lundi 10 juillet 2017

Neil deGrasse Tyson -- a liability

Tyson is a B.S. artist. Not as influential as Trump but a B.S. artist regardless. Both Trump and Tyson rose to prominence on the wave of an ignorant populace that values entertainment over rigor and accuracy.

Fareed Zakaria talks about Trump as a B.S. artist. Zakaria quotes Harry Frankfort: “Focus is panoramic rather than particular... with more spacious opportunities for improvisation, color and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar notion of the ”Bull **** artist”. Later in the clip Fareed further quotes Frankfort: “Liars and truth tellers are acutely aware of facts and truth. The B.S. artist, however, has lost all connection with reality. By virture of this, bull **** is a greater enemy of truth than lies are.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson will study a topic with half his attention and then build a story around it. Which is usally entertaining but often wrong. I don’t believe it’s his intention to convey misinformatiom. It comes from combining his flamboyance with sloppy scholarship. And his fantasies are often colored by his preconceptions and prejudices.

What is telling is the acceptance of Tyson’s bull. Most of Tyso’s fans are self proclaimed skeptics. But if his misinformation seems to support their prejudices, they will swallow it without scrutiny. In their own way these self proclaimed skeptics are as credulous as Trump’s birthers.

Paying lip service to skepticism is not sufficient. A true skeptic must question all assumptions whether or not they find the message pleasing.


The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) used to hold an annual conference stylized as The Amazing Meeting or TAM for short. At TAM6 Tyson gave a presentation. I’ll look at different segments of this presentation.

Terminal Cancer

16 minutes 36 seconds into his presentation Tyson talks about terminal cancer. He argues surviving terminal cancer doesn’t demonstrate divine intervention. Which is fine.

But then he launches into a rant against idiot doctors, the American Medical Association and pre-med students.

The problem with this rant is Tyson’s ignorance on how a prognosis is delivered. A doctor doesn’t tell a patient “You got six months.” Rather a patient is given statistics. Does someone living longer than expected mean the three doctors were idiots? No. It demonstrates there are statistical outliers on a bell curve.

It is ... astonishing. Astonishing Tyson and the Physics 101 prof aren’t familiar with freshmen level statistics and probability. It is also astonishing that they think someone who flunked physics 101 would make it to med school. There are idiot physicists, I assure you.

Dr. Novella called Tyson out on this (scroll to Those Darn Physicists). Tyson’s response to Dr. Novella? Tyson writes:


2) About my “idiot” doctors comment. The word is harsher than I had indended. i should have said “incompetent” instead.
and Tyson goes on to say:


A further, more important point that I did not explicitly make, is that if the survival distribution for a diagnosis says something like what Dr. Novella gives above: e.g. 50% survive 6 months. 10 % survive 10 years, the medical profession is more likely to declare these data as “the” survival profile of the disease rather than as the consequence of deep ignorance to what is actually going on with a disease from one person to the next. Because if you actually understood the causes and effects of a disease as it interacts with different people, you would then be able to tell each person with precision when he or she will die. But you are not there yet. Provide the data (as you do) but then admit the ignorance rather than sweep it into the probability distribution of survival.
In just the same way weather forecasters say, “50% chance of rain tomorrow,” This of course means they have no clue at all whether it will rain, because if they did, the chance of rain would approach 0% or 100% and not sit anywhere in between.
Well, astrophysicists also resort to giving probabilities when data is incomplete. For example, the probability of asteroid impacts. Tyson likes to talk about the potential destruction of the asteroid Apophis. We can look at the history of Apophis impact estimates. In 2004 chances were in 1 in 233. In 2013 the possibility of a 2036 impact were ruled out. By Tyson’s lights the folks who came up with the 2004 estimate were incompetent idiots.

About Tyson’s TAM6 presentation Dr. Novella writes:


Most recently at TAM6, Neil deGrasse Tyson gave an excellent skeptical lecture.
Except for the the part Dr. Novella didn’t like. Dr. Novella evidently wasn’t paying close attention to the rest of the lecture.

Two Thousand Milligrams of Cocaine

A little further into his TAM6 lecture Tyson talks about his jury duty. He takes a judge to task for calling a quantity of cocaine two thousand milligrams. Tyson, not being aware a normal cocaine dose is 150 milligrams, seems to think two grams of coke is a trivial amount.

LSD doses are measured in micrograms. A gram is a million micrograms. Does Tyson think a gram of LSD is a small dosage?

Maybe that is how Tyson managed to conflate 9-11 with the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

George Bush and Star Names

Fifty minutes into the TAM6 lecture Tyson gives an account of President Bush’s response to the 9-11.

9-11 was a very emotional time. There was a lot of anger directed at Arabs in general. Tyson has Bush responding with a speech “attempting to distinguish we from they.” Sowing division during that time of turmoil would have been reprehensible.

But Bush’s actual speech was a call for inclusion and tolerance. Bush was exactly the opposite of the xenophobic demagogue from Tyson’s fantasy world.

Moreover, Bush and his administration have repeatedly condemned anti-Muslim rhetoric. Colin Powell helped Corporal Kareem Kahn’s sacrifice to wide attention. Tyson’s shallow stereotype might fit some Republicans. But not all.

It turns out Tyson conflated Bush's 9-11 speech with his eulogy for the Space Shuttle Columbia astronauts. Bush did quote scripture in that eulogy. But he wasn't attempting to distinguish Christians from Muslims.

The Bush and Star Names fiction was part of Tyson’s routine starting in 2006, perhaps earlier. He stopped telling this story in September of 2014 after Sean Davis ran his exposé. How on earth did the self proclaimed skeptics swallow this story for eight years without question? It is because it is an unflattering portrait of a Christian president. Just like Trump’s birthers, they are happy to accept falsehoods if it supports their prejudices.

With some arm twisting Tyson admitted the story was wrong. Not only wrong time but wrong context and wrong intent. There was no Arab baiting in Bush’s eulogy for the Space Shuttle Columbia astronauts.

Hamid al Ghazali Single Handedly Ended the Islamic Golden Age

About 55 minutes into his TAM6 lecture, Tyson Blames Hamid al Ghazali for ending the Islamic Golden Age. According to Tyson, Ghazali’s writings contain the statement that manipulating numbers is the work of the devil. Which is odd since Ghazali praised the disciplines of math and science saying they are necessary for a prosperous society.

When challenged, Tyson back pedals and changes the goal posts:


As for Al Ghazali, a more accurate representation of his views is that the manipulation of numbers was an earthly rather than a divine pursuit. And it was divine thoughts and conduct that were widely promoted -- to the exclusion of earthly conduct. Earthly conduct became associated with being anti-God, which I characterized as the devil. In later speeches (over the past year or so) I leave it as the simple split between earthly and divine pursuits, realizing that I was misleading some people by mentioning the devil at all.
I think we can safely say there is no Ghazali text containing the assertion that math is the work of the devil. Except maybe in the same fantasy world where Bush was bashing Arabs in the wake of 9-11.

Did Islamic innovation in math and science come to a dead stop with Hamid al Ghazali (1058-1111)? Absolutely not. There were Islamic mathematicians and scholars up until the 1600s. The father of symbolic algegra, Abul al-Husan, lived from 1412 to 1482. The “Golden Age” ended more when the mideast ceased to be a trading hub where diverse cultures would meet and trade ideas.

Tyson will point to the 1.3 billion Muslims presently alive and ask why aren’t they getting as many Nobel prizes as the 15 million Jewish people? It’s Ghazali’s fault! Well, the people of India also number about 1.3 billion. How many people living in India have earned a Nobel prize in science? One - C. V. Raman in Physics. Citizens of China is another group of about 1.3 billion. How many Chinese have earned Nobel prizes in science? Three. About a dozen if you include Chinese people not living in China. And both India and China have also enjoyed periods of creativity in math and science. In fact it was the Indians who invented the so called Arabic decimal system, not the Arabs as Tyson falsely claims.

So Tyson’s numbers don’t demonstrate exceptionally bad performance on the part of Muslims. Rather they demonstrate the spectacular success of people coming from Judeo Christian backgrounds. Jewish Nobel prize winners. And Christian Nobel prize winners.

Rising Religiosity is Destroying American Scientific Curiosity

About 57 minutes minutes into his TAM6 talk [url=]Tyson shows an anti Big Bang Theory bill board as an example of Christian stupidity. He seems unaware that it was a Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître, who formulated the Big Bang theory.

Tyson often nostalgically looks back to the Apollo era. But more people were going to church when we were putting men on the moon. It is hard to make rising religiosity the scapegoat for our declining competence. Religiosity has also been on the decline.

Newton Invented Calculus On A Dare

About an hour into his TAM6 lecture, Tyson portrays Newton as a super human saying Newton invented calculus on a dare.

Well, no.

Two thousand years before Newton Eudoxus was slicing stuff into small bits to get more accurate approximations of volume and area. His methods were well known when Descartes invented analytic geometry (also known as graph paper with an x and y axis). With Descartes’ invention y=x^2 became a parabola. x^2 + y^2 = 1 became a circle with radius one. Descartes’ way of looking at things enabled us to scrutinize conic sections and other curves with symbolic algebra.

After Descartes invented analytic geometry, it was only a matter of time before someone used Eudoxus like methods to get good approximations of the slope of a curve or the area under a curve. Which was done by Fermat among others. Fermat was the father of calculus. After Fermat the discoveries of Newton were inevitable as evidenced that Leibniz made them at the same time.

Rick Stryker paints a more accurate picture -- The development of calculus was the collaborative effort of many.

After thinking he had established Newton’s super powers Tyson flatly asserts Newton could have knocked out perturbation theory in an afternoon. “You know this!” Tyson shouts to his enthusiastic audience. Well, no. I don’t. And neither does Tyson or his credulous audience.

Euler took a crack at perturbation theory and n-body mechanics. As did Lagrange. Both these men were giants in their own right but did not make satisfactory models. 100 years after Newton, Laplace built on the work of Euler, Lagrange and Newton. To say Newton could have done it in an afternoon is disrespecting Laplace, Euler and Lagrange. It is also profoundly ignorant.

In Tyson’s alternate history Newton would have easily done Laplace’s n-body work had he not been stopped by his belief in the “God of The Gaps”. Tyson states this as a flat out fact. But an alternate history is not a testable hypothesis. We can’t rewind history and see what happens with different parameters.

I’ll offer my alternate history. An agnostic Newton would have been a normal young man who spent his spare time in taverns chasing women. No splitting of light, no laws of motion, and no contributions to calculus. His accomplishments would have been zip, zero, nada. Like Tyson’s alternate history this is nothing more than idle speculation. But you won’t see me shouting the absolute certainty of this fantasy to a roomful of so called skeptics.

In Summary

On the stage of TAM6 Tyson pushed out one steaming pile after another. And his fans ate it up.

Tyson demonstrates the self proclaimed skeptics are actually credulous. The JREF folks should be deeply embarrassed.

I expect Tyson to be increasingly used as an instrument to discredit the skeptic community much like Anthony Weiner was used to discredit Democrats. He is a serious liability.

via International Skeptics Forum

Aucun commentaire:

Enregistrer un commentaire