People React to Neil DeGrasse Tyson's Political Tweet

June 30th 2016

Lucy Tiven

On Thursday, outspoken astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted a novel solution to the country's political problems — starting a new country where policy is "based on the weight of evidence." What could possibly go wrong?

While deGrasse Tyson's remarks on social media typically garner mass applause, this one did not go over well.

Twitter users were quick to point out that direct evidence is always subject to human interpretations, based on individual values and biases.

Criminal defense lawyer Stefan Borst-Censullo slammed the tweet — reminding readers that the law practice itself is based on the very notion that evidence can be interpreted numerous ways.

One Twitter user pointed out that in the "Terminator" franchise, a weapons system governed by rationality turns against humans and is responsible for massive destruction.

Though the sassy scientist's tweet was somewhat vague, as David Roberts pointed out on Vox, he probably had climate change in mind.

But people interpret the evidence of climate change in various ways, and acting on that evidence involves making value judgments about deeply human issues.

"Cumulatively, developed nations like the US and the EU have emitted more carbon into the atmosphere than developing nations, and thus bear a greater share of responsibility for climate change," Roberts observed. "Yet it is the citizens of poorer and low-lying nations who stand to suffer first and worst from the impacts of climate change."

This raises questions that cannot be answered with evidence alone.

How much of the burden of reducing greenhouse gas emissions should be placed on developing nations? Does curbing climate change as quickly as possible justify placing a greater strain on the developing world, even though the larger historical picture shows that these countries are less to blame for the warming climate than the U.S. and EU?

To give another example, a recent report from Oxfam picked up by Gizmodo found that five crops —rice, soy, corn, wheat, and palm oil— contribute just as many greenhouse gas emissions as any country in the world besides the U.S. and China.

These are also crops that feed much of the world's population. Weighing the value of cultivating them against the long-term environmental damage they cause is a value-based judgment between two kinds of evidence acquired rationally and through scientific research.

Despite the complications presented by a purely rational nation, some people still seemed excited to emigrate.

[h/t Vox]