Why Conservatives Despise Neil deGrasse Tyson: 5 Times the Scientist Provoked Right-Wing Hissy Fits
While most of the country was spending the Christmas holiday relaxing with friends and family, many conservatives were working themselves into an angry frenzy over a perceived offense over a silly culture war issue. The target was scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who took to Twitter on Christmas Day to write, “On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642.”
Right-wing Christians, already primed to be hostile to anyone who values evidence and facts over myths about the supernatural, claimed that Tyson was deliberately provoking them. (Why they allowed themselves to be provoked, if this is what they believe, remains a mystery.) Odds are it was just Tyson being Tyson, grabbing any opportunity he can to educate people about science and push people to ask questions and learn more about the world. The ugly reaction from right-wing Christians only served to make them look close-minded and afraid of learning new things, which Tyson later pointed out on Twitter, writing, “Imagine a world in which we are all enlightened by objective truths rather than offended by them.”
It’s advice that would save Christian conservatives a lot of embarrassment, but it’s not likely advice they’re going to take any time soon, particularly when it comes to Neil deGrasse Tyson. On the contrary, the man has become a punching bag for the right, where they can work out all their hostility to science and reason, while all pretending to be victims of some great Tyson-led anti-religion conspiracy. Here’s some of the greatest hits from the anti-Tyson crusade.
1) Gavin McInnes goes full supremacist. Gavin McInnes, the co-founder of Vice, has always been a wretched human being, but since he left the publication in 2008, he’s only become even more of a hateful right-wing nut. Over the summer, he went on Fox News to issue a racist diatribe about Tyson that was extreme even by their Bill O’Reilly-set standards. After bizarrely denying that Tyson is an astrophysicist---which is, like Isaac Newton’s birthday, an objective fact---he whined, “White liberal nerds love this guy so much, he could defecate on them,” and then argued that Tyson had it coming when cops harassed him in his youth because Tyson wore “a huge afro and a cutoff shirt.”
2) Charles C.W. Cooke unleashes the green-eyed monster. In a July piece for the National Review titled “Smarter Than Thou” that was little more that pretentiously worded jealous sniping, Cooke, like McInnes, denied that Tyson---and other liberal pundits and journalists who have reputations as public intellectuals---is an authentic geek. His reasoning for this was that Tyson and folks like Richard Dawkins and Rachel Maddow “are attractive, accomplished, well paid, and loved.” Apparently, to be considered a true intellectual on the right, it doesn’t matter how many degrees you hold or scientific discoveries you make. No, the only thing that matters is if you shower so infrequently that no one will have sex with you.
3) Rich Lowry thinks that the fact that Tyson is not infallible means he is thoroughly discredited. Tyson, being a human being, makes mistakes. To scientists and other reality-based people, this isn’t a big deal. All people sometimes make mistakes, but that doesn’t mean that they have nothing important to say or contribute. (Which is why science is able to build on the theories of Charles Darwin or Isaac Newton even after some aspects of their original theories are proved wrong.) Tyson was caught misquoting George W. Bush a few times, which he admitted. But Rich Lowry, writing for Politico, pounced, writing, “The problem is the belief of his fans—encouraged by him—that science has all the answers; that anyone who believes in physics must adhere to a progressive secularism; that anyone not on board is—to borrow from the accusations of Tyson’s defenders—guilty of anti-intellectualism, climate ‘denial’ and racism.”
The problem is that his critics are, in fact, anti-intellectuals who zero in on Tyson because of racism, hostility to empiricism, and unwillingness to accept realities like evolution and climate change. That’s why the pissing-in-the-pants excitement because he got some quote wrong, because it could be used, in exactly this cynical way, to cast doubt about objective realities. Because they don’t want to accept objective realities. Otherwise, they wouldn’t give a hoot about Tyson one way or another.
4) How dare Cosmos tell the truth about evolution! It was no big surprise that, while Tyson is an astrophysicist, his reboot of Carl Sagan’s legendary science show Cosmos would focus heavily on explaining evolutionary theory. After all, evolutionary theory is both an elegant theory for explaining in a televised format and it just so happens to be the one which is most confused in the public imagination by conservatives that are always trying to attack and confuse the issue. Creationists were out in force when Cosmos did its evolution episode, trotting out the same hackneyed arguments that any biologist can debunk, knowing full well that their followers have no intention of actually checking to see if biologists have debunked these talking points. It was a manuever steeped in cynicism, using a display of faux erudition in order to discourage real scientific inquiry, the exact sort of thing that Cosmos was attempting to counter with its appealing stories and cool-looking graphics.
5) And look, more Christmas faux outrage. One reason conservative Christians were primed to drum up outrage about Tyson’s Christmas tweet is that they already believed that he is insufficiently wowed by their magical beliefs about the holiday. This is because, in one episode of Cosmos, Tyson mentioned, almost in passing, that the holiday we now know as Christmas was known to pagans as Saturnalia. And that the timing of Christmas isn’t based on Jesus’s actual birthday, which is something that isn’t really known to anyone, but because the Christian church knew that a good way to win over converts was to allow them to keep their holidays. (In the same spirit, modern atheists argue that Christmas can be a perfectly secular holiday that you can enjoy without believing in Jesus.) Even though the timing of his birthday says nothing about the existence---much less the divinity---of Christ one way or another, many conservative Christians got miffed, suggesting that Tyson somehow owed it to them to politely decline to mention this reality that hurts their feelings. It was just a precursor to the temper tantrum that resulted when he mentioned that Newton was known, for a fact, to be born on December 25, but the whole debacle suggested that there really are a lot of conservative Christians who think that Tyson---and by extension, everyone else---owes them pretty lies to make them feel special.
Of course, Tyson isn’t wholly innocent in all this. He enjoys teasing conservatives about their reflexive hostility to science, correctly understanding that their anti-science sentiment does get in the way of scientific discovery and education. His little trolling moments are about exposing how anti-science conservatives are a pack of fools, unable to explain exactly why they believe they are entitled to hear flattering lies instead of objective truths that hurt their feelings. So yeah, he’s trolling. But his targets deserve to be trolled, and we’re all better off because he’s forcing this discussion.