Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

I have something to say to Neil deGrasse Tyson

As you may know, Neil deGrasse Tyson rescinded an invitation to have philosopher David Albert join physicist Lawrence Krauss (and others) in a panel discussing the physics of "nothing."  This has sparked some speculation and debate.  Jerry Coyne was particularly upset by Tyson's decision.  Russell Blackford seems to agree with Coyne.  Tyson responded to Coyne in the comments section with an elaborate explanation.  As he explains, Albert is not an ideal panelist for this event.  I trust Dr. Tyson to make that judgment, though I think Tyson's initial decision to invite Albert was justified.  Professor Albert is a Philosophy Professor and the Director of the MA Program in the Philosophical Foundations of Physics at Columbia University.  He has a PhD in theoretical physics.  Furthermore, he is responsible for a lot of the public debate over Krauss' new book (on the physics of "nothing") and how the topic relates to the intersection of science and philosophy.  He is certainly qualified to participate, even if he has not published anything directly related to the event topic.  But okay, even if Tyson has given adequate explanation for why Albert should not have been invited, we still need an explanation for why that invitation was rescinded, since the act of rescinding an invitation carries a lot of risks.  Thus, I wrote the following in response to Dr. Tyson:

Dr. Tyson,
With all due respect, I do not think your explanation is sufficient. True, Professor Albert has not published scientific or popular writing which directly deals with the topic of your panel discussion. That is a plausible reason for not inviting him in the first place, but it does not explain why you would risk public embarrassment and potentially insult Albert by rescinding his invitation. Once he was invited, and since his qualifications are certainly sufficient (if not ideal), we have to imagine you had some other reason for turning him away. This is what you have not yet explained.

It looks like your main motivation was the desire to avoid a confrontation between Albert and Krauss. Assuming your decision was rational, you must have thought such a confrontation would risk greater public embarrassment, greater insult (to Krauss, of course, since a confrontation would not likely lead Albert to feel insulted) or perhaps something far worse. However, it’s hard to see what worse might have been risked, and it’s hard to see what public embarrassment might issue from a well-moderated public debate between Krauss and Albert. So the most plausible explanation seems to be that you thought keeping Albert on the panel would be such a great insult to Krauss that Albert had to be turned away. Krauss’ public comments about Albert support this interpretation, as well.

In short, here’s my theory: You insulted Albert and risked public embarrassment in order to avoid the risk of insulting Krauss. I don’t necessarily think you were playing favorites. I assume you just tried to find the least harmful scenario. However, I’m sure you can understand why some corners of the intellectual community would find this greatly disappointing. It is no surprise that ego plays a significant role in our public intellectual life. It would be nice to at least see a straightforward admission of the fact. Moreover, it seems clear that you owe Professor Albert a public apology.

Jason Streitfeld

Update (March 18, 2013):  Since some people do not recognize the seriousness of the situation and why a better explanation from Dr. Tyson is necessary, I posted the following on Jerry Coyne's blog:

This is a professional affair concerning a public appearance. It looks very bad for Dr. Tyson and The American Museum of Natural History to invite a highly respected public intellectual, to have that invitation accepted, to allow said intellectual to prepare for months for the public engagement, and then to disinvite them–unless you have a very good reason which you make available to the public. Without an explanation for this, other public intellectuals have a very good reason not to accept invitations to speak at the American Museum of Natural History.

Dr. Tyson has not given a good reason for his disinvitation. He’s given a reason why Professor Albert was not his ideal candidate: Unlike Jim Holt (who does not have any apparent scientific or academic qualifications to speak of), Professor Albert has not written a popular book on the physics of “nothing.” Holt’s status as a popular writer with a relevant book to sell trumps Albert’s status as a celebrated popular science writer, Philosophy Professor at Columbia University and PhD in theoretical physics. That is what Dr. Tyson explained, and I trust Dr. Tyson to make that judgment. Holt is a better choice for Tyson’s purposes. But that does not explain why Tyson would disinvite Albert. Why couldn’t Holt and Albert both serve as panelists? Why would Albert’s presence cause a problem? Why did Albert have to go?

It seems to me that Dr. Tyson is putting his and the museum’s reputation on the line for no good reason, which is very unfortunate.

Update again:  I just posted one more comment on Coyne's blog explaining some of my feelings about the whole situation:

There’s a deeper issue here that’s motivating me, and perhaps others, to give more of a crap about this whole situation.

Even though the event’s primary focus is on science, there is good reason to expect a discussion of broader intellectual areas, too. The American Museum of Natural History advertises for the event as follows: “The concept of nothing is as old as zero itself. How do we grapple with the concept of nothing? From the best laboratory vacuums on Earth to the vacuum of space to what lies beyond, the idea of nothing continues to intrigue professionals and the public alike.” But they’ve only got a journalist (Holt, who we can regard as a non-professional philosopher) and a journalism professor (Seife) holding up the non-scientific end of the discussion. Krauss approaches the non-scientific end, too. He has even gone on talk shows getting into supposed theological implications of his work. Both Holt and Krauss are interested in the philosophical implications of the science of “nothing”, but neither one of them can discuss it authoritatively. Holt is a journalist, not an independent, authoritative thinker. Krauss, on the other hand, has a condescending approach to philosophy in general and, from what I can tell, has no interest in engaging professional philosophers on the topic. (His negative attitude towards professional philosophers is partly responsible for all the fuss last year.) While Holt is very friendly with the philosophical side of the matter, I do not think he can defend or represent it as authoritatively as Albert. Albert is perfectly suited to bring an authoritative, sophisticated philosophical approach to the table. His absence will be felt.