If we must have celebrities, can they at least have some principles?


I don’t expect much of a Kardashian, at least they’re just in the business of marketing themselves for money. I didn’t even expect much of Ellen Degeneres — she’s always just been a happy clappy talk show host, so I’m not surprised when she admits to her friendliness with corrupt mass-murderer George W. Bush. I never watched her show anyway, and I will just continue to do the same. But jesus fuck, Neil deGrasse Tyson, I expected more of you than that you’d laughingly share a microphone with climate-change-denying, gay- and trans-hating, apologist-for-racists Ben Shapiro.

On Sunday, Neil deGrasse Tyson will appear on an episode of The Ben Shapiro Show. According to a promo clip, they’ll be “talking about everything from physics to climate change to abortion to transgenderism,” Shapiro, the conservative firebrand who is known for antagonizing liberals, says. “We’ll get in all sorts of trouble.” Tyson sits in a chair across from him, nodding and bursting into a laugh at the end.

The chumminess between the two men seems to have already bothered some of Tyson’s co-workers. “In my experience, museum-affiliated scientists are required to vet all media appearances through our communications department,” tweeted Jacklyn Grace Lacey, an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History, where Tyson heads the Hayden Planetarium. Just Friday, Shapiro covered the Democratic LGBTQ town hall on his show, implied homosexuality is a “social viewpoint,” and said the town hall was “discrimination against religious people.” Given those, and other views, Lacey had “SEVERAL questions.”

Tyson has a new book out, and this appearance is part of his book tour — his publicist probably sees this as a grand opportunity to connect with Shapiro’s hundred thousand listeners. Does anyone believe that Tyson will strongly and fiercely confront Shapiro’s idiotic beliefs? He doesn’t do confrontation, he tries to educate and persuade. OK then, does anyone believe Tyson will convince any of Shapiro’s fan base, even plant a tiny seed of doubt in their heads? I don’t, not for a minute. Instead, I expect an hour of chummy bonhomie (buy my book), followed by a pretense that they’re good friends (buy my book) parting on good terms (buy my book) with reassurances that while they may have some differences of opinion (buy my book), they still recognize each other’s humanity (buy my book). It’ll be just as convincing as Ellen’s blithe relationship with her good friend George.

Furthermore, Tyson is touring accompanied by his own shadow, the harassment (and worse) accusations against him, which have been quietly buried. Shapiro knows that if the conversation really gets “in all sorts of trouble,” he has a knife he can pull on Tyson.

But this media tour is about more than just getting his face in front of more people. Tyson has a more delicate task this time around, as it’s his first book after being accused of sexual misconduct. Last year, Tyson issued a rebuttal … in which he basically admitted to crossing several boundaries—like inviting his assistant to his apartment for a late-night hangout—while also claiming not to have done anything wrong. He was allowed to keep his job following closed-door investigations by his employers, the actual findings of which weren’t shared with the public, a frustrating move given the public-ness of the accusations themselves (from multiple women, including the former assistant, who claims he made lewd comments to her, and a former classmate, who claims he raped her). But after a year of staying (relatively) quiet, at least in terms of major interviews, this week of book press is serving the dual purpose as a mini redemption tour. Whenever Tyson is asked about the accusations, it’s always along with the fact that the institutions cleared him, which means the question mostly comes in the form of inquiry about what the past year has been like for him, rather than on what he allegedly did or whether he’s sorry. The answers he’s been giving fit with his original response to the allegations—that he’s just a bumbling dude who wants to help people learn.

He won’t actually confront Shapiro on his bigotry and ignorance, because if he does, Shapiro will neatly sidetrack the discussion into a tirade against feminism and how #MeToo has gone too far and gosh, doesn’t Neil have his own story of vicious feeemales trying to destroy him?

If Neil deGrasse Tyson were to go on a book tour focusing on science and education, which he’s good at, more power to him. He is not going to accomplish that, though, by going on the show of a professional troll and science denialist with a horde of bigots who love their anti-SJW delusions. He’s either going to stir up the hatred of that 100,000 creeps, which will do nothing for his book sales, or he’s going to be a marshmallow who panders, and he’s going to lose even more support from women and those who favor social justice. There is no safe path here — it’s a disastrously bad move on his part.

It may be that he’ll just confirm this prediction.

Shapiro and Tyson are rather alike in their insistence on their own viewpoints as rational and therefore correct. “Facts don’t care about your feelings,” reads Shapiro’s pinned tweet. That sentiment parallels a famous Tyson quote, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” Shapiro was recently in the news for questioning the validity of Brett Kavanaugh’s accusers on the basis of what he saw as a lack of evidence, despite extensive reporting corroborating the women’s stories. Like Tyson, he picks and chooses what counts as evidence in these situations, and then performs objectivity. It shouldn’t be surprising that Tyson is including him as a stop on his book tour.

Comments

  1. blf says

    The mildly deranged penguin suggests the following celebrity metric: Cheese consumption. If they eat rubbish (e.g., british industrial cheddar or usaian anything), then not only are the beyond all pales, must be shot (preferably with a blunderbuss filled with bricks of real cheese), impeached (real peaches optional but recommended, especially if rotten), and fed to kraken — roughly in that order — and afterwards they are praised by the current Wacko House occupant, hair furor.

    Sadly, not eating rubbish so-called cheese (and, for the pedants, not eating cheese), doesn’t preclude being a “celebrity” who are beyond all pales and so on… She (te mildly deranged penguin) is now considering this, but with her unique — um, “powerful” — “infinitely variable asserting logic” (copyright pending), I suspect the “solution” will be of similar calibre. So presumably can be shot from a blunderbuss…

  2. sarah00 says

    WTF is Neil deGrasse Tyson doing talking about “everything from… abortion to transgenderism”. How are these subjects even remotely within his field of expertise? Or is this just another example of a prominent man feeling like he is entitled to an opinion on everything and a platform to spout it?

  3. A Sloth named Sparkles says

    It’s concerning seeing these top atheists/skeptics/scientists like Tyson, Dawkins etc. getting too chummy with alt-right nuts like Shapiro, along with few other conservative types, so as long as they both agree on the same issues (Identity politics! Feminists bad!). Worst part is how their fanboys are willing to support them while shouting down reasonable critics who find this as a huge red flag.

  4. harryblack says

    The defense we usually get to these types of decisions are the saviour defence. ‘But if I can convert just one of their followers then it will be worth it!’
    Wow. How courageous of you.
    And what if they happen to convince 5 of yours? What then?
    Or you plant a seed of skepticism in a few of their fans but you have now legitimised this person as a serious thinker to all of yours.

    Even the defence of trying to expand ones reach is bullshit here because theres not a person in Shapiros audience that is unaware of Americas most famous scientist who regularly appears on prime time tv and had his own show.

  5. destry says

    You should listen to the podcast before you judge; it’s really not bad. It’s the first time I’ve been able to listen to Shapiro for more than 5 minutes because Tyson does most of the talking and he doesn’t accept Shapiro’s BS. I agree that it probably won’t change any of Shapiro’s listener’s minds, but maybe.

  6. pipefighter says

    I started to lose interest in Tyson over the whole philosophy hate thing. Then the allegations came out and between his response and the closed door nature of the investigation that exonerated him I just started to ignore him. No more hero’s. As for Ellen and Bush it’s just class solidarity. Eat the rich.

  7. says

    Shapiro should be rejected by EVERYONE. He’s possibly the most despicable talking head to grace the world since Rush Limbaugh. The man has NOTHING to contribute to any conversation that isn’t soaked in neocon/neofascist ideology. WTF is NDGT thinking? He’s in my top ten of most punchable NAZIs.

  8. A Sloth named Sparkles says

    @harryblack The “Savior defence” is interesting.

    Shapiro’s audience would only absorb Tyson’s rhetoric, but will never be converted to his cause. Any tiny seeds of doubt they’ll just shit it out on the other end. They’ll just Tyson as someone famous who’s finally confirmed their biases and nothing more.

  9. says

    @6, harryblack

    And what if they happen to convince 5 of yours? What then?

    …I hope you would agree that the ideal solution for that risk is teaching people “how to think”, right? Good epistemological hygiene, fact-checking skills, stuff like that? Nurture those skills as far and wide and deeply as possible?

  10. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    I substantially agree with the OP and don’t have anything to add, but…oh for FUCK’S SAKE..

    Cheese consumption. If they eat rubbish (e.g., british industrial cheddar or usaian anything)

    So, yeah, um, I’m, sorry, you were saying?

    As for British industrial cheddar, is it perhaps tasteless, artificial, and uninspired? And have you ever heard anything about pots and kettles? :)

  11. John Morales says

    Brian, I think harryblack’s point stands.

    Your average person wouldn’t have a clue to what epistemological hygiene refers, what they will see is Tyson shooting the breeze with a fellow “big brain”. Lending him credibility for the rubes.

    (Also, destry @8 does make a significant claim, but I am not about to subject myself to watching some video to verify the claim)

  12. says

    @14, John Morales

    Your average person wouldn’t have a clue to what epistemological hygiene refers

    Of course, and it’s something they should be taught, correct?

  13. John Morales says

    I can’t dispute you on that, Brian.
    I’m not really into advocating “shoulds”, but it would be very nice if that were the case.

    Relatedly, I know that, when I first learned symbolic logic (1st year uni), I heartily wished I’d had that understanding during my school years. It felt quite empowering.

    But alas, for one, hard to teach people stuff they don’t really want or care to learn, and for another, most of established religion would (rightly) consider that antithetical to their doctrines. So that “should” is only from our minority perspective. :|

  14. lotharloo says

    I’m sorry PZ but your post is absolute bullshit. The majority of Shapiro listeners of young white males are radicalized and you do not get to de-radicalize them by leaving them to wallow in their information bubble. It’s not very different from Muslim right-wing radicalization where certain individuals are targeted because of their vulnerabilities. Listen to those young people who have escaped the brain washing of alt-right on YT, such as Caleb Cain. Caleb Cain talks about how because he watched one or two videos of people who were not in the right-wing bubble, he got recommendations from other sources and he eventually mananged to get out. In fact, for him the way out was to listen to a debate between Destiny and rightwing shit head. https://youtu.be/sfLa64_zLrU?t=1013

  15. harryblack says

    @ Brian Pansky
    Thanks for taking the time to reply!

    I agree completely that these things should be taught at every opportunity.
    I just dont think that making an appearance on such a show with such a person is such an opportunity.
    The chances of having a net win for social justice and critical thought seem slim to me.

  16. harryblack says

    @Lotharloo

    I think you are making a sampling error.
    Yes, some people such as Caleb have been de-radicalised.
    I myself was turned away from sexist PUA culture and all sorts of other awful beliefs by just hearing contradictory facts and so I made the mistake of believing for years that this would be effective for others, but it does not seem to be.
    Caleb was de-radicalised and someone else won the lottery that week. If you look at the numbers supporters of the likes of Shapiro vs the numbers of success stories from such public appearances, it seems like a very poor cost benefit, especially when you consider that the very thing which radicalised Caleb in the first place was people like Shapiro being given legitimacy in appearances with less radical and more reasonable people.

    The last decade or so of politics and media have demonstrated that people on the whole seem to be unconvinced by facts. We on the left need to catch up and start communicating in ways that are more effective, rather than holding on to this process of friendly logical decomstruction that really has had very little success so far.

  17. lotharloo says

    @harryblack:
    Nah, I don’t. Did you read the post? Let me highlight the ridiculous parts:
    Title: “If we must have celebrities, can they at least have some principles?“, i.e., Tyson doesn’t have principles.
    Instead, I expect an hour of chummy bonhomie (buy my book), followed by a pretense that they’re good friends (buy my book) parting on good terms (buy my book) with reassurances that while they may have some differences of opinion (buy my book), they still recognize each other’s humanity (buy my book). ” Tyson is in it for the monieeezzz!
    Put two and two together: Tyson is a scumbag sell out with no principles, out there to just sell more books and make more money. If that’s not PZ’s intent, then he needs to stop putting so many dog whistles in his posts.

    This type of bullshit criticism is leveled at anyone who wants to debate or engage arguments from the otherside. Destiny gets it, Contrapoint gets it, and many others get them as well. Debating scumbags is useful. This is because they radicalize people using weak and silly arguments, and by creating an information bubble where their listeners don’t get exposed to counter-arguments or they do it by character assassination (so and so is a crazy leftie, don’t trust whatever they say). There’s a place for someone non-confrontational like Tyson in the fight against right-wing lunacy, but people like PZ insist that no, everyone else who does it differently is wrong (and also immoral for trying it. The bingo is “YoU aRE gIvinG ThEM creDeBiLitY!!!”) . It is the same stupid talking point as Dawkins’ “it looks better on their resume”. It’s old, and refuted but some people love sticking to it.

    If you don’t want to debate people who are wrong, that’s fine, but don’t stand in the way other people who want to do it.

  18. harryblack says

    @lotharloo
    I dont see anyone standing in anyones way.
    Those of us who dont think debate in situations like this is helpful and in many situations see it as actively harmful will continue to speak up.
    And yes, Tyson agreeing to a discussion framed in such a chummy way in order to promote his book certainly betrays a lack of principle, as does Ellens defense of Bush.

    Its a rare debate with these clowns that is not either an exercise in ego or marketing or both.

  19. says

    Rebutting them is useful. Debating them? That depends a lot on both how the debate is conducted, what sort of platform it’s on, and how complex the issue being debated is.

    It also depends a lot on the persuasive/rhetorical capabilities of the people involved. I’ve found debates useful at various points in time, they’ve been about fairly straightforward topics, like religion/the bible.

    The problem with debating people like Shapiro is that they’re not necessarily debating in good faith – they’re after spreading propaganda to people who will be pulled in by it, and making a coherent defense of their position is secondary to giving the IMPRESSION of winning/strength.

    You’re there to defend a position, and they’re there to find ways to look a certain way to the audience, and even if they “lose” the debate, it can be a win for them.

    Rebutting them is good, but DEBATING can often be counterproductive, if you go in assuming they’re acting in good faith.

  20. says

    @21, harryblack

    The last decade or so of politics and media have demonstrated that people on the whole seem to be unconvinced by facts.

    Sure.

    We on the left need to catch up and start communicating in ways that are more effective, rather than holding on to this process of friendly logical decomstruction that really has had very little success so far.

    What other “ways” or communicating? Do you have anything specific in mind?

    Doesn’t sound like you’re incorporating my solution there.

    I could be wrong, but it sounds like you’re saying: just use more marketing tactics and emotional manipulation. Which would also require that you allow people to remain vulnerable to those tactics. And you don’t include improving their epistemology in your solution. Which means anyone would be able to convince them, regardless of who has the facts right. So it would be just a matter of luck for them to ever be right.

    This isn’t what you want.

    Again, if the problem is that logic and evidence aren’t being effective, the solution is to change people so that logic and evidence is the only thing that will convince them.

  21. lotharloo says

    @harryblack

    I dont see anyone standing in anyones way.
    Those of us who dont think debate in situations like this is helpful and in many situations see it as actively harmful will continue to speak up.

    ???????????????????????????????????????

    Literally, your next sentence shows you are standing in the way of people who like to debate them. You are resisting them, you are telling them they are spreading harm. If you don’t like debates, that’s fine. But if you want to claim that “tHeY CaUsE HarM BeCausE tHey GivE tHeM LIGitimAcY”, then you are being simplistic. Some members of the atheist community have not moved on from the silly talking points of the past. I used to believe in “it looks good on their CV not mine”; everyone parrots it. PZ parrots it, Coyne parrots it, Dawkins parrots it, yet no body has ever provided any evidence that it is actually the case. Same with “giving them legitimacy [by disagreeing with them on their show]” argument. This one is a bit more complicated because you can actually give them legitimacy if you don’t actually challenge them (e.g., Sam Harris and Murray) but if you disagree, how are you giving them legitimacy?

  22. Phrenomythic Productions says

    See, this is why we cannot have nice things…

    Nice things like heroes and role models, because far too often power, influence and money seems to rot the morality of even the most amenable and enlightening ones of them…

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