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Steak-umm vs. Neil deGrasse Tyson

Image: Host Neil deGrasse Tyson glimpsed in a screenshot from the trailer for Cosmos 3.0, “Possible Worlds.” 

Editor’s note: We are delighted to welcome Elizabeth Whately today as a new contributor.

Neil deGrasse Tyson may be the world’s most popular science communicator. But on Twitter, he’s the gift that keeps on giving, offering a blend of pedantic and self-important content that comes in for regular trolling. Recently, he encountered resistance from an unlikely quarter: the official Twitter account of Steak-umm, which is “an American brand of thin-sliced frozen steaks.”

It all started on April 11 when Tyson tweeted out, “The good thing about Science is that it’s true, whether or not you believe in it.” A typical Tyson tweet, complete with the capitalization of “Science.” But whoever runs Steak-umm’s Twitter was unimpressed, re-tweeting with the suggestion “log off bro,” then backing up the suggestion with remarkably spot-on follow-up comments. In one follow-up, they point out that Tyson’s tweet was ironic, since “by framing science itself as ‘true’ he’s influencing people to be more skeptical of it in a time of unprecedented misinformation,” an implied reference to the ongoing chaos of COVID cross-messaging. Then they offer a better definition of science: “an ever refining process to find truth, not a dogma.”

Sizzling Retorts

The Twitter feud has gone viral, with many praising Steak-umm’s sizzling retorts. But some responses have been less thrilled. One unimpressed spectator suggested that they “must have changed social media personnel.” Unfazed, Steak-umm struck back, casually dropping puns along the way: “nope, science itself isn’t ‘true’ it’s a constantly refining process used to uncover truths based in material reality and that process is still full of misteaks. neil just posts ridiculous sound bites like this for clout and he has no respect for epistemology.”

Steak-umm is not wrong! Science is a tool, a means to the end of finding truth, and a fallible one at that. It is not an epistemology in itself. Scientists have historically disdained philosophers, not realizing that the entire scientific enterprise rests on philosophy. All “Science” can do is provide the scientist with raw physical data, which the scientist must then sift and interpret according to his own judgment. As the meme says, “Aaaand now you’re doing philosophy.”

“A Proper Education”

Another reply suggests that Steak-umm’s account manager needs “a proper education.” “Yes,” this person agrees, “science is the process of finding the truth,” but he wants to affirm the reverse proposition, that all truth is scientific truth. “Everything that we know is true,” he boldly claims, “we discovered through science. Therefore science is the truth, whether you like it or not.” The obvious response: How do you know that’s true? Do you know it “scientifically”? The same question could be asked of any number of true things that can’t be put in a test-tube.

Tyson himself didn’t directly engage with Steak-umm but later posted a link to an old article of his entitled “What Science Is, and How and Why It Works.” There he sums up the “objective” scientific method in one sentence: “Do whatever it takes to avoid fooling yourself into thinking something is true that is not, or that something is not true that is.” An admirable goal, to be sure. Yet this fails to engage with Steak-umm’s point: It is not “Science” that makes truth judgments, but scientists.

Tyson intones that we “will not be revisiting” questions like the roundness of the earth, the chemical composition of the air we breathe, or the fact that “chimps and humans share more than 98% identical DNA.” This last fact is, of course, an implied conversation-stopper for probing questions about the established narrative of human origins.But by itself, bare of context and interpretation, it conveys hardly any useful information. What does it actually mean? How does one interpret it? Is common ancestry being taken as axiomatic before one even starts? How does one properly weigh the different lines of evidence offered for and against? 

Certainly, there are objective ways to approach these questions. But technical knowledge of the scientific process alone cannot answer them, just like the mere ability to read Greek doesn’t give you the ability to exercise good interpretive judgment about a passage in an ancient text. As we have seen time and again, scientists are as prone to corruption and confirmation bias as anyone else. 

Peer Review as Fool-Proof Protection

In his article, Tyson points to the peer review system as if it’s a fool-proof barrier against such corruption. But what if the entire discipline has come to rest on a poor epistemological foundation? What if it’s driven by axioms with baked-in blind spots, like methodological naturalism? Peer review cannot solve such systemic issues. On the contrary, it will only perpetuate them. And while Tyson may further claim in the post that the fast track to career stardom is presenting bold, original hypotheses that challenge consensus, many scientists who question an evolutionary narrative of life’s origins would beg to differ. There is a reason why so much of the support for intelligent design remains underground: Because these scientists know that making their hesitations public could, in fact, be a fast track not to career stardom but career suicide.

Fortunately, this little Twitter feud reminds us that even if the academy is mired in bias, common sense may not be dead yet. And if it takes a frozen meat company to remind us of what our elite overlords have forgotten, so be it. I’m not complaining. Meanwhile, I have a sudden urge to eat a Steak-umm.