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Smarter than thou?

by Donald Prothero, Jul 30 2014
Neil deGrasse Tyson on "Real Time with Bill Maher", July 25, 2014

Neil deGrasse Tyson on “Real Time with Bill Maher”, July 25, 2014

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!

32 Responses to “Smarter than thou?”

  1. Peter Robinson says:

    In order to keep up the pressure on the ignoramuses the skeptical and scientific communities need to try to find ways to maintain the momentum built by Cosmos etc.

  2. mikeB says:

    As a writing instructor for college freshmen, I’m appalled at the flak I get from a minority of students for using evolution as the subject of one of our essays. It’s disheartening, but I’m not giving up! Important ideas deserve the attention of lay people as well as experts.

  3. Trimegistus says:

    Didn’t this blog once have a lot of distinguished contributors? Now it seems to be just Prothero’s relentless religion-bashing, day in and day out. Where’s Shermer? Where’s Dunning?

    • Shermer has another blog now, and Dunning and Novella have other commitments. Loxton and I are still posting, and we are planning a reboot of this site with a new slate of authors.
      But really, Trimegistus, if you hate what you read on this site, why do you even bother to read it at all?

    • KL Green says:

      I did not notice him Prothero bashing religion. I noticed him criticizing the popularization of willful ignorance.

    • Tige Gibson says:

      I also did not see anything specifically about religion in this article. It just happens that privileged religious people are culpable. If the dominant attitude towards the abuse of undeserved privilege is to leave it alone, it has the same effect as protecting religious privilege, and so we can expect things to get worse.

  4. Karl Withakay says:

    A VERY nice post that I think would stand just as well with out the use of the word redneck. You can feel feel to accuse me of being too PC (or a concern troll), but redneck is, and was clearly intended as a derogatory term.

    Consider how well the sentence works without the word redneck:

    “Apparently, the entire party is kowtowing to an ignorant, fundamentalist racist base that resentfully sneers at smarter people.”

    In my opinion, the word redneck was unnecessary, unproductive, and divisive.

  5. Timothy R Campbell says:

    Excellent article/blog. Interesting that the right’s “common folk” patina attempts to link today;s “real American” with the good ol boy Davy Crockett homespun image of Early America, when our nation’s actual founders and leaders were the intellectual elite of their time. Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, and Adams were as far removed from Davy Crockett as Tyson is from Sarah Palin!

  6. Scott the Aussie (in Devon!) says:

    Great article Don and we are not entirely immune to this in the UK – the leader of the 4th party – UKIP – is a anti-scientific wideboy.

  7. KL Green says:

    When I was in college, I was much more right wing, conservative than I am today. I was repelled by campus leftists habitually railing against elitism. My choice of degree in an engineering discipline was itself sufficient to level the charge and invite mocking. When I hear modern pseudoconservatives inveighing against elitists, I am once again repelled.

    These fellows are science denialists, not skeptics. They start with the conclusions required by their political, economic, or religious preconceptions and then reason backwards to decide what facts they are willing to accept. It’s not science, it’s the opposite of science, the veneer of science. Of course the left still has a problem with willful ignorance and science denialism, but their respective problems are no where near comparable. Every member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology rejects mainstream science on evolution and AGW. They defend their ignorance of the facts by noting that they are not scientists and yet are entirely unembarrassed to assert that the consensus scientists are part of a massive conspiracy to scam the public. Don’t trust the scientists about science; trust the political hacks!

  8. Mike G says:

    Honestly, the misuse of religion should be just as insulting to believers as non-believers. Check out how Alabama elected officials expect God to smiteth the evil EPA:

  9. Canman says:

    It’s great to see a black person become an important popular commentator on science. I think this was his best public presentation:

    I disagree with his views on libertarianism and increased NASA funding driving economic growth that he puts forth in this Point of Inquiry interview with Chris Mooney:

    I have absolutely no problem with him expressing these views. Disagreeing with him, or even disliking him, does not make someone a racist.

  10. madscientist says:

    I like that pic about the second coming. 2000 years and still waiting … when will people get it – there was no Jesus and he’s not coming back.

  11. BillG says:

    Though I generally agree with this post, I wouldn’t embrace Maher as he can be both a dick and a ditz. Why even mention race?
    (It’s in the far left handbook??)
    It’s non-sequitur as it’s all about votes – regardless if it’s Republicans or Dems.

  12. Trimegistus says:

    People who are actually interested in science should be as worried as the National Review columnist about how the Democrats have tried to co-opt the label, and how the scientific community isn’t resisting very hard.

    Think about this: do we really want to let them call themselves “the party of science” when they oppose nuclear power, oppose space exploration, oppose genetic engineering, have done their best to shut down pharmaceutical research, support nonsensical “green energy” projects at vast expense, oppose natural-gas fracking, oppose vaccination, and are generally against any new for-profit technological enterprise?

    Eventually the voters will notice that the “party of science” looks suspiciously like Tammany Hall and the Daley machine wearing a lab coat.

    This is the problem: when scientists don’t fight back against being used as political sockpuppets, they become legitimate targets in political battles. Maybe if ten years ago a bunch of climate scientists had told Al Gore to take his alarmist predictions about climate and stuff them, rather than tacitly conspiring to lie to people about the effects of climate change, they wouldn’t be facing this kind of blowback.

    Now you’re all going to call me a denier and keep running towards the cliff. Enjoy the landing.

    • The difference is that none of those positions is an official plank in the Democratic platform, or held by the major leaders of the Democratic Party. Sure, there are individuals within the party who embrace pseudoscience, but it’s not a official policy of the leadership.
      By contrast, nearly all the GOP party platforms openly embrace the anti science of climate denial (as 97% of climate scientists have shown), nearly all GOP leaders and a huge majority of the rank and file are creationists now, and the latest polls even show that the majority of anti-vaxxers are GOP as well. That’s a BIG difference, because these are official policy goals of the GOP to deny and hinder science. THAT is why they earned the title “the party of anti-science.” IF this is not true, then where are the denunciations of the GOP “leaders” when people like Broun calls science “lies from the pits of Hell”?
      Frankly, Trimegistus, if you hate everything on this blog, why are you still reading it?

      • Trimegistus says:

        All the crap you accuse Republicans of is also “not a plank” in the party platform. A proper skeptic should focus on what people DO rather than what they SAY. Republicans give lip service to traditional Christianity but in practice are very supportive of science and technology. The Democrats, as the NR columnist and I have tried to point out, wrap themselves in white coats and flatter people like you by claiming to be sciencey . . .

        . . . but in practice they have a terrible track record of supporting actual science projects.

        This is supposed to be a site for Skeptics, right? So why is everyone being so damned gullible?

      • tmac57 says:

        “This is supposed to be a site for Skeptics, right? So why is everyone being so damned gullible?”

        Can I presume that you include yourself as a member of “everyone” ?

  13. Christopher says:

    There is no one single reason why ‘Merca is anti-intellectual. Colonial America respected the well-educated “elites” (Jefferson and Franklin come to mind) but there was and probably always will be that tension between the rural working class types and the wealthier urban groups. At the heart of that may just simply be a bit of jealousy and an attempt to make oneself feel better about the circumstances. However, in addition to the religious issue that no doubt plays a part in driving the anti-science, anti-education mentality so pervasive in our current political climate and running rampant within the conservative right, it is important to remember that much of this has deep roots in the South, where education was extremely limited. Southern education was tightly controlled by the upper class and limited to the wealthy, male, white landowners. Women, no matter what color or economic level, were expected only to learn about and engage in “domestic” activities, though what specifically depended on wealth and race. African/Africa-Americans were of course not allowed to read or write, not even the bible, which was read to them by the “masters”, but even white males of lesser socio-economic means were prevented from obtaining an education. It should come to no surprise that this historical situation continues to haunt us and serves as a source of anti-intellectualism to this day. Add to it the southern obsession with uneducated or religiously “educated” “heroes” (barely literate president Andrew Jackson comes to mind) and we have a recipe for disaster. Well that’s my take on it, for what it’s worth.

  14. Jody says:

    “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'”

    ― Isaac Asimov

  15. That’s bullshit, Trimegistus, and you know it. Page 19 of the 2012 GOP Party Platform explicitly calls for the EPA to be prevented from addressing climate change. ALL of the GOP members of the House Science and Technology Subcommittee are active climate change deniers, and most of them are also openly creationist. They have held hearings repeatedly to prevent climate change legislation for going forward, and put their anti-science crap in the record instead. 11 out of the 12 GOP Presidential Candidates in 2012 were openly creationist and climate deniers (the exception being Huntsman). All 6 of the main GOP Prez candidates in 2008 were climate deniers, and all but two were creationists as well. That’s a pretty complete profile of their leadership–and the rank and file are even worse.
    And it’s NOT just talk to keep the religious crazies at bay. They’ve done everything they could to put climate denial into Federal policy. At the state level, numerous Governors and state legislatures have repeatedly legislated AGAINST the science of climate change, and actively supported efforts to put creationist laws into educational bills (disguised as “equal time” or “strengths and weaknesses of evolution”). As I originally documented, the Texas GOP platform is EXPLICITLY against evolution, climate change, and even critical thinking. No wonder a large number of former GOP Secretaries of State, Treasury, etc. in former GOP administrations just spoke out about the problem. No wonder even they are talking about the GOP becoming the party of anti-science. Whatever happened to Bobby Jindal’s warning that the GOP should not be “the party of stupid?”

    • tmac57 says:

      “Whatever happened to Bobby Jindal’s warning that the GOP should not be “the party of stupid?””

      They subsequently took a vote,and apparently “the party of stupid” was the clear winner.
      Democracy in action!

  16. David Hewitt says:

    As I see it, there are NO politicians who can manage things as they should be managed. For all practical purposes, they are all morons. We are in deep feces.

  17. Jerrold Alpern says:

    David Hewitt,

    Re-read Donald Prothero’s last poat. He makes the case that the Republican Party, not the Democratic Party, is officially, explicitly and vociferously anti-science. Ignoring that in favor of “a plague on both your houses” is factually wrong.


    Bobby Jindal is a particularly obnoxious case. He studied evolutionary biology at Brown, yet signed into law the worst ant-evolutionary, creationist, education law in the nation, over the written objections of his old bio prof.

  18. Miguel Lucke says:

    As a non-american I can tell you that this anti-intellectual streak in the US media culture is terrifying. Other countries are affected in a huge measure by what yours does. Yet in few other developed countries is ignorance often given a podium and a microphone as often as in the USA. If such people have a chance to affect your policies (both internal and external), what will happen? I have nothing against Christianity, but the idea of having a devout fundamentalist use the Bible (or rather, his or her interpretation of it) to guide a powerful country, instead of using common sense, truly is terrifying.

  19. Ashley Haworth-roberts says:

    The battle in the US continues: