Today is Darwin Day, celebrated by us as Academic Freedom Day. That means it’s time to announce the winner of this year’s Censor of the Year Award. As you already know from the headline, our recipient is Neil deGrasse Tyson.
COTY, as it’s called for short, recognizes achievement in thwarting an open and informed discussion of science and scientific controversies. It is a serious thing — since censorship is serious and often but not always casting fear on less powerful individuals whose ideas the censor doesn’t like. That was the case with last year’s winner, biologist Jerry Coyne, who with his partners at the Freedom from Religion Foundation was successful in silencing a young physics professor who dared to provide students with information about intelligent design.
There’s an element of fun in COTY as well. But this year, less so. It happens that the names of a couple of our leading nominees have come up in a story near the top of the news as I write, in a most tragic manner. A militant atheist in Chapel Hill, NC, is accused of murdering three Muslim students. Since the triple slaying is potentially explosive in an international context, social and other media are abuzz with analysis of the man’s views on religion. Those are indicated on his Facebook page by, among other things including a variety of agitated posts, his admiration for the Freedom from Religion Foundation and for Dr. Tyson.
The local police suggest the killing may have been over a parking space dispute, not religion. It’s impossible to say now, and certainly law-abiding atheist activists bear no responsibility. I mention this only because it provides an unexpected somber backdrop for COTY, inevitably affecting the tone of our announcement.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, of course, stands out this year for his command of the aptly named Ship of the Imagination, which he piloted through 13 episodes of the revived Carl Sagan science series, Cosmos. As we documented here at ENV and in a book, The Unofficial Guide to Cosmos: Fact and Fiction in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Landmark Science Series, Cosmos represented a highly imaginative rewrite of the history of science. It was designed to convey an impression that faith was always an obstacle to scientific discovery, that all legitimate scientific controversies are in the past, that skeptics of scientific orthodoxy today are fools or worse.
Censorship can involve implied or explicit threats — that’s Jerry Coyne’s style, not Dr. Tyson’s. The charming, avuncular, facile Neil Tyson is effective, far more so than other nominees this year, because he is so very likable. As a censor, he works with an airbrush. Clearly produced with an audience of impressionable young people in mind, and no doubt on its way to becoming a staple in school science classrooms, Cosmos tells a seductive story that leaves out complications and controversies around science, and casts materialism as the obvious inference from the scientific data.
Tyson stands out, too, for his commanding cultural authority at the moment. He’s a star! What other television series can you think of that opened with an endorsement by the President of the United States? Coincidentally, this week also marks the publication of an expanded edition of John West’s book Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science. In a new chapter on "Scientism in the Age of Obama — and Beyond," Dr. West reflects on significance of that endorsement:
The Obama administration’s embrace of scientism was not limited to public policy. In 2014 President Obama ventured into the broader culture wars over science by taping a video introduction to the Cosmos television series hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. The creators of the series revealed that they had not asked for Obama’s involvement; the White House had sought them out. Cosmos was a reboot of an earlier series by the same name hosted by agnostic physicist Carl Sagan. Sagan had been criticized for trying to use science to promote metaphysical materialism, and in that sense Tyson’s new series was a worthy heir to Sagan’s original production. Tyson had previously dismissed God as "an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance," and the producers of the new Cosmos were known for believing that "religion sucks" and for warning students: "Stay away from the church. In the battle over science vs. religion, science offers credible evidence for all the serious claims it makes. The church says, ‘Oh, it’s right here in this book, see? The one written by people who thought the sun was magic?’" Given such views, it wasn’t surprising that the new Cosmos portrayed religion as the enemy of science, claimed that science shows how life originated through unguided processes, and even compared climate-change skeptics to Nazis. Immediately after Obama’s videotaped introduction, the 2014 series replayed a classic clip from the original series in which Carl Sagan professes his allegiance to materialism: "The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be."
Tyson broadcast his photoshopped narrative of science to millions. That alone wins him our nod as 2015 Censor of the Year. He also stands out, though, for further dubious achievements. As others have documented, lead by Sean Davis at The Federalist, Neil Tyson is a fabulist. He’s been caught multiple times bending and stretching the truth in a variety of contexts.
Despite his confirmed slipperiness, his prestige as the popular face of science in America remains undimmed. He’ll go on to tell his distorted story again, and again, and again, you can be sure. Behold, our Censor of Year!