Green Means Go?

Neil deGrasse Tyson's tweet about renewing his PassportDebates over religion and science have long bothered me and the problems could not be any better illustrated than this recent Tweet.For here we have a perfect example of the naive realism that often animates the science side of these debates no less than the positions they critique.

First off, I’m not clear on why artificial (code word for cultural, maybe even historical), presumably) gets such a bad rap; for as a friend on Facebook commented:

Wonder why Tyson qualifies these particular borders as “artificial” as if most borders are not? Is “artificial” any less of an “authentic” border, any less (or more) deserving of observation, than some imagined non-artificial border?

After all, what we call red surely doesn’t “really” mean stop — whatever that even signifies — but there can be some pretty profound implications to failing to observe our red/green convention when you’re driving through town, no? From arrest and jail time to car crashes and fatalities, the so-called artificially conceived rule system — i.e., it has a history, people invented it, it changes over time, and thus isn’t carved into reality — has consequence, making it pretty real in my books.

Neil deGrasse Tyson's tweet about Passports and ImmigrationBut what bothers me even more is the way that yet another classification system is implicitly authorized, without any persuasive argumentation whatsoever, by his dismissal of another — an authority move unbecoming of the rigorously rational, evidence-based discourse that we’re continually told science is. For in the first Tweet we not only trivialize nationalism but we authorize a biological taxonomy that was no less invented by people, has a history of its own (dating from the 18th century) and a variety of reasons for its continued use today, while in the second we for some reason portray hypothetical off-planet residents as the proper referents for an ancient Latin term that only in the last 100 years or so has taken on an interstellar connotation (for it’s a term that, as a noun, once just meant stranger or foreigner, as in “People with a Green Card are resident aliens in the U.S.”).

At least the last time I checked it wasn’t self-evident that all life ought to be divided into kingdoms, phyla, and so on, and so on, all the way down to the species he talks about, and why the distinction between terrestrial and extraterrestrial is somehow more authoritative than any other same/strange distinction we commonly use to identify ourselves as distinguished from others utterly escapes me. That is, his preferred classification systems are no less, what?, artificial and self-interested than any other, regardless how useful they may strike many of us as being.

So just because 11,255 people retweeted it doesn’t make it an uncontested fact.

Come to think of it, the supposedly really real thing that is science utterly depends on funding from fake things like nation-states, along with their presumably arbitrary tax systems and their utterly unpredictable federal funding priorities. So the fake apparently makes the real possible.

A gif of a man in shockAnd so although I go to the doctor when I’m ill, do indeed presume that a force called gravity accounts for the movement of masses relative to each other, and am glad I was vaccinated by my parents as a kid, it’s Tweets like these that help me to imagine the frustration of yet others when they come across scientists who presume an unquestioned authority to their own naively realistic positions but who are utterly ungenerous when talking about the positions of others. Perhaps we’re giving away the farm if we acknowledge that gravity is a theory, a bold prediction about the future behavior of objects based on a large volume of past observations under uniform conditions, or if we recognize that only if you grant the authority of our biological taxonomy is there a need to develop a theory of how something changes from one of its (correction, our) categories to another (i.e., the theory of evolution to account for changes in species) — after all, as Mary Douglas taught us so long ago, without our imposed taxonomies nothing is any more related to anything else and nothing can be classed as either an anomaly or ideal type (i.e., things become anomalies only inasmuch as our system fails to contain them). But it seems to me that doing anything other than making such admissions indicates that we’re doing something other than the science we claim to be doing, something more akin to the ahistorical, normative moves made by that position from which scientists fight so hard to be distinguished.

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