It’s not often that a bonafide famous person steps into Walla Walla, much less a celebrity known for being an intelligent, interesting thinker and speaker, specifically Neil DeGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and host of the redux of Cosmos. Rather, living in a town as conservative as Walla Walla it was pretty unsurprising that Susanne and I would jump at the chance to see him give a ninety-minute talk, even if the tickets cost $50 each. The seal on the deal was the reality that we don’t go on dates all that often, what with two children under the age of three—so between presumed smart lecture on science, sitting in a hall with other less-than-Tea-Party people, and Date Night, it was a no brainer (see what I did there?) to spring for the tickets. And just like I thought would happen, we saw all manner of acquaintances and like-minded comrades. There were many school-age kids there, which was nice. At least at first.
I admit I felt some excitement rumble through the auditorium when the lights were lowered and an older man rambled onto the stage to give Dr. Tyson’s introduction. Except it wasn’t an introduction, so much as a self-congratulatory speech about bringing Dr. Tyson to Walla Walla. Of course we were all happy to see the good doctor—we’d bought $50 tickets to prove it, after all. He called up Dr. Maxood, a local cardiologist, to the stage, and then that good doctor told us about his “long shot” plan to get Dr. Tyson here to speak. I looked at my watch, mostly ignoring their remarks, but increasingly annoyed that we were listening to this and not either opening comments about the host of Cosmos nor the speaker himself. And then a third man took the conch, I mean, microphone, to tell us about his grand work raising $20,000 so that 356 local students could come and hear the lecture. Wait. Someone had to raise money for the students to attend? They weren’t simply let in? If the money hadn’t been pulled together, they wouldn’t have been let in?
Susanne and I opened up the programs we’d been handed in the lobby. While the event was a production of Main Street Studios, it was actually coordinated within the nonprofit arm of the Main Street Studios organization, which has only been in existence since late 2013. Now we had questions about how the math worked—what was Dr. Tyson paid to speak, and who got the proceeds from the speaking engagement? If Man #3 on the stage had raised $20,000 to send 356 students to the lecture (which comes to $56.18 per child, so the ticket cost plus the fee, which appears not to have been waived in order to send a higher number of students to the lecture), where did that $20K go? To the nonprofit arm of the organization or to Main Street Studios? And what are the ethics of using a nonprofit organization to support a for-profit venture, if that’s where the money went?
Feeling unsettled, Dr. Tyson at last took the stage. Things went downhill from here.
To open his talk, he told us that Cosmos was an amazing thing to have occurred in our recent history of the United States, because as the bullet points flashed animatedly across his Powerpoint presentation, it was (comments in parenthesis are paraphrases of his comments):
- A documentary (who watches those anyway?)
- About science (and who watches anything about science?) [I don’t know, doctor, ask the producers of NOVA.]
- In 13 parts (can anyone tell me what other documentary—other than a Ken Burns documentary—is in that many parts?) [Well, if you’re going to go and except Ken Burns, that’s not a fair question anymore.]
- In primetime (not just any time slot!) [Does primetime matter anymore in the world of DVRs?]
- On network TV [I think this is a diss of cable and Netflix.]
- On FOX
Now here is where it started to get weird. Neil DeGrasse Tyson stands on the stage and starts shaking all over, and says, now I know the bleeding heart liberals in the audience will start foaming at the mouth thinking about FoxNews, but come on, FOX is TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX, the same company that brought you Little Miss Sunshine, the same company that has played The Simpsons for twenty years, and that’s definitely not an extremist right show.
My jaw may have dropped open. First, he spent no fewer than three minutes apologizing for FoxNews, probably the most un-sciency news organization in the entire country. But second, his logic was ridiculous. I might as well say, “Don’t worry about Little Miss Sunshine, it’s the same company that brings you FoxNews, so it’s okay.”
Other points in his presentation were equally if not more problematic, and included the following:
- An insistence on naming rights as evidence of a culture’s investment in science and scientific thought—but even the Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey itself showed that naming rights as such an indicator are at the very least problematic, as many people have not gotten credit for their work, or their work has been made invisible by powerful interests. And yet this was a point he came back to several times in the lecture. I didn’t understand why.
- Random evidence about how other countries love science more than the USA—many of Dr. Tyson’s examples were decontextualized and this made them seem opportunistic to me rather than part of an argument about our nation’s weaknesses. Which then means that he missed an opportunity to talk about where our weaknesses actually are. For example, Dr. Tyson pointed out that because elevator buttons skip the 13th floor, it means we’re all anti-science. But in reality those triskaidekaphobic moments are vestiges of nineteenth century spiritualism, not contemporary anti-science sentiment. They’re much more prevalent on the East Coast, it turns out, when the building planning was in full swing at the same time as the popularity of seances and the like. Dr. Tyson could have just as easily pointed to Ouija Boards as proof that people in 2014 hate science. It just is a terrible example.
- Islamaphobia—First, Dr. Tyson showed us his personal pictures of September 11, 2001, which could only have been emotionally upsetting for him, at least on some level. I know it was upsetting to me to see them, certainly this wasn’t in my cadre of expectations for his lecture that night. While I wouldn’t say 9/11 should be verboten, I was ready for him to talk about how this moment related to science and support for science, and while he did speak a little bit about jet fuel and vaporized particles and velocity, his main point here was this: 9/11 happened, terrorism happened to us because a whole group of people have given themselves over to religion instead of curiosity, science, or a willingness to seek observable knowledge. He took a shoe off of one foot (certainly something that people in the Middle East do to show their reverence to Allah and to throw in disgust at men who frustrate them but that’s beside the point), and knocked it off the podium. “One-point-five billion Muslims have stopped doing science because they believe that the reason a shoe falls down is because it is the will of God, not because of gravity.” Seriously, that’s what he said. The Golden Age of Islam, he declared, was one thousand years ago because that is when Muslims stopped asking scientific questions. In his numbers up on the screen, Dr. Tyson showed that twenty-six percent of science related Nobel prizes have gone to Jewish scientists and 0.5 percent to Muslim scientists in the last 100 years. This ignores that the latest mathematics Nobel went to an Iranian woman scientist (actually no women were mentioned at any point in his lecture), and of course it doesn’t ask the question as to whether the Nobel prizes are complicated by anything like politics, power, nation-states, war, and anything else that clearly affects how they are awarded (Obama the Peace Prize winner notwithstanding). EDITED TO ADD: Let’s also look at the numbers for a moment. Basically, Dr. Tyson was saying that nobody in all of the Muslim world is doing science. That’s an outrageous statement. If only half of one percent of those 1,500,000,000 are doing science (which would be a really small number, right?), then seven and a half MILLION Muslims are working in science. I would not chuff at 7.5M of anything! This is a real head-scratcher for me.
- Little details that usually matter to scientists, didn’t—in showing us the I-35 bridge collapse in the Twin Cities from a few years ago, Dr. Tyson called the Mississippi River “some little creek or something.” In posting up a picture of Bulgarian money with a scientist’s picture on it, Dr. Tyson said he couldn’t remember his name other than to say he was “a Bulgarian scientist.” (And how all of the European currencies have been replaced by the Euro which has NO SCIENTISTS ANYWHERE on the currency.) In telling us how anti-numerals we are, he showed us a picture of a basement floor in Germany numbered “-1,” ignoring that many, many more buildings in Germany and Europe use words like “Mezzanine” and “Ground Floor” and “Erdgeschoss.” If the rhetorical point here is that the details matter in science, then these details do, too. And a suggestion for Dr. Tyson: Use the little notes section of MS Powerpoint to put some of these details in, like Mississippi and Dr. Peter Beron.)
I agree with Dr. Tyson that there is a strange current of anti-science in the United States, but really, it is limited to certain members of Congress (See: “legitimate rape”), extremist school board members, and a few very vocal fundamentalist Christians. Most of the anti-science viewpoint is overstated by our media which loves a good fake fight. There certainly is plenty of anti-science sentiment to critique, but I don’t think it’s fair to do it using the ghosts of 9/11, ignoring Africa, silencing female scientists, and staring at old money. Three hundred and fifty-six schoolchildren were exposed to his ideas as the “progressive” side of the conversation, and I dearly wish it hadn’t come with so many problems and misrepresentations.