Why–and When–Did the United States Turn Against Science?: Views from Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Margaret Atwood & More

When did Amer­i­cans lose the abil­i­ty to think and act ratio­nal­ly? Or did they ever, on the whole, have such abil­i­ty? These are the ques­tions at the heart of the Big Think video above, a super­cut of inter­view clips from pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als — Neil DeGrasse, Michael Sher­mer,  Tyson, Kurt Ander­sen, Bill Nye, and Mar­garet Atwood — opin­ing on the state of the nation’s intel­lec­tu­al health. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, the prog­no­sis is not good, as Carl Sagan pre­dict­ed over 25 years ago.

Of inter­est here is the diag­no­sis: How did the coun­try get to a place where it is unable to defend itself against a dead­ly virus because mil­lions of cit­i­zens refuse to take it seri­ous­ly? How did Amer­i­cans let Exxon wreck the cli­mate because mil­lions of Amer­i­cans refused to believe in human-caused cli­mate change? How did a failed mogul and real­i­ty TV star become pres­i­dent? How did Qanon, Piz­za­gate…. How did any of it hap­pen?

The roots are long and deep, says writer and for­mer host of NPR’s Stu­dio 360, Kurt Ander­sen, who has spent a sig­nif­i­cant amount of time think­ing about the cul­ture of Amer­i­can irra­tional­ism. On the one hand, “Amer­i­cans have always been mag­i­cal thinkers and pas­sion­ate believ­ers in the untrue,” from the time of the Puri­tans, who were not per­se­cut­ed refugees so much as fanat­ics no one in Eng­land could stand. And the prob­lem is even old­er than the country’s found­ing, Ander­sen argues in his book Fan­ta­sy­land: How Amer­i­ca Went Hay­wire: A 500-Year His­to­ry — it dates to the foun­da­tions of the mod­ern world.

On the oth­er hand, and some­what con­tra­dic­to­ri­ly, it was those Puri­tans again who kept the worst of things in check. “We also have the virtues embod­ied by the Puri­tans and their sec­u­lar descen­dants,” Ander­sen writes at The Atlantic: “steadi­ness, hard work, fru­gal­i­ty, sobri­ety, and com­mon sense” — such virtues as helped build the coun­try’s sci­en­tif­ic indus­tries and research insti­tu­tions, which have been steadi­ly under­mined by the rel­a­tivism of the 1960s (Ander­sen argues), the effects of the inter­net, and a series of dev­as­tat­ing polit­i­cal choic­es. The delu­sion­al irra­tional­ism was built in — but hyper-indi­vid­u­al­ism and prof­i­teer­ing of the last sev­er­al decades super­charged it. “The Unit­ed States used to be the world leader in tech­nol­o­gy,” says Bill Nye, but no more.

Mar­garet Atwood, who is Cana­di­an not Amer­i­can, talks most­ly about the uni­ver­sal human dif­fi­cul­ty of let­ting go of com­fort­ing core beliefs, and the uses the exam­ple of the out­cry against Dar­win­ian evo­lu­tion. Yet her very pres­ence in the dis­cus­sion will make view­ers think of her most famous nov­el, The Handmaid’s Tale, in which she imag­ined what lies beneath the sup­pos­ed­ly enlight­ened com­mon sense of the coun­try’s gov­ern­ment. The stage was long ago set for a rev­o­lu­tion that could eas­i­ly turn the coun­try against sci­ence, she believed.

As Atwood wrote in 2018 of the novel’s gen­e­sis: “Nations nev­er build appar­ent­ly rad­i­cal forms of gov­ern­ment on foun­da­tions that aren’t there already.… The deep foun­da­tion of the Unit­ed States — so went my think­ing — was not the com­par­a­tive­ly recent 18th-cen­tu­ry Enlight­en­ment struc­tures of the Repub­lic, with their talk of equal­i­ty and their sep­a­ra­tion of Church and State, but the heavy-hand­ed theoc­ra­cy of 17th-cen­tu­ry Puri­tan New Eng­land — with its marked bias against women — which would need only the oppor­tu­ni­ty of a peri­od of social chaos to reassert itself.”

Rather than iden­ti­fy­ing the prob­lems with Puri­tans or 60s hip­pies, Neil DeGrasse Tyson — as he has done through­out his career — dis­cuss­es issues of sci­ence edu­ca­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. On both fronts, there has been some improve­ment. “More jour­nal­ists who are sci­ence flu­ent… are writ­ing about sci­ence than was the case 20 years ago,” he says, “so now I don’t have to wor­ry about the jour­nal­ist miss­ing some­thing fun­da­men­tal.… And [sci­ence] report­ing has been much more accu­rate in recent years, I’m hap­py to report.”

But while the inter­net has ampli­fied our oppor­tu­ni­ties for sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­cy, it has also done the oppo­site, gross­ly mud­dy­ing the intel­lec­tu­al waters with mis­in­for­ma­tion and a com­pet­i­tive need to get the sto­ry first. “If it’s not yet ver­i­fied, it’s not there yet.… So be more open about how wrong the thing you’re report­ing on could be, because oth­er­wise you’re doing a dis­ser­vice to the pub­lic. And that dis­ser­vice is that peo­ple out there say, ‘Sci­en­tists don’t know any­thing.’ ”

There are also those who choose to side with hand­ful of con­trar­i­an sci­en­tists who dis­agree with the con­sen­sus. “This is irre­spon­si­ble,” says Tyson. “Plus it means you don’t know how sci­ence works.” Or it means you’re look­ing to con­firm bias­es rather than gen­uine­ly take an inter­est in the sci­en­tif­ic process. For all of their insights, the talk­ing head crit­ics in the video fail to men­tion a pri­ma­ry dri­ver behind so much of the U.S.‘s sci­ence denial­ism, a moti­va­tion as foun­da­tion­al to the coun­try as the Puri­tan’s zealotry: prof­it, at all costs.

Read a tran­script of the video here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties

Carl Sagan Pre­dicts the Decline of Amer­i­ca: Unable to Know “What’s True,” We Will Slide, “With­out Notic­ing, Back into Super­sti­tion & Dark­ness” (1995)

An Ani­mat­ed Mar­garet Atwood Explains How Sto­ries Change with Tech­nol­o­gy

Neil deGrasse Tyson Says This Short Film on Sci­ence in Amer­i­ca Con­tains Per­haps the Most Impor­tant Words He’s Ever Spo­ken

Isaac Asi­mov Laments the “Cult of Igno­rance” in the Unit­ed States (1980)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (10)
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  • mark stefaniw says:

    Ray, your think­ing is twist­ed, fur­ther exem­pli­fy­ing the point of this arti­cle. So yeah, Peter, “Ray nailed it” alright.

  • Neil Courington says:

    It would help if these peo­ple were not anti-sci­ence. Tyson is bril­liant in astron­o­my and relat­ed physics, but he knows absolute­ly noth­ing of the oth­er sci­ences and uses his fame to push mis­in­for­ma­tion in those are­nas. Nye is an engi­neer, not a sci­en­tist, and com­plete­ly igno­rant of the dif­fer­ence.
    I know noth­ing of Atwood, apart from her fic­tion, so she may or may not be a valid source.

  • George Eilson says:

    Since 1991 the US econ­o­my as increased 31%. The Euro­pean so called social­ists have increased 34%.
    They live longer. Have bet­ter health care, no crush­ing col­lege debts, bet­ter roads, pub­lic trans­porta­tion. The list goes on. I can’t think of hard­ly and cat­e­go­ry where they don’t beat us.

  • Thomas M. Boudreau says:

    Con­tra Tyson: Agree­ing with the “con­sen­sus” is not sci­ence. The Sci­en­tif­ic Con­sen­sus laughed Galileo, Dar­win, Wegen­er, and oth­ers. Appeals to author­i­ty are not sci­ence. Whether the “con­trar­i­an sci­en­tists” are cor­rect or not, for Tyson to say it is “irre­spon­si­ble” for them to dis­sent is itself irre­spon­si­ble.

  • jimmythejim says:

    I find it telling that the word “regime” is used for sci­ence at the begin­ning because many peo­ple legit­i­mate­ly see it this way. Sci­ence replaced God and now finds itself bat­tling for legit­i­ma­cy using smug, right­eous and puri­tan­i­cal atti­tudes in its defense. At the polit­i­cal lev­el, sci­ence is firm­ly aligned with the State now. It hasn’t been aban­doned. Sci­ence is the pow­er of today’s lib­er­al­ism.

    What they’re lament­ing instead is the prob­lem of belief and how it has become inter­twined with polit­i­cal, social and tech­no­log­i­cal exis­tence. It’s a philo­soph­i­cal prob­lem. Very lit­tle stat­ed here by these pop author­i­ties on the sub­ject are talk­ing about sci­ence. They’re talk­ing about pol­i­tics. I haven’t dug into their bios but I doubt any of them have any cre­den­tials in pol­i­tics, or his­to­ry for that mat­ter.

    So this is the oth­er prob­lem… an inabil­i­ty to define terms. If they had any capac­i­ty for philo­soph­i­cal dis­course, they might know to start there. Sci­ence is a method and also an idea. What they’re crit­i­ciz­ing is the idea of sci­ence, which is a social and polit­i­cal prob­lem. There isn’t any­thing here that real­ly defends empir­i­cal research.

  • HARMON DOW says:

    It’s not so much that peo­ple reject sci­ence as it is that they don’t pri­or­i­tize it, and they dis­trust those who pur­port to exer­cise author­i­ty in the name of sci­ence.

    When you live long enough, you start to see how often what is claimed in the name of sci­ence turns out to be ren­dered “inop­er­a­tive” lat­er, again in the name of “sci­ence”.

    200 years ago, sci­ence author­i­ta­tive­ly posit­ed the racial infe­ri­or­i­ty of blacks. 150 years ago, sci­ence explained grav­i­ty by refer­ring to “aether”. 75 years ago, sci­ence said that dinosaurs were lizards.

    Sci­ence is a use­ful tool, but a false god.

  • Erik Ritland says:

    This is about the dumb­est par­ti­san sophistry I’ve ever read lol. I pity the fool who takes it seri­ous­ly.

  • PeteR says:

    Sci­ence that can­not be ques­tioned is NOT sci­ence.
    Sci­en­tists love anom­alies and don’t seek a ‘con­sen­sus view’, the polit­i­cal inter­est back­ing of select­ed pro­po­nents sug­gests this.
    With major social media plat­forms hold­ing MOU with the gov­ern­ment to active­ly cen­sor con­tent, orig­i­nal reports, doc­u­ments and evi­dence — let alone any opin­ion or infer­ence to be drawn from this, it’s no won­der there’s no faith in what’s being tout­ed.
    Despite the sup­posed mil­lions dead and affect­ed, why is it, for exam­ple, that the cur­rent virus has not been extract­ed whole from any per­son and can only be pro­duced from CRISPR edit­ed and assem­bled sam­ples?
    “iden­ti­fy with the Puri­tans? Hm? You mean those who were basi­cal­ly kicked out of Europe for tak­ing to killing any­one who did­n’t agree with their views?? Pos­si­bly it’s too close to the uncom­fort­able real­i­ty.

  • Hop David says:

    Tyson is not bril­liant in astron­o­my and phsy­ics.

    He flunked out of his first attempt at a doc­tor­ate with his advi­sors telling him he was­n’t cut out for physics. And, judg­ing by all the stuff Neil gets wrong, I agree with them.

    Since his for­get­table dis­ser­ta­tion in the 90s he’s done prac­ti­cal­ly zero research. I don’t think he’s cracked open a text­book either.

    It is a stretch to even call him an astro­physi­cist.

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