Neil deGrasse Tyson identifies the reasons behind the flat-Earth movement.
Science media guru Neil deGrasse Tyson has identified the two contributing factors to the otherwise incomprehensible persistence in the United States of belief in the idea that the Earth is flat. The first is “we live in a country that protects free speech.” The second is “a failed educational system.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
The doctrine, particular to the United States, that in a democratic society all opinions are created equal and endowed by their creators with certain unalienable rights
DeGrasse Tyson is far more reliable on science than on history. His series Cosmos on the history of science contains some egregious errors about history and, in particular, the story about the mad agitator and promoter of magic, Giordano Bruno, whom he presented as a martyr for science. Even in the domain of science itself, deGrasse Tyson is capable of putting forward trendy, unfounded theories — such as the hypothesis of a multiverse or the idea that we and the known universe are the product of a Matrix-like simulation — as if these speculations were on the same plane as Isaac Newton’s laws of motion or Albert Einstein’s relativity. But let’s be generous and attribute those errors and provocations to deGrasse Tyson’s professional obligation, as a media celebrity, to cultivate his image and keep the audience amused.
DeGrasse Tyson is nevertheless absolutely correct when he indicts both the dogma of free speech (a fundamental meme in US culture) and the failure of education (a deep political issue) to explain the aberration of the flat-Earth movement.
Although he doesn’t go into any detail, he’s right to point out that the concept of free speech in the US poses a problem, not because the principle is wrong but because it has been transformed into an article of faith rather than a political principle. This shouldn’t surprise us, since US culture has always favored both unwavering faith in one’s convictions and binary logic, dividing the world into black and white, right and wrong, good guys and bad guys. It systematically promotes absolute, watertight principles, while rejecting nuance, deemed a sign of either insincerity (“take a stand, for God’s sake”) or lack of assertiveness (“speak your mind”). But absolute, unquestioned principles are the stuff of dogmas and inflexible beliefs, the enemy of free thought. Turning free speech into a dogma has the perverse effect of making critical thinking suspect, reducing reasoned thought to just another opinion competing on equal terms with other wild or outrageous opinions.
The second cause deGrasse Tyson cites — the failed education system — helps us to understand the reasons why the notion of free speech can be so misapplied. The educational system that has been elaborated and refined over the past two centuries privileges the administrative objective of producing measurement (grades) and offering rewards (diplomas), relegating learning and the constructive sharing of culture as a secondary objective at best. It gives priority to the normative formatting of students’ minds and outlooks (standardized learning) and categorizing knowledge (binary logic). It excludes vague objectives such as stimulating the play of intelligence, encouraging creative reflection, developing constructive dialogue and refining critical thinking. Not only is there no efficient way of standardizing the testing of such skills, but there no time for teaching them when the urgent aim for every individual is to find a way of making a living in an uncertain, competitive world.
And this leads us to a third reason to complete the two that deGrasse Tyson cites. It’s the basic rule of the modern economy: competition. Like Avis trying harder to rival Hertz or Pepsi trying to be more celebratory than Coca Cola, flat Earth pseudo-science (or anti-science) has the ambition — not necessarily of dethroning the market leader, science — but of making its way in the world, carving its niche, assuring its own modest but stable market share.
So, here’s the complete and definitive trifecta: free speech (all ideas are worthy of equal respect), a failed education system (critical thinking reserved for an marginal, innocuous elite) and competition, the Darwinian struggle for survival of the fittest, where fitness is redefined as fitting into one’s market niche and defending it against all comers.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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