I meant to write about this topic a long time ago because by this point, the controversy over Neil deGrasse Tyson’s proposed world of “Rationalia” has mostly blown over. Nevertheless, my utter disdain for his completely asinine proposal burns on, so I feel compelled to write my own take-down of Tyson’s proposal.
A few months ago, Tyson tweeted this suggestions out:
While Tyson’s suggestion might seem like a no-brainer, it would be utterly impossible to implement. To be clear, I like Tyson. He was one of the people who got me interested in physics years ago, and I think he is a fantastic science communicator. He is not, however, particularly bright when it comes to commenting on politics. Indeed, his Twitter account is replete with silly political suggestions that anyone with any experience with politics knows are completely absurd. So it goes with Rationalia.
Tyson seems to mistakenly believe that every problem has a clear-cut solution. This is simply not the case, especially for complex policy questions. Humans, at least as far as we can tell, have agency; they are not bound by strict rules and equations governing their interactions with the world. Thus, there is not always an obvious solution to vexing problems. Indeed, even highly developed theories in the social sciences designed to explain and predict human behavior are constantly being revised and challenged. Many policy questions aren’t even close to possessing consensus answers. This lack of clear consensus is the reason that we have more than one political party. Very smart people have different, sometimes contradictory, ideas on how to resolve challenging problems. If it were obvious which policy choices were ideal, we wouldn’t even need to have elections. Instead, we could simply have career bureaucrats enact the optimal policy choices needed to generate a powerful country with a prospering economy. Given this lack of consensus on such important issues, it is far from clear that citizens and experts could ever consistently agree on which solutions are supported by the “weight of evidence.”
What’s even more frustrating about Tyson’s remarks is how naive they are. Even in physics, Tyson’s field, there are problems that don’t have clear solutions. For example, the debate between String Theory and Loop Quantum Gravity is not close to being resolved, at least since I last checked. In physics, this doesn’t really matter. There is no pressing need for answers to the fundamental questions of the universe. In politics, however, there are questions that often need to be addressed very quickly. Is Iran cheating on the JCPOA? How should the Fed boost economic growth? Which welfare programs are most efficient and effective? There simply isn’t time to spend decades thinking about these questions when decisions need to be made in weeks or months.
The other fundamental problem with Tyson’s proposal is that politics is very much a normative field. It is not just what is effective, it is also what is moral and fair. For example, there is solid evidence suggesting that affirmative action policies have broadly helped minority populations and reduced economic and education disparities within the country. Some argue, however, that it isn’t fair to admit potentially less qualified individuals simply because of their race or socio-economic position. Balancing these views requires more than simply “the weight of evidence,” it requires normative and moral judgments that try to reconcile competing demands. Tyson conflates cold mathematical reasoning with public policy decision-making, and this leads him to a ridiculous conclusion because determining things like the gravitational constant is not at all like writing an effective tax code or designing a coherent foreign policy.
Beyond misunderstanding the role of social science in policymaking and failing to grasp the normative nature of democratic decision-making, Tyson’s theory also fails to provide a metric through which one evaluates the rationality of certain actions. Adam Elkus, a graduate student at GMU, makes this point most effectively. Elkus posits that rationality is context-dependent. Each field has its own definition of what is rational. “To economists, rationality is rationality of outcome. To philosophers… appropriate beliefs. For AI its [sic] rationality of process.” Thus, the idea of “Rationalia” really makes no sense. It is ambiguous which form of rationality would exist within Tyson’s utopia, which means that “Rationalia” would likely be no different from the status quo, with different groups arguing that their analyses were superior to other groups’. Elkus also contends that the very fact that Tyson feels justified in advocating for “Rationalia” demonstrates that a perfectly rational society could never exist: “For Tyson, none of this complexity enters the picture because he’s a physicist who believes that his ability to do fancy math makes him superior to every other scientist or non-scientist that isn’t paid to ponder rocket science and celestial bodies. The fact that Tyson’s complete lack of interest in other sciences and the humanities is indulged because of physics’ elevated social status is perhaps the ultimate refutation of his belief in a society where matters are coldly and calculatedly contemplated w[ith] empiricism.”
Society should, of course, base its political decisions on evidence and informed argumentation. I am a big champion of basing political beliefs on expert analysis and not simply political dogma. Creating a more informed, interested, and engaged society is crucial to improving public policy. However, embracing some ill-conceived version of epistocracy is not the solution. It is untenable and frankly moronic.