Reflections on Three Pop Intellectuals

Neil deGrasse Tyson.– I doubt you could find a recent interview or quasi-debate featuring this man in which he does not explicitly remind his interlocutor and audience, typically as a preface or premise to one shouted certitude or another, that he is a scientist, and that he is looking at the question at hand from the scientist’s perspective — the implication being, of course, that his interlocutor, who lacks this exalted perspective, bears all the burden of proof, and is also constitutionally unfit for the challenge. That is, Tyson’s repeated dependence on this cheap rhetorical tactic of argument from (his own) authority stands as a constant indication that he is not approaching the question at hand from a scientific point of view. Demanding recognition as the smartest man in the room, and therefore the official arbiter of truth and falsehood in all things, is the most unscientific perspective imaginable.

Jordan Peterson.– Peterson has become increasingly obsessed, it seems, with the subject of manliness, and more specifically with the definition of man as the woman-attracting animal, and by implication of woman as the man-desiring animal. Why? The answer, it seems to me, is simply that he has recognized that the bulk of his enormous and most devoted audience is comprised of young men, and particularly men of a somewhat insecure and needy sort, the type seeking a model of manhood to inspire them, to whom they may devote themselves as disciples. Peterson, therefore, caring more about the size than the intellectual acuity of his following — which he absolutely and obviously regards as a following — not only sees the subject of manliness as pragmatically (i.e., financially) beneficial, but also sees the supreme ego-gratifying and cult-holding value in reinventing himself, a former nerdy professor, as the very definition of sexually desirable manliness. In short, he is living out his teenage rock star fantasies in the guise of a moral preacher.

Richard Feynman.– The most popular of all North American scientific popularizers demonstrated, in any context in which I have seen him preserved, a consistent combination of the following traits: energized enthusiasm for the unknown without any pretense of having all the answers thereto; a spontaneous craving to delve analytically into the details of a subject, with no dread of getting caught in an unsolved mystery; and a painstakingly meticulous refusal to compromise or “dumb down” the search for his notion of rational truth, but without condescension or any hint of “pulling rank” on an interlocutor. In other words, he was, by all evidence, the exact opposite of Neil deGrasse Tyson, and the antidote to the self-aggrandizing “I am the answer” posing of the social pseudoscientist Jordan Peterson.

Feynman seemed to embody the older, but still very modern, image of the knower in the popular awareness, namely a man with the gift of making logical argument and rational investigation engaging and inspiring, rather than merely a magnet for people who need an expert to tell them what to believe or how to behave.

Thus it is, incidentally, that no significant modern artist is ever likely to take either the expert blowhard Tyson or the walking messiah-complex Peterson as his subject, while Feynman did, in fact, serve as the inspiration for the last important composition and public performance by the late Lyle Mays, a modern jazz innovator, computer programmer, and physics enthusiast.

Here is that performance, cleverly combining in musical language both the scientific forward-thinking and the improvisational spontaneity of Feynman himself, from Caltech’s 2011 event honoring their former professor.

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