Recently I posted the following image on my Facebook feed:
In response, a fellow I’ll call Hugh wrote,
What’s the source? In the recent Asimov Memorial debate there was a moment somewhat reminiscent of this alleged quote, but it was Tyson acting as a moderating and asking a question for clarification.
Tyson: “So that’s evidence that empty space is not nothing?”
Krauss: “No, there’s evidence that empty space is energy, not that it’s nothing.”
Not quite the same. I think that meme is a distorted cheap shot that doesn’t help the cause of reasonable religion.
I replied, “Even if it’s true, you don’t see the irony in Tyson being the target of a cheap shot?”
Hugh replied: “I think Tyson is great. I also can’t stand the trend of pooh-poohing science in contemporary Christian apologetics.”
You just observed the crucial mistake that motivates me writing this post, but first I’ll finish the narrative.
Since I was willing to grant the meme might have played fast and loose with the facts for comedic effect, I quickly researched the words and found a carm.org post that cites Tyson saying exactly what the image has him saying.
Nothing is not nothing. Nothing is something. That’s how a cosmos can be spawned from the void — a profound idea conveyed in A Universe From Nothing that unsettles some yet enlightens others. Meanwhile, it’s just another day on the job for physicist Lawrence Krauss.
Not being content, however, to trust a mere Christian apologetics site with so grave a matter as the threat this meme posed to Science Itself ™, I dug deeper and found a ‘neutral’ citation of Tyson saying those exact words at the Barnes & Noble page for Krauss’s book.
So I wrote to Hugh, thus:
It’s hardly a (new) ‘trend’ for Catholic thought to jeer at and dethrone cultural idols. I like Tyson, too, but the meme is funny, and hardly pooh-poohing science, unless by science you mean your favorite popular author or mogul. Which is basically what the average person means by “science”.
Indeed, recall Hugh’s key protest: “I think Tyson is great. I also can’t stand the trend of pooh-poohing science in contemporary Christian apologetics.”
His argument appears to be the following:
1. I admire a certain scientist.
2. Some Christians don’t.
3. Therefore, contemporary Christian apologetics mocks and undermines science.
The error is a common one. By identifying one’s respect for science with its most charming or eloquent practitioners, one is compelled to treat any criticism of the latter with criticism of the former. Indeed, Hugh wrote the following at the thread for the image itself, and linked once more to the 2013 Asimov Memorial Debate:
It seems to me that instead of trying to understand the discourse that Krauss and others are engaged in, many apologists are content with obtuseness, perhaps actually thinking that they’re being clever and scoring points. It’s embarrassing.
I provided evidence that Tyson said those exact words. Who’s being obtuse? Re-defining terms to make an argument easier for oneself appears to be exactly what Krauss and Tyson are doing. It’s not like the notion of “nothing” has changed since they got their doctorates. Pointing out how poor many scientists are as philosophers is not undermining science. Quite the opposite.
I want to close by noting that I believe Hugh is a Christian as well as a scientist, so I understand how he might be emotionally invested in this issue. Nonetheless, in this case he is embodying a pervasive and very damaging error in our culture, namely, the idea that being critical of particular scientists is both an intellectual and perhaps even a moral sin.