily trust someone speaking inside his or her area of expertise. I needn’t provide a list of past “experts” who were dead wrong within their area of expertise, nor of non-“experts” who were right about something important. The key is to evaluate whether a person is talking sense, building carefully from existing evidence, avoiding bias, and applying expertise appropriately. I often disagree with Dawkins’s politics, but overall I think he does outstanding work.

James replies: I disagree regarding Dawkins’s work. His work on evolutionary biology has some pretty serious flaws. That said, I studied under one of Gould’s students. Plus, there’s a history of disagreement between biologists (particularly molecular biologists) and paleontologists. Dawkins’s presentation of fossil evidence is pretty poor, and that tends to color his discussion of evolutionary history as such.

Getting back to my point: I didn’t mean to imply that we should trust people speaking within their area of expertise without doing our own fact-checking. There is a division of intellectual labor, so the issue is a bit complicated-—I trust my electrician a great deal, but still run what he says against what I know.

The problem is, when experts speak about topics outside their area of expertise they tend to do VERY badly. There are numerous reasons for this. Most obviously, the methods used in one area (say, astronomy) may not be applicable to another (say, politics). Experts often spend a decade or so learning how to work within a field, and very frequently have trouble breaking out of that mold. Experts also typically lack data in fields outside their area of expertise–they properly focus on their field of study, which necessarily reduces the amount of time they have to devote to other areas of study. And so on.

The thing is, one of the first things scientists learn is to distrust experts speaking outside their area of expertise. It’s built into our training—and we are warned to be VERY careful when we do it. It’s not that we’re necessarily wrong to do it, but rather that there are numerous pitfalls. One CAN tapdance in a mine field; one just needs to know where all the mines are.

Tyson is increasingly ignoring those pitfalls, and this basic warning. He increasingly seems to be of the belief that because he’s accepted as an expert in one field, and the current media darling of the scientific world, he can expect to be taken as an expert on any topic he wishes to expound upon. He currently keeps it within certain limits, but the trend is there, and it can only end badly for him. And since a significant portion of the population accepts that he speaks for science as such (at least, if the people I associate with are typical) this could have very serious consequences for the rest of us. If people start realizing that Tyson is talking nonsense, and the rest of the scientific community doesn’t do enough to point out that he’s making some pretty basic errors, the public perception of scientists could easily become viewing us as folks with ridiculous notions cut off from reality. We’re seeing that often enough as it is.

The Importance of Intellectual Honesty

Tyson’s notion that “All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence,” depends on the intellectual honesty of those deciding.

The U.S. Constitution attempts just that with the U.S. Supreme Court set up to decide whether laws are constitutional. The Federalist Papers indicate an intention that the Supreme Court would actually have the last word. As long as the justices showed some intellectual honesty, it worked just fine. With intellectually dishonest justices on the Court, all the protections unraveled.

—Jim Austin

Ari Armstrong replies: The Supreme Court is intended to change slowly relative to the elected offices, but it is ultimately answerable to the people via the presidential appointment process, and it can overturn previous rulings. Intellectual honesty is important, but I think the more specific issue here is the problem of falling into false ideologies. Intellectuals tend to be very prone to ideological fads. In the Twentieth Century, the Supreme Court followed the intellectual trend of Progressivism. That Tyson doesn’t even seem to be aware of some of his philosophic presuppositions is a troubling indicator of the sorts of problems that would plague his “Rationalia.” Particularly in the realm of politics, the “rational” can quickly become the rationalization.