Sunday, 11 May 2014

Damon Linker doesn't understand scientists

Nope, I'd never heard of Damon Linker either until I came across his piece in The Week on Neil DeGrasse Tyson and a comment he made about asking deep questions.  Linker's piece is archived here.

Linker begins with that worst of all allegations about a scientist - scientists don't know about the arts or humanities.  Shock, horror, probe:
Neil deGrasse Tyson may be a gifted popularizer of science, but when it comes to humanistic learning more generally, he is a philistine.
My first reaction is, so what?  Tyson's job is not art criticism or history.  He's a rather good astrophysicist.  That's what pays his mortgage.  The books, the TV, they're secondary.  We could even point to his appearance on The Big Bang Theory to point out that he's not a comedian.

But that's not the point of Linker's piece.  He wishes to take him to task because he does not ask deep, philosophical questions.  Well, Feynman didn't either:

In many ways Feynman would have resembled Linker's ideal philistine - not much educated in history or the arts.  But he enjoyed art and he enjoyed music.  I always find it strange and slightly amusing that scientists know more about the other culture than they do about science.

Linker gets tetchy that Tyson doesn't have time for deep questions:
Don't waste your time with philosophy! (And, one presumes, literature, history, the arts, or religion.) Only science will get you where you want to go! It gets results! Go for it! Hurry up! Don't be left behind! Progress awaits!
Well, probably not.  I suspect Tyson listens to music, reads novels for entertainment, watches TV - he may even watch The Big Bang Theory.  I would be pleased if Linker watches any TV science shows.  But it doesn't matter if he does.  It is possible to cite great philosophers and the contributions they have made but Linker misses the point Tyson really makes.

The point is this: to be a scientist (or artist or musician or historian or mathematician or anything else) you don't need to question the assumptions you make in doing your job. You just have to understand them.  In fact, questioning them does waste time.  It means you don't have the time for finding out how the world really is rather than how some think the world should be, or how we should find out about it.  In fact, in some fields of endeavour, pursuing the answers to those deep questions has added nothing.  I am not certain how a Marxist view of history has actually helped our understanding of the past (and I have read some Marxist interpretations of the past).  I am definitely not sure how ideas in art have improved art.

I don't think Tyson is a philistine because he can't be bothered with philosophy.  I think he is a realist.  After all, he is researching the biggest philosophical project of all: where did all of this come from?  Linker, on the other hand, is merely poking and prodding in the left overs of a party to which he was not invited.

No comments:

Post a Comment