What Scientific Arrogance Really Looks Like (Synopsis)

“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.” -Mohandas Gandhi

When it comes to figuring out what's going to happen in our material world -- as far as energy, particles, interactions, space and time are concerned -- science is perhaps the only real tool of knowledge we have to guide us in our endeavors.

Image credit: me, using a public domain image of Kelvin. Image credit: me, using a public domain image of Kelvin.

And yet perhaps the most famous scientist of our modern times -- Neil de Grasse Tyson -- has just come out and disparaged the value of an entire field: philosophy. Needless to say, I am not pleased.

Image credit: Rick London, via http://RickLondonDesigns.Com/. Image credit: Rick London, via http://RickLondonDesigns.Com/.

Go read the whole thing and let us hear what you think.

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I would say that, yes, mathematics is applied philosophy... and also that philosophy is applied sociology, making the whole endeavor a nice circle (and I once saw a graph of interdisciplinary citations that supported that theory, but unfortunately I haven't been able to rediscover it.)

No discipline is "on top." And it's sad how some of each discipline's members disparage the ones two steps away.

It seems there is a long tradition of scientists (or scholars in general) arrogantly dismissing fields other than their own. Ernest Rutherford famously said, "All science is either physics or stamp collecting."

By Jim Chapman (not verified) on 15 May 2014 #permalink

Well, NdGT is an entertainer, and we need people like him to rally the crowds and look good on TV. There are famous people every field who's actual talent is self-promotion, which they do while waving the flag of Astrophysics, or Philosophy, or Rock n' Roll. de Grasse Tyson is just easier to see through than some.

Ethan, I disagree that criticism about other fields is "real" scientific arrogance. IMO, the most common form of what I'd call scientific arrogance is when someone thinks their theory is so right they just add more free parameters to fit new data. Another form is when a secret referee rejects a paper that might embarrass themself.

Anyway, IMO physicists as a whole aren't arrogant at all! It is non-scientists who are so arrogant that they don't change their minds, don't consider new data, don't want to know the truth, all because they know "deep inside" that they are right. See, e.g., https://www.facebook.com/jasontaylor7777777/posts/10202193911792785 .

By Jason Taylor (not verified) on 15 May 2014 #permalink

I remember doing this arrogant thing long long ago to my wife when I belittled her commitment to an advanced degree in social work. One of my more shameful moments. It hurt her feelings of course and I realized quite soon how poorly I had behaved. I also remember being terribly sensitive myself to the snide comments of others about my own fields of study. In a few years I went back to school and established my bona fides.

My point here is that most arrogant behavior wherever found rises from human insecurity rather than whatever source in any discipline or field of study. As such we are all at risk to display the behaviors of arrogance under the right sorts of stress unless we have successfully done the work to mitigate the bad effects of that sort of stress.

By Christopher (not verified) on 15 May 2014 #permalink

Neil de Grasse the most famous scientist of our modern times???? ROFL!

And what exactly did he do to achieve this most noble of titles you gave him? What groundbreaking discovery did he make that changed our view of the world? As far as I know.. none...

By Sinisa Lazarek (not verified) on 15 May 2014 #permalink

p.s. In all honesty, if you want to put that title on someone, it should go to Hawking. Not because of his accomplishments, but simply because the whole world knows of a "wheelchair physicist".

In terms of accomplishments, there's a plethora of physicists who have done much more in the field (higgs, guth, penrose, penzias, wilkinson etc etc)

By Sinisa Lazarek (not verified) on 15 May 2014 #permalink

I completely agree that all fields are important and none should be devalued by collapsing them into others, but to say that they are completely separate and have no influence on each other or have nothing to offer seems to be too compartmentalized. There are entire fields based on combinations of these, such as biochemistry where chemistry does help answer biological questions, or biopsychology, even quantum biology. I think that they can all help us in understanding the world, without the idea that there is a hierarchy, but that they all influence each other on some level and that can be valuable.


if you endowed him with most famous astronomer, that could pass. Maybe very flattering, but ok. Saying that his the most famous scientist, put's him above all the people in the world in all scientific fields, from medicine, to biology, industrial scientists, engeniers of the worlds. etc...

That in itself is extremely arrogant statement....

By Sinisa Lazarek (not verified) on 15 May 2014 #permalink

@Sinisa Lazarek

I read the thing three times and nowhere did I see Ethan claim that Neil de Grasse was: "the most famous scientist of modern times".

That isn't a straw man you created, it's an invisible man.


It's right below the picture of Lord Kelvin on this page.

All very good comments. I admit that to my taste, much of philosophy feels like arguing over how many angels can fit on a pin. yet, I still think the endeavor has value. I also know I'm not temperamentally suited for it. So if I had the option of again being a student and was given a list of majors to sign up for, I'd easily dismiss it (as not being right "for me"). But thats quite a different thing from dismissing the value of it.
Besides when you think about, philosophy has given us some useful tools, epistemology, which I would regard as a subfield of it, is a bug deal.

And I completely agree with Latasha, the fields once separate are becoming increasingly intertwined. There was a time when many fields of study were mostly exotic "stamp collecting", (maybe even particle physics!), but as you dig deeper and acquire better tools the value of cross fertilization goes up. People who have migrated from one field to another are often extremely valuable in their new capacity precisely because they have mental tools that weren't traditionally part of their new field.

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 16 May 2014 #permalink

I got my M.Sc in astrophysics, and I must admit I never heard of Neil de Grasse Tyson until I started reading skeptic blogs a few years later. He certainly doesn't qualify as the "most famous scientist of our modern times " in my book.

I listened to the podcast, and I feel the case is not clear cut.

Further on in the podcast deGrasse Tyson emphasizes the importance of having a questoning mind. A questioning mind as in a willingness to reconsider any of your assumptions.
I'd say that is a philosophical mindset.

So what is deGrasse Tyson so dismissive about? What he rejects is ill-conceived questions. As I understand his point he rejects questions that are set up in such a way that effectively you're casting yourself adrift.

Admittedly, in the history of philosophy some thinkers have done just that. They were just going nowhere.

By the looks of it deGrasse Tyson uses a sweeping redefinition of the word 'philosophy': to indulge in meaningless meanderings.

I disagree with that redefinition.

Sure enough, in the history of philosophy (as recounted in 'history of philosophy' books) there are authors who are meaninglessly meandering
But: as we know philosophy of science is a necessary and meaningfull endeavour. I define philosophy of science as: highly critical examination of the process of building up a body of knowledge.

My best guess is that deGrass Tyson does endorse efforts at reflection. For sure he does endorse philosophy of science. But he will probably not call it 'philosophy of science', because of his highly negative definition of the word 'philosophy'.

By Cleon Teunissen (not verified) on 16 May 2014 #permalink

Apart from the philosophy issue I noticed that deGrasse Tyson replaced actual history of science with an imagining of his own.

It's not just that deGrass Tyson's recollection is wrong. His wrong version is a highly embellished version. He sexed it up. A lot.

The actual history:
Newton developed his 'method of fluxions' around the period of his 'annus mirabilis', which was around 1666. Halley's first visit to Newton was in 1684. People like Halley and Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke were aware that an inverse square law of gravity is consistent with Kepler's laws. But they didn't have the mathematical means to prove that.

Having heard of Newton's mathematical capabilities Halley set out to present the problem to Newton. Halley recounts that Newton answered that he had he had worked out the problem many years before, and that indeed an inverse square law of gravity gives rise to ellipse-shaped orbits.

By the time of Halley's visit Newton was entirely absorbed in alchemy and biblical chronology, he had not done physics for years.
Newton mentioned a manuscript he had written years before (De motu corporum in gyrum). Newton promised Halley he would look it up and send it to Halley.

Seeing how far Newton was ahead of anyone else Halley set out to persuade Newton to write a book, presenting his insights in physics. As we know, that book became the Principia

Now the deGrasse Tyson version (which, as said, is very wrong):
Halley visits Newton, asking: why are the orbits of the planets ellipses? Newton promises to investigate, and in the course of a couple of months develops calcules, so that he can tackle the problem.

This form of getting history wrong is a recurring pattern.
Almost invariably, when a scientist recounts some history of science the story gets fantastically distorted. That sort of thing happens unconsciously. The memory changes; the scientists' memory of the story changes towards better alignment with his belief system.

By Cleon Teunissen (not verified) on 16 May 2014 #permalink

It is an interview, and its possible the interviewer led Neal where he wouldn't have gone had he had time to reflect. I think most people are vulnerable on this front, thinking on your feet, whilst a person highly skilled at drawing out controversial statements may not be a common skill.

I would characterize Tyson as the most popular/famous science-popularizer -especially among those who are capable of understanding the science. That has unfortunately been a rare combination.

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 16 May 2014 #permalink

It's good to see that due recognition is given to the expertise in each field. I hope this also means that we turn to the expertise of historians to tell us about the history of science. Nearly all "History" of Science on TV comes from scientists. And can we also listen to those in Science and Technology Studies to tell us about, well, science and technology?

By Peter Broks (not verified) on 16 May 2014 #permalink

"This form of getting history wrong is a recurring pattern."

Amen. That's what I meant about Tyson being an entertainer. It's not even his fault (although it could be) - large media companies increasingly control our views of all kinds of knowledge. Being a famous popularizer doesn't excuse Tyson for going along with popular misconceptions.

Descartes himself opted for the primacy of science over philosophy in an oft quoted letter: ". . . one should not devote so much effort to the Meditations [his philosophical work] and to metaphysical questions or give them elaborate treatments in commentaries and the like. Still less should one do what some try to do, and dig more deeply into these questions than the author did; he has dealt with them quite deeply enough. [This is pretty funny, really.] It is sufficient to have grasped them once in a general way and then to remember the conclusion. Otherwise they draw the mind too far away from physical and observable things and make it unfit to study them. Yet it is just these physical studies that it is most desirable for people to pursue, since they would yield abundant benefits for life."
Of course, this was written almost four hundred years ago at which time it was probably true. Science then was in its infancy with many basic and useful concepts yet to be discovered, and not yet a Power. Today, Science in its dominant arrogance and virtually complete complicity with oligarchy, desperately requires the most trenchant critical analyses of its assumptions and aims.

By Mark Shulgasser (not verified) on 16 May 2014 #permalink

Neil has a gift as a communicator which makes him and important science figure in our society. He has the ability to capture an audience and not put them to sleep , like most scientists. The general public are not fond of scientists and are not interested , at all, in philosophy . At least with the communicators like Drs. Krauss and and Greene they can learn concepts that will have an effect on society and science. I sympathize with philosophers because they actually have a academic role to play in science if they are scientifically literate. They can evaluate the implications and ethics of where science is progressing in many areas. This is extremely important information to other academics but not the general population. This is why many scientists realize that just communicating the facts to the public is a hard enough job without the philosopher muddying the waters. Philosophers can complement the scientist by their insights while scientists report their naturalistic discoveries. In this sense scientific philosophy is important but limited by their audience and relevance in society and that is just the reality of the situation. Dr. Tyson is wrong about philosophical dissertations in science but philosophers have to face the reality that their audience is limited.

By Ian Liberman (not verified) on 17 May 2014 #permalink

Mr. De Grasse fails to see the most important insight about philosophy, which is to think about how we think, which necessarily leads (and led) to think about how we perceive, and how that affects our thinking. This does not make him unusual.

By Stephen Herdina (not verified) on 17 May 2014 #permalink

The notion of biology being applied chemistry is rather absurd and an incorrect way of looking at science. If one must think of a hierarchy in science then think of a target. The bulls-eye would be mathematics because you need nothing but a piece of paper. a sound mind and a pencil to perform math. The next ring around the gulls-eye is physics. You must have mathematics in order to do physics, but little else. The ring outside of physics is chemistry because you need math and physics to do chemistry. There are no other rings outside of chemistry because at this point it all becomes a mish mash. In one directions you have biology, in another you have astronomy, in another you have materials science and so forth.

If you want to talk about arrogance in science then the most prominent case is global warming. Science grows and thrives on arguing differing points of view, but in global warming there is an increasing trend to shout down and censor the skeptics. My personal experience is that the most progress was made when we fought in our lab meeting over seemingly trivial points that appeared inconsistent with the working theory. Silence the opposition and this discussion goes away and you are left with a stifled science.
Worse yet is when one considers the general population. The overwhelming portion of the general population is scientifically illiterate. They know nothing about setting up experiments, developing controls, how to write a paper, or anything of the peer review process. Despite this absence of knowledge they form strong opinions on the subject based solely on what their favorite politician tells them to believe after which they become extraordinarily intolerant to the pint of calling those who disagree with them as "anti-science". They fail to realize their profound level of ignorance nor do they realize that ignorance is not an opinion. What makes it worse, is that global warming is still an infant science with our knowledge still at an early stage and yet our politicians are using it to drive their agenda and to drive more wedges between people. What the government is doing is akin to watching the Daytona 500 and making policy decisions based on who is leading on the 5th lap.

What makes it worse, is that global warming is still an infant science with our knowledge still at an early stage

You realize this and your other comment about global warming simply demonstrate the "scientifically illiterate" behavior you claim to wrail against don't you?

Then you really haven't looked in depth at the actual raw surface temperature measurements, nor the temperatures of the beginning of the 20th century.
The physic's of CO2 is well tested, but the application of this to climate is much more complex that just the physic's.
Let me quote Ethan:
"Especially considering how useless fundamental physics is for answering almost all questions related to chemistry, how useless chemistry is for answering questions about biology, biology about psychology, and psychology about sociology."

(Continued from #4) Moreover, IMO arrogance within fields is at least as bad as the inter-field arrogance Ethan apparently complains about in his post. In other words, a worse problem is group think. (This is he opposite of Ethan's thesis. It is an effect of excessive arrogance and a lack of humility *within* a field.)

To test my hypothesis, and see if Ethan is potentially indeed wrong, one should be able to turn to something quantitative, like perhaps the balance sheets of real companies. Well, lookie here at this video:


Money doesn't lie. I therefore indeed agree with what John Ason says here, which contradicts the overall thesis of Ethan's post. Basically, IMO it is the bold notion that the majority of people in a field might be wrong that allows us to make progress. This notion isn't really arrogance anyway. It is humility that the pundits of their fields could be wrong, that we as a species know less than we think. A corollary to this is that group think is an important detriment to mankind's progress.

We are merely babies.

Jason Taylor

By Jason Taylor (not verified) on 19 May 2014 #permalink

What kind of enterprise guides us when we have to act without full knowledge or understanding; as with raising a child, conducting our everyday lives, or building a society? What can science give us to help us face its ultimate truth; that the universe is deterministic and purposeless?

What kind of enterprise guides us when we have to act without full knowledge or understanding;

The kind of enterprise where one uses all the empirical evidence one can to build the most accurate model of how the world works that one can, and then uses that model to inform decision-making. IOW, science.

Dear Ethan,
I would absolutely NOT like that new generations, new eager and capable young minds, are wasted by learning wrong things.
During 4 years of trying (in each and every regular way, procedural way) to acquaint the scientific community with the content of “The gem” text series (which is the variation of the papers which I sent to scientific journals, adapted for the forum discussion, discussion I hoped for), I have constantly hit the wall of arrogance. And, I can freely say, perfidy.

This spring, I have announced my 1-week-lectures with a few fliers in front of a few high schools and faculties, and a few pupils and students came to my lectures.

Perhaps, you could read the following comment of one of my students, on one article on Science2.0:

The comments are at the end part of the page, and here are the links to comments




I know all the answers and “recommendations” which a “mainstream” physicists can give. (During the last four years, I have collected a huge pile of that).
And all what is necessary for them to do, is to read carefully and thoughtfully i.e. “The gem” text series, and to be honest.

Please, read it, and honestly comment it.

Well, ignoring someone is an explicit act of arrogance.
I could, perhaps, justify that someone is arrogant toward someone else who acted arrogantly first.
Do you find ME arrogant? If so, please tell me why ?
I have just called you to read and comment what I wrote, and what I wrote is pure science. If you think otherwise, please say so.
I wanted to discuss that, in a polite manner, decent manner, using scientific facts and rational reasoning.
Do you find that as offending? Do you find that as arrogance? If you do, then please explain why?
Do you assume that “I dare to talk about something that I do not know”? Please do not assume anything. What I wrote is clear and bright. It is sufficient that you read it, and that you think clearly. And to discuss it. To tell me what do you think about all that. Please.

If someone is acting arrogant it's you. You've been spamming this post promoting your theory and blog (which is clearly in odds with comments policy) and now you're pissed that no one here cares about your pet theory or your scientific brilliance...

And you have the nerve to call the blog owner arrogant?! Get a life man.

By Sinisa Lazarek (not verified) on 07 Jul 2014 #permalink

Hi Sinisa,
Well, the subject of this Ethan’s post is scientific arrogance.
Very good subject. Very important.
Arrogance is, mildly speaking, not good. It’s source is vanity. What do you think, what is the way to avoid it, to suppress it, to overcome it? Ethan offered some answers here. But he is the first who does not follow that. “There's a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.” -Morpheus (Matrix)
Science 2.0 is not “my blog”. Please see http://www.realclearscience.com/lists/10_best_science_writers_of_2014/
(and, by the way, the first two comments there).
Did you read “my pet theory”, and then you scientifically concluded that you should disdain it?
I am sure that you did not. Please, read it, and comment it, but concretely, scientifically. That kind of comments are welcome. Show me your “scientific brilliance” . For example, in a way “this equation/concept/reasoning is wrong because of that and that”, where “that and that” is some concrete scientific argument.
Thank you in advance.


please take a look here http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/comments-policy/

" - Spam, including trying to promote your business or direct web traffic from the comments of this blog"

Do not promote your theories or blog here in comments. The rest of us respect it, so should you. Do what you want on your page @ science 2.0, but this here is not your page.

By Sinisa Lazarek (not verified) on 07 Jul 2014 #permalink

I do not spam. I do not promote business, nor web traffic.
I try to share valuable and important information.
And I ask for conversation. I appreciate opinions of others. Scientifically proper opinions.

“If there’s one thing that every person in this world should be both terrified of and delighted by, it’s the notion that — at any moment — new information could come to light that simply devastates the notions and preconceptions that you hold most dear.”
I wrote scientific texts. And I would appreciate the scientific refute. Please, try to refute what I wrote. And what I wrote is exactly that what you should be both terrified and delighted. So far, it seems that you are too terrified to move forward, to be delighted.

“However difficult such a situation might be for the person forced to confront the ways they made sense of the world — and at some level, their value in it — the human enterprise advances because of our ability to do exactly that. Our ability to uncover new knowledge, assimilate it, and build a better world for ourselves with it is what enables us to advance as a species and as a society.”
So, come on, do that.

“In all cases, new evidence can compel us to reevaluate even our most cherished, taken-for-granted and deeply ingrained assumptions about this Universe, at a scientific, historical, and even a personal level. But of all the different types of knowledge we have, scientific knowledge perhaps deserves to be the most valued of all.”
I cannot agree more.

“There’s a fundamental difference between scientific knowledge — knowledge that was obtained through experiment and observation of real, verifiable and reproducible phenomena — and what I’ll just call unverified or unverifiable claims. The former is the best source of knowledge that we have; the latter is ignorance falsely posing as knowledge, perhaps the greatest enemy of knowledge humanity has ever known.”
No, Ethan. The latter are the enemy of knowledge, but not the greatest. As Einstein adequately explained, this is the greatest enemy of knowledge:
“Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”

“Concepts that have proven useful in ordering things, easily achieve such authority over us that we forget their earthly origins and accept them as unalterable givens. Thus they might come to be stamped as "necessities of thought," "a priori givens," etc. The path of scientific progress is often made impassable for a long time by such errors.”

The first mistake is done by “unthinking admirers” (who are actually incapable to think on their own, to use their own brain properly in the domain of science – they are just believers. Science does not need believers). Believers are usually the first who attack new ideas, who hide behind the authority of their admired scientist.
The second mistake is done by both “unthinking admirers” (believers) and scientists. Usually those with extreme vanity. And they are usually very arrogant.

I have to scold you, for your own good.

Just look at this comment of yours (#6):
"Neil de Grasse the most famous scientist of our modern times???? ROFL!"

How old are you? 15? 16?
I mean, your attitude, language/"style" - like a spoiled brat, like a punk.

You think you know better than Ethan who's the most famous scientist?
Hawking is definitely most famous, but among teenagers.
He writes "scientific", nicely illustrated, fairy tales for that age. And for people who are older, but whose mental level is the teenage level.

And you continue with comments, completely off topic.
The topic is not "Who's the most famous scientist today", but something very important:
"What scientific arrogance really looks like?".
And, it would be even better that it is:
"Why scientists allow themselves to be arrogant - arrogance is very primitive type of behavior".
Scientists should be the models of virtue, manners, behavior, morality, ethics, wisdom. Not just apparently, formally, but essentially, truly.
To be an arrogant scientist is incomparably worse then being a spoiled brat, or a punk.

And just look how persistent you are - like a spoiled brat, which wants to draw attention, offended by being ignored.

And after your blatant mock (ROFL! - just look at that, what is this, some punk jargon?) of Ethan's choice of the most famous scientist, you tell me:
"And you have the nerve to call the blog owner arrogant?! Get a life man." !!!
I have explained clearly why he is arrogant. And I hope he will realize that I am right, and that he will correct himself.
“Get a life man.” ?!? Punk.

And then you call me to follow some blog-rules, which "you respect".
You do not have a clue about the meaning of respect.

Your comments are the model of the so called trolling. The immature one. The rude one.

Think about all this, and try to improve your behavior and attitude.
If you manage to restrain yourself from comment on this, then there is hope for you.

@ Jason Taylor, #26
"A corollary to this is that group think is an important detriment to mankind’s progress."
Only if it is the wrong think. If majority knows the truth, and if majority is composed of well-bred, properly educated and human people, then the progress and welfare is inevitable. The best kind of welfare and progress.
The main problem of our species is vanity. Vanity-driven intelligence.
We will become homo sapiens then when – instead of vanity – the goodness (love) drives our intelligence and suppresses/controls our vanity.

How do people – those who are the most educated and most qualified to judge and evaluate the problem-solutions – behave when they are confronted with the proper and simple solution of a problem which – until the solution – was considered/declared as „very hard to solve“, or even as „unsolvable“?
First, they say something like
1. This is worthless nonsense,
As the time goes by, and the solution becomes available to more and more people, they say something like this
2. This is an interesting, but perverse, point of view,
Then comes the stage/phase
3. This is true, but quite unimportant,
And finally
4. I always said so.

These are all manifestations of vanity driven intelligence. Arrogance, disdain, perfidy. That is what scientists do. Yes, the scientists, the most respected people of human society, and not some punks, some street wheeler-dealers. And, the greater the importance of the new truth, so greater the perfidy. Of scientists.

Hey, macho-physicists, what happened, has the cat got your tongues? :-)

Siniša, did you read The gem texts? I asked Ethan to do that, but he pretends he is deaf and blind. He is the grand master of mathematical mysticism, he knows nothing about true physics.
He has a nice bunch of inferior puppets who follow his blogs with open mouths, swallowing his "magic" "explanations" of magical "yet to be discovered" things which mathematical mysticism predicts. He is "the master (of disaster)" here!

What happened Ethan?
Did you really mean what you wrote - quotation:
"If there’s one thing that every person in this world should be both terrified of and delighted by, it’s the notion that — at any moment — new information could come to light that simply devastates the notions and preconceptions that you hold most dear.
However difficult such a situation might be for the person forced to confront the ways they made sense of the world — and at some level, their value in it — the human enterprise advances because of our ability to do exactly that. Our ability to uncover new knowledge, assimilate it, and build a better world for ourselves with it is what enables us to advance as a species and as a society."

How inspiring and noble words to criticize someone else! Where are you now, when you are the one who should behave according these noble words?
Oh, Ethan, are you a hypocrite?

Of course he IS a hypocrite, Vera. But never mind him. The validity of The gem texts is confirmed as scientifically irrefutable and taken into serious consideration by ... read my private mail to you!

um...I think that's a picture of Baruch Spinoza with the quote from Rene Descartes...

By Sonja Roberts (not verified) on 08 Apr 2015 #permalink