This post is a bit overdue but I’ve finished my thesis and have discovered some free time today so I’d like to catch up on some things I’ve been thinking about. First up is this overdue criticism of Morgan Freeman’s appearance on the Daily Show. I’ve embedded it below. You watch this segment and I’ll go over to the other side of the room and break things. Then we’ll meet up and chat about it.
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Before I go on, I’d like to juxtapose Morgan Freeman’s brand of science advocacy with that of astrophysicist and science ambassador Neil deGrasse Tyson, who’s been on The Daily Show many times by the way. I highly recommend you watch those appearances if you want to know how to be a steward of the scientific endeavor. Okay, let’s compare Tyson’s description of dark matter with Freeman’s god factor.
Now riddle me this: which approach to science publicity makes science more accessible? Which approach promotes critical thinking? Which approach properly relates the passion of scientific inquiry to the public?
The first thing we should notice from the comparison between Tyson and Freeman is that scientists are not nearly as baffled by dark matter as Morgan Freeman is.
“One should make a fine distinction between the known laws of physics and the laws of physics known to you.”
Hannes Alfven, Nobel Laureate, in response to someone’s claim that Alfven’s theory violated the known laws of physics.
But never mind that. Let’s assume that Freeman’s befuddlement over dark matter is representative of the scientific community’s understaning. A typical creationist criticism of science is that scientists are arrogant in claiming to know the certain truths about the universe. I’ll quote Sam Harris’ response to this myth because I think it’s germane to our discussion:
When scientists don’t know something — like why the universe came into being or how the first self-replicating molecules formed — they admit it. Pretending to know things one doesn’t know is a profound liability in science. And yet it is the life-blood of faith-based religion. One of the monumental ironies of religious discourse can be found in the frequency with which people of faith praise themselves for their humility, while claiming to know facts about cosmology, chemistry and biology that no scientist knows. When considering questions about the nature of the cosmos and our place within it, atheists tend to draw their opinions from science. This isn’t arrogance; it is intellectual honesty.
Freeman’s invocation of the god factor is a trademark of religion’s aversion to the lack of answers. In talking about dark matter, he could just as well have said “we don’t know,” or more accurately, “there are many theories about this but there’s no scientific consensus yet.” The practical meaning would have been exactly the same as using “the god factor.” But it wouldn’t have carried any of the epistemic baggage of religious supplication. Instead, we get a treatment of dark matter that fails to explain the true gaps in our scientific understanding. Moreover it portrays scientists as clueless and scientific truth itself as inherently inferior to religious truth.
Let’s compare this to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s answer. As Tyson said in one of his own Daily Show appearances, “[not knowing] is not the trouble. [It’s] the seduction.” In the video above, Tyson freely admits to our ignorance of the sources of dark matter. But he does so in a way that relates the competing theories and engages the audience in scientific matters. To steal a phrase from Feynman, Tyson’s approach conveys “the pleasure of finding things out,” while Freeman’s approach suggests that the lack of complete understanding implies the futility of rational inquiry.
I understand that Morgan Freeman has a right to his own opinions about the philosophy of science, but if he wants us to believe that he’s more than just the voice talent for a science show, then he ought to act like it. The “god factor” doesn’t help science by occupying the real estate of scientific ignorance. Science is perfectly capable of allocating that space on it’s own. What the god factor does do is inveigh science by equating ignorance with incompetence and insignificance. As Phil Plait says of astrology, “it takes away from the real grandeur of the universe. [it] dims the beauty of nature, cheapens it.”
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Editorial note: The good folks over at Physics Buzz responded to this very soon after Freeman’s appearance on the Daily Show. I read their post after drafting mine, but before reviewing, editing, and posting it. I’ve tried to capture my initial reactions but it would be inauthentic of me if I failed to mention and reference their post.