In a previous post, I commented on how the Religious Right got upset when “Cosmos” aired last spring. They were angry when “Cosmos” mentioned Giordano Bruno or scientists who were persecuted by religious extremists during their pursuit of truth. They recoiled in horror at how often “Cosmos” reminded us of our cosmic insignificance compared to the scale of the universe, or from the perspective of geologic time. They raged about the fact that “Cosmos” spent an entire episode on on evolution, and the topic of evolution came up repeatedly. And lots of pro-business types hated the episode about Clair Patterson’s lonely fight against the lead manufacturers, who were invisibly polluting the world and poisoning us all. The climate deniers hated that “Cosmos” mentioned anthropogenic global warming many times.
Nonetheless, most of the reviews for “Cosmos” were overwhelmingly positive and there’s good reason to think that it reached much of its target audience, and inspired a lot of people to think about scientific questions in a way that hasn’t happened since the original Sagan version of “Cosmos.” I have been rejoicing at the recent resurgence in the media popularity of science and evolution lately, especially after Bill Nye’s defeat of Ken Ham, the great response to Neil Shubin’s PBS documentary “Your Inner Fish,” and of course, the huge popularity of Neil DeGrasse Tyson and “Cosmos”. Finally, we have several major scientists (Nye, Tyson, Shubin) who are popular in the media, especially on trendy shows like “The Daily Show” and “Colbert Report” as well as national news networks like MSNBC and CNN. They are national celebrities for all the right reasons (smart, articulate, telling people the truth about science and the world), rather than being famous because of reality TV or sports or entertainment. They are becoming widely known, and doing a great job of promoting science against the tidal wave of junk science and pseudoscience in the media. There hasn’t been such high-profile popularity of scientists since the days of Sagan himself. It’s about time!
So it was interesting indeed to see what happened when Tyson was a guest on the July 25 episode of “Real Time with Bill Maher.” Tyson received a huge standing ovation from the studio audience, a bigger response than nearly any guest that Maher has had in a long time. After a few opening pleasantries about his ovation, and about the success of “Cosmos”, Maher got right to the point: why do Republicans hate him? As evidence, he showed the current issue of National Review. The cover article by Charles C.W. Cooke is entitled, “Smarter than thou: Neil deGrasse Tyson and America’s Nerd Problem.” Maher was quick to point out that Tyson, like Obama, was smart and black and in a position of power and prestige, and that’s what the GOP resents about him (as if Tyson didn’t earn every bit of that prestige by his first-rate mind, great work, and great media savvy). In Maher’s words, “A black person taking a white person’s job by being better at it—how dare he?”
Then Maher got to the one of the prevailing themes of “Cosmos”: that humans are insignificant, and that random events affect life. Tyson tried to change the perspective by pointing out the awesome and spiritual revelations of modern science: that we are all connected to each other, that we share atoms from the stars and are related to all of life, even a tree. To which Maher replied, “Oh, come on, they have problems with monkeys, you’re gonna go back to a tree?” Later, when the topic of randomness came up again, Tyson reminded us of the importance of random events like how the impact that produced the moon shaped our planetary history, or how the impact that wiped out the dinosaurs made it possible for mammals (and humans) to dominate the earth. Maher reminded us of how religious folks hate the idea that random natural events get in the way of their carefully controlled world run by a God who looks over them. To which Tyson replied, “Get over it”.
Tyson tried to dodge Maher’s idea that the right-wing hatred of him comes from the fact that he’s a smart popular black scientist, and referred to the main points of Cooke’s article: “America’s nerd problem.” I looked up the article, and it reads like a non-stop hissy fit of jealousy against people who are smarter than Cooke. It hearkens back to the days when high school jocks hated and bullied the “nerds” for being smarter than they were. Cooke is angry and resentful that smart people are now cool, and that computer nerds like Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs are now more powerful and influential (and rich) than most people. However, there is absolutely no evidence or justification in the article why smart people shouldn’t be cool and powerful and influential, other than a few ad hominem attacks on the arrogance of a few individuals. Doesn’t every group of people have its share of arrogant assholes? And what does Cooke propose as an alternative? Would we rather have a country run by dumb people? We already tried that experiment with a president who was a cheerleader and a “C” student, and was a “good ol’ boy you could drink a beer with”, who prided himself on making decisions “from the gut” rather than by careful thought and weighing evidence, who actively encouraged science deniers in his administration and endorsed creationism—and look where that got us!
But this is indeed a national problem, as I and many others have pointed out before. Most other developed nations in Europe and Asia honor and respect scholars and scientists. In many cases, their political leaders have advanced degrees, and a number of them are actual scientists. Scholars and scientists are well paid and treated as an important resource for the future of their country. By contrast, America has this bizarre streak of anti-intellectualism, of mocking and mistrusting and voting against people who are educated and competent, who actually understand the world and know what they’re doing. Today, they use the words “intellectual” and “elite” as put-downs, and pride themselves on their ignorance. Nobody knows exactly why America is this way. It may be our longstanding distrust of authority, going back to our colonial days, where the common American was thought to have better judgment than the educated wealthy elites. I agree with many scholars that it has a lot to do with the power of fundamentalist religious groups in this country, and their hatred of science or anything else that denies the literal word of the Bible.
Certainly, that’s true in America today. A major component of our science illiteracy comes from creationist influences on our schools and on our kids’ thinking, a big difference from every other developed nation in Europe or Asia where there is no creationist influence on schools or on public policy. Now we even have a major political party that is run entirely by science deniers who not only encourage creationism, but their party platforms explicitly endorse the anti-science of climate-change denial. As I posted earlier, the Texas GOP platform even attacks the idea of critical thinking itself! Apparently, the entire party is kowtowing to an ignorant, fundamentalist racist base that resentfully sneers at smarter people. Many of their powerful politicians are embarrassingly ignorant, ill-informed undereducated, famous for mangling their English, and infamous for their many completely false statements about science and history. These include politicians like Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman, Louie Gohmert, and “Science is lies straight out of Hell” Paul Broun. Look at their major public celebrities: Joe the Plumber, who prides himself on being ill-informed and opinionated; Ted Nugent, who manages to offend nearly everyone on the planet with his demented statements; and many others even more embarrassing. Some conservatives like Patrick Ruffini are appalled at the “Joe-Plumberization” of the GOP. On the other hand, presumed moderates like Jeb Bush are now playing to this base by calling people who follow what science says “sanctimonious.” Those bizarrely misspelled signs that the Teabaggers hold up in rallies are not just appalling, but a fundamental symptom of the underlying ignorance that fuels their movement.
Yet in an ironic twist, National Review was founded by William F. Buckley, Jr., a brilliant and well-educated man who prided himself on defending his conservative beliefs in an intelligent, articulate way. But people like that (especially moderate Republicans who favor conservative policies in economics, but don’t want to be associated with the racists, creationists and science-denying crazies) are all but extinct in their party. Lately, the National Review has run numerous racist articles. The very idea that National Review would run an article attacking the influence of intelligent people in America must have Buckley rolling in his grave!