Some days, it's very hard to defend Neil deGrasse Tyson

This morning, I read a pile of bullshit about Tyson written by an anti-intellectual reverse-snob -- he thinks he should be proud of being so blatantly pro-mystery and anti-science.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is, supposedly, an educator and a populariser of science; it’s his job to excite people about the mysteries of the universe, communicate information, and correct popular misconceptions. This is a noble, arduous, and thankless job, which might be why he doesn’t do it. What he actually does is make the universe boring, tell people things that they already know, and dispel misconceptions that nobody actually holds. In his TV appearances, puppeted by an invisible army of scriptwriters, this tendency is barely held in check, but in his lectures or on the internet it’s torrential; a seeping flood of grey goo, paring down the world to its driest, dullest, most colourless essentials. He likes to watch scifi films, and point out all the inaccuracies. Actually, lasers wouldn’t make any sound in space; actually a light year is a unit of space rather than time; actually, none of this is real, it’s just a collection of still images projected at speed to present the illusion of movement, and all the characters are just actors who have never really been into outer space.

There's a hint of a point to his long-winded diatribe; scientists who simply drily list the facts or point to a pretty picture from the Hubble telescope aren't really promoting understanding. But we also need to dispel the nonsense that that writer seems to think are essential, like clouds inhabited by angels or his Lord Jesus Christ. It's disgraceful when a scientist dismisses poetry or philosophy, but you can also go too far in the other direction, and dismiss reality. Both are deplorable.

I was ready to go off on a rant about that this morning, and then Tyson had to open his mouth and leave me completely deflated. An interview was published that just left me muttering, "Why, Neil, why?".

He's going to double down on his claim that species with painful sex would go extinct, by making the goal posts dance.

"With regard to the sex, that was interesting because some biologists jumped on me claiming that it’s just false. And people love nothing more, apparently, in revealing or finding that I’ve said something that’s wrong. Now, so do I. I take great joy in finding if I said something wrong, because then I’ve learned something.

"But what happened in the case of the sex hurting and the species going extinct, biologists and people were quick to say, 'Oh, he should stick to astrophysics.' Well, why? Oh, because there are species where sex hurts and is quite painful.

"There is a woman who has a blog (Emily Willingham, writing at, who wrote a whole thing giving examples of painful sex. And in every single case, it was describing the pain of one of the partners in sex, not both.

"In another case, she was describing the praying mantis. The female praying mantis, after they mate, bites the head off the male. But was it enjoyable up to that point? Right? She doesn’t bit the head off before they mate!

"So yes, of course, there are situations that are painful. So I wrote back to her. She said, 'Clearly he doesn’t know all these cases,' but of course I knew all those cases. What I don’t know, and maybe they’ve put it out there, I’m looking for a case where both parties to a sexual encounter experience pain. Because if only one experiences pain, that doesn’t prevent reproduction. Because it could be so pleasurable for the other party that, who cares? They just go on in."

I was left breathless by 1) the arrogance, as if biologists know so little, 2) the ignorance, because he is so unaware of the facts that even when he's told about them, he denies them, and 3) the complete lack of imagination -- sex feels good for humans, therefore pleasure is the only drive imaginable. Throwing in the cavalier mention (and dismissal) of "a woman who has a blog" is just the shit icing on the cake.

Nature does not rely on making things feel good to gently compel organisms to do them. It also uses pain. And often it doesn't even bother with these kinds of perceptual games.

Here's an example we're all familiar with: we have to poop approximately every day. Is it because it feels good? While of course some people can fetishize it, and there is often relief when the mission is accomplished, the primary impetus to do it is discomfort and pain. Abstain, and the pressure builds, and the awkwardness grows in your bowels, and it may lead to cramps and severe physical pain if we avoid the duty long enough. But we aren't (well, most of us) aren't dancing about in joyous anticipation of release.

For many organisms, pleasure and pain aren't even relevant. Nematodes, for instance, are driven by a clock -- they have a sphincter that opens rhythmically, with a relatively fixed period for which we even have mutations with different period lengths. You can even measure their behavior by looking for the regular trail of little fecal dots they leave behind.

"But that's not sex," I can hear Neil protesting. Sex is different.

No, it's not.

There are times when sea urchins spawn. There's nothing intimate or personal about it -- the males and females just simultaneously spew out clouds of sperm and eggs in such volume that they can make the sea milky. Do they do it because it feels good? I don't know. Echinoderms are notably lacking in expression. They're also lacking in an inclination to masturbate, so these sporadic expulsions of gametes have more the character of a compulsion, a drive triggered by water conditions and tides and seasons and hormones. It's also an expensive behavior, marked by stress. Sea urchins lack a brain -- they have a nerve ring with five radiating peripheral nerves -- so even associating the behavior with a function like "pleasure" is problematic.

And then his excuse, that all that matters is that it feels good for one sex and that Willingham failed to mention any case where both sexes suffer, is so pathetically bad that it just confirms that he doesn't know much of anything about biology.

His example of mantises is awful. How does he know that the male or the female is doing it for pleasure up to the moment she bites his head off? Mantises are only slightly more capable of expression than a sea urchin. Apparently, Neil deGrasse Tyson imagining that they're having fun counts as data.

I've watched spiders mate -- the females sometimes eat the males there, too -- and if I had to attach an emotion to the male's activity before hand it wouldn't be "happy anticipation of a pleasurable dalliance", but "stark raving terror". They sneak about and dart in, hoping not to be caught. It's a need, not a fun choice for an afternoon's pleasure. I have no idea if they have the equivalent of an orgasm when they reach her oviduct, but it's unlikely -- they make their sperm packet before running in to stuff it into the female's opening.

And Willingham addressed his excuse with her very first example: semelparous fish, like salmon. Neither sex gets a lot of joy out of reproduction. They batter themselves half to death trying to get upstream; they exert themselves to such a degree that their flesh is like an exhausted desintegrating bruise by the time they get to the spawning grounds, and then they die. Is Tyson seriously going to suggest that these animals with very tiny brains are doing this in anticipation of the orgiastic ecstasy of the one time they get to have sex, an event that they have never experienced, and which they haven't even read about in letters to the Penthouse forum?

They suffer because they must, because their physiology compels them, and I very much doubt that they're deliriously joyful at the agonies they must undergo to end their need. To infer that Nature must make them happy in addition to making them strain to die is to bestow an unwarranted beneficence on biology, without evidence.

Neil Tyson, learn a little humility. Biologists actually do know more about biology than you do. These are questions that biologists have been thinking about, and trying to answer, for over a century, and your excuses sound more like natural theology than natural history.

It's disappointing. It's bad science. And it's spectacularly atrocious science education.


More like this

This seems like more self-righteous horseshit about why certain animals get to be called sentient. It's not even a biological question, of course biologists haven't answered it.

I see Neil deGrasse Tyson as
the Reverend Al Sharpton of science.

By See Noevo (not verified) on 17 Mar 2016 #permalink

sn, you have a poor opinion of him because he isn't the correct race and you're just a despicable low life. It has nothing to do with science, so don't lie about it.

Okay, so Tyson makes some mistakes and some of them are real doozies. (I should mention, I was not pleased by his dismissal of philosophy: how else are we to reason out our moral codes?)

We all do it, and everyone all of us knows does likewise, the difference being that most of us are not public figures with huge audiences.

On balance he's had a salutary effect on the culture, and in these times of rampant obscurantism, that counts for a lot. It's reasonable for other working scientists to call him on his doozies, such as you've done here, but that shouldn't translate to taking the arguement into places that are extremely high-visibility, because doing so only gives our enemies more ammo.

As for sex and bugs and rock & roll, at some point it should become possible to measure enough of the activity in their brains (such as they are) as to see if there's anything that might correlate with pleasure. I don't have a stake in this either way, but it would be interesting to know.

Mr. Tyson has obviously never visited a BDSM club.

The problem with becoming an evangelist for science is becoming an evangelist. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking you have a special connection to "Science", that you have special relationship with its saints and idols (the fawning over Carl Sagan and regular references to his pilgrimage to Ithaca). You feel it gives you a deeper insight into it than the average joe, ironically even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Much like a religious evangelist or strip mall pastor.

Neil knows better than to automatically assume he knows better. It's just really tough, as a human being, to purposely deprive yourself of a special place in a forum you love, especially when others say you deserve it. Scientific exploration requires humility from the scientist in the faces of his or her biases, setting those aside in favor of the facts. But once you become a science evangelist, the major religions have good advice--humility is paramount. Neil doubles down on his argument in the face of considerable evidence against it, and in doing so he stops being a scientist. Carl would not approve.

By Luis Marquez (not verified) on 18 Mar 2016 #permalink

It’s just really tough, as a human being, to purposely deprive yourself of a special place in a forum you love, especially when others say you deserve it.

This should get the Scienceblogs annual award for Objective Writing. Well done.

Maybe female praying mantises bite of the heads of their mates, so the male won't cheat on her with another praying mantis. Pre-emptive "Hell hath no fury." Maybe Black Widows and praying mantises follow each other's twitter accounts.

By Ramsey Glissadevil (not verified) on 18 Mar 2016 #permalink

He said something in the same spirit in a video I saw, something to the extent that we will develop into a species that finds babies cute or something.

But the sex remark is even worse. I would like to offer that certainly it's not adaptive if having offspring causes great pain. Which woman, you might wonder, would ever want to have another child after the first, given that it's arguably unpleasant to push a head the average size of a honey melon through a hole normally the size of a pea.

And cuteness has a function that might one day simply no longer be necessary. I'm all in favor of artificial wombs (guess why) and maybe one day we'll just pick up our kids from the hospital when they're old enough to wipe their own butt. Evolution doesn't go in straight paths. But I get distracted. By and large, nature does as well as possible but not any better, and that might totally mean pain can persist.

Really I'm just commenting here because I'm a physicist and I find Tyson's comments terribly awkward. It's one thing to be wrong. It's ok with me if a biologist gets physics wrong and if a physicist gets biology wrong, that's forgivable. (Please tell me if I'm wrong.) It's another thing to insist on being right.

That's unfortunate because I know a lot of good physicists who have gone over to work in theoretical biology and there are a lot of prejudices against the supposedly arrogant physicists that hinder fruitful interdisciplinarity. Tyson isn't helping. Let me just offer we're not all like that. (I hope.)

What Tyson said holds a perfectly reasonable amount of plausibility. All you needed to do, if anything, was complete the context for him. It's pretty clear the mammals - at least - evolved sexual pleasure.
Coming out and arguing - presumably - that this isn't clinching evidence - for higher forms at least - is pure speculation. We only have the world we have. You don't have the first clue whether or not there's a second pathway viable for higher forms, that involves un-pleasurable or painful copulation. Go Tyson!!

By Ming the Merciless (not verified) on 19 Mar 2016 #permalink

"You feel it gives you a deeper insight into it than the average joe"

I agree but you make it sound as thought this is a potential pitfall that as a rule gets avoided. So please name a scientist on the blogosphere that does not have this pernicious attitude?

"Neil knows better than to automatically assume he knows better."

Excuse me but Tyson is an engaging funny guy who never gives the impression of seeing himself superior. Name others on the blogosphere. I'm what I'm asking you to do, is be honest. By naming someone you are giving testimony to the effect that person does not interact with other scientists privately in which that pernicious elitist arrogance is not a 'given'. Name names.

By Ming the Merciless (not verified) on 19 Mar 2016 #permalink

Bee "Let me just offer we’re not all like that. (I hope.)"

lol, you definitely are.

By Ming the Merciless (not verified) on 19 Mar 2016 #permalink

Ming the Merciless wrote "Excuse me but Tyson is an engaging funny guy who never gives the impression of seeing himself superior."

Excuse me but here is a video where Tyson gives the impression of seeing himself superior to medical doctors:

So say a patient lives longer than expected. Does that demonstrate the doctor's an idiot? No. A doctor's prognosis is based on statistics, he looks to what's happened to patients in a similar condition. Of course there are outliers on bell curve. Some will die sooner, others later.

(Neil Voice)Something that I find….. ASTONISHING. This highly regarded astrophysicists is completely ignorant when it comes to statistics and probability(/Neil Voice)

By Hop David (not verified) on 20 Mar 2016 #permalink

I find this ridiculous. He's being entertaining in that video. He didn't name anyone. It's ok to send up a profession.

Also he's touching on significant issues. The medical profession have been stuck for decades on cancer and most other things, and have a great deal of trouble fessing up to that. Preferring instead, to build unsustainable ivory towers and cultivate an internal culture of back-watching & unrealistic elitism. A bit like the physics community.

By Ming the Merciless (not verified) on 20 Mar 2016 #permalink

Buck Field - let's face it; there's a lot of nasty backchat about Tyson in the physics community. And the other celebrity physicists, but particularly Tyson.
Yet Tyson does no harm in his central remit. He makes physics and science accessible. He does the opposite of the bloggers by dispensing with airs and graces. There's a lot of implicit and explicit demands from physicist bloggers, for unearned, undeserved, deference.

By Ming the Merciless (not verified) on 20 Mar 2016 #permalink

Ming, I find you ridiculous. Whether tyson sees himself as superior to a group or individual makes no difference. He still sees himself as superior.

And what's his evidence physicists are superior to physicians? That some patients live longer than a doctor's estimate. In Tyson's world that demonstrates a doctor's idiocy. If it were a valid criticism, I'd buy it. But it is an extremely stupid conclusion borne of ignorance of bell curves and statistics.

And no, he is not touching on the issues you mention. He's calling doctors idiots because some patients live longer than most patients with a similar condition.

I will grant you that tyson is entertaining. But people in the know are laughing at him, not with him.

By Hop David (not verified) on 20 Mar 2016 #permalink

That 'woman with a blog' also has a BIOLOGY PHD. so she's actually a scientist, and a journalist AND she just happens to be a woman.


By Chloe Warren (not verified) on 22 Mar 2016 #permalink

#17 “The medical profession have been stuck for decades on cancer and most other things, and have a great deal of trouble fessing up to that. Preferring instead, to build unsustainable ivory towers and cultivate an internal culture of back-watching & unrealistic elitism”.

This is not exactly how I see it. First, it’s not “the medical profession” that’s involved. I would say that a substantial proportion of cancer researchers are scientists, rather than medics. Second, I don’t think anyone has a problem in saying that cancer is an extremely intractable problem. Third, as for “stuck for decades”, again that’s not how I see it, and I spent decades as a cell biology researcher with interests in cancer. I started in the 70s, and the way I would characterize it is to say that back then we were looking for the North West Passage. Then we found that there wasn’t one – in retrospect, ideas about cancer then were very primitive, though there was no way to find that out except by experiment. Since then, we now appreciate we are having to go round Cape Horn, and we have made huge progress all down the east coast of the Americas. Personally, I think/hope we are now struggling with the Cape itself, but perhaps I’m wrong, and there is another continent in the way.

The ”unsustainable ivory towers”? “Unrealistic elitism”? That wasn’t what it looked like to me. I saw some very brilliant men and women struggling with a huge and complex problem, generally for relatively little reward, compared to other things such bright people could have done.

By Allo V Psycho (not verified) on 24 Mar 2016 #permalink