When I first encountered Neil deGrasse Tyson, I thought, “What a nice man.” He was on the TV screens at New York’s Hayden Planetarium, where he’s director, urging us to behold the wonder of – to use the biblical term – the heavens.
That impression only grew on seeing his television show, “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.” Here he bursts with elation over the great scientific breakthroughs, guiding us into the subject with the kindly enthusiasm of the gifted teacher.
So imagine my surprise to learn that Tyson has become the object of not just mild disapproval but loathing on the political right.
Example: Tyson has become “the fetish and totem of the extraordinarily puffed-up ‘nerd’ culture,” Charles C.W. Cooke writes in National Review before descending into a lunatic rant about science-minded people “babbling about statistics” and their imagined contempt of those who are Southern, politically conservative, religious and patriotic. (He likes the term “one suspects.”)
Hoo-ha. We’ve seen this movie before. Drumming up resentment against the educated “elite” has been a time-honored way to flatter and comfort struggling Americans – and thus win their votes on the cheap.
Still, it was odd to find this anti-science bombast in the magazine founded by the exquisitely cultivated William F. Buckley – a gentleman whose life mission was to lift conservatism from this kind of boobery.
I’m looking, looking, for something Tyson has said that could be construed as pushing a liberal, much less left-wing, agenda. Cooke conjures up a link so flimsy it would have been laughed out of court at the Scopes Monkey Trial. Tyson, he states, can be “pointed to as the sort of person who wouldn’t vote for Ted Cruz.”
Well, that clinches it. Though let’s ignore for the moment that the same would go for most Republicans I know.
More to the point, Tyson has never said anything publicly about Cruz. But he did serve on George W. Bush’s Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond. And he has disappointed many on the left for dismissing fears over genetically modified foods as scientifically unfounded.
Could the problem be that Tyson is a man of color with a doctorate in astrophysics from Columbia University? That’s hard to believe, though who knows what lurks in those murky fumes.
The probable problem with Tyson is that he is genial and speaks with the common touch but gives no quarter to those demanding scientific ignorance of their public figures. Those are admirable qualities – in most of the developed world.
Meanwhile, why would a well-adjusted person feel threatened by the obvious fact that our top scientists know a lot more about their subject than he or she probably does?
Hey, we’re back at the planetarium, watching the space show under the huge dome, Tyson narrating. He’s talking about supernovas and pulsars.
After about three minutes, I’m totally lost. So are others in the audience. But we settle back and enjoy the spectacular show – all that cosmic matter up there, collapsing and then exploding in beautiful clouds of blue and pink.
That other Americans know this stuff should be a source of pride. Prowess in the sciences always has been one of the foundations of American greatness. Is the national interest to be sacrificed on the altar of whatever’s eating at the far right?
Face it. Tyson’s foes have got the ignorance vote all wrapped up. And don’t underestimate it.
But if science educators like Tyson are drinking $16 cocktails in hotels – as National Review’s steamed-up screed would have it – the patriotic response is not resentment. It’s to pick up the tab.