Education versus Critical Thinking – re: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ph.D.


One of the great follies of the human experience is that too many people assume that an educated person, such as Dr. Neil degrasse Tyson, is also a critical thinking person. Such a folly is somewhat understandable given that critical thinking is often a function of being educated. Education and critical thinking, however, are related but not synonymous. It should also be noted that critical thinking is a challenge for those who are educated and can be even much more difficult for those without an education. Stated otherwise, one has to consciously and deliberately link education and critical thinking because it does not happen automatically; critical thinking does not automatically follow education. The link between Dr. Tyson’s extensive education and his ability to think critically was essentially none existent in at least one instance.

At this point, it would be prudent to do what Voltaire once said: “If you want to converse with me, first define your terms.” To that end, for the purposes of this matter, I am defining being educated as being informed, having been taught what one did not know previously, to have learned, usually in a formal setting. Whereas, I am defining critical thinking as being able to identify and assess assumptions, being able to identify and evaluate explanations of cause and correlations, being able to recognize flaws and inconsistencies in an argument and being able to establish appropriate inferences and conclusions from information.

Having established this framework for discussion I now reference the appearance of Neil deGrasse Tyson [astrophysicist] on the Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore on 05 November 2015. Also appearing opposite Dr. Tyson was a pastor, Carl Lentz. One reporter, Tana Ganeva, wrote an internet article for the AlterNet about that program and called it, “Neil deGrasse Tyson Wins Debate With Christian Pastor Using Flawless Argument About Asteroids, Genitals”. This so-called debate was about the never-ending argument regarding the existence or non-existence of “God”.

Before proceeding further, I want to make it clear that personally, I do not care if “God” exists or not. The existence or non-existence of such a Being does not alter my own existence one way or the other. If “God” exists, then good for “God”; if “God” does not, then still good for “God” [if you know what I mean]. I have no need for religion. I have no need for spirituality. On the other hand, I have no need for specious scientific ideas, theories or hypotheses presented as logical and conclusive. I only have a need for ideas that flow from critical thinking.

Dr. Tyson’s response to one of Pastor Lentz’s comment was, “I think of, like, the human body, and I look at what’s going on between our legs,” Tyson said. “There’s like a sewage system and entertainment complex intermingling. No engineer of any intelligence would have designed it that way.” Notice that last sentence. It is this sentence that casts doubt on his ability to think critically [at least in this instance].

A critical thinker would state it another way. The fact that our genitalia function as a “sewage system” and an “entertainment” system can be seen as being efficient rather than something that an intelligent engineer would not do. Case in point: A couple of hundred years ago, many homes in the US had a separate shed called an “out house.” It was thought that defecating and urinating were too foul of thing to do in the house. Later, not only did engineers/architects design a separate room in the house but, for efficiency and convenience, people could do more than just defecate and urinate in the bathroom. People could brush their teeth, take baths/showers, shave, apply makeup and even dress in the same room in which they also defecated and urinated. Engineers of intelligence often pursue efficiency by combining two or more functions in the same thing. So, the fact that we have a “sewage system” between our legs that also serves as an “entertainment” system is not a valid argument against intelligent design. Based on the aforementioned definition of critical thinking, Dr. Tyson failed to evaluate his assumptions or the flaw in his argument.

Secondly, Dr. Tyson also stated, “Anytime someone describes their understanding of god, it typically involves some statement of benevolence or some kind of kindness. I look out to the universe — and yes, it is filled with mysteries — but it’s also filled with all manner of things that would just as soon have you dead, like asteroid strikes and hurricanes and tornadoes and tsunamis and volcanoes and disease and pestilence.”

Again, this argument is feckless and is out alignment with the definition of critical thinking. Suppose the theists or the religious communities’ perception of “God” is mistaken? After all, they have no concrete and objective evidence of “God’s” mercy and benevolence. Maybe “God” is not a loving god but one who is indifferent or maybe even cruel. In other words, just because religion describes “God” one way and reality indicates something different, does not mean that “God” does not exists. It means the religious people are not thinking critically.

Furthermore, other scientists would tell Dr. Tyson, that tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes and the like serve a useful purpose. All Dr. Tyson had to do was consult with meteorologists and geologists and they would tell him what are the benefits of those natural phenomena. Yes, they are often destructive to humans in the short term but are beneficial to the earth and subsequently and ultimately beneficial to humans in the long term.

To be sure, there are much more cogent and incisive arguments against the existence of “God” but Dr. Tyson’s argument lacked critical thinking. Despite Tana Ganeva’s description, Dr. Tyson’s argument was not “flawless”; it was shallow and vacuous. To be fair, Pastor Carl Lentz did not launch any powerhouse argument in favor of the existence of “God” either. In short, the “debate” between those two was akin to a fight between an amateur boxer and his own shadow; neither one landed a blow despite all the sweating and huffing and puffing. Quite honestly, I expected more from Dr. Tyson than I did Pastor Carl Lentz because of his scientific — and hence supposedly logical background.

Once again, I do not care if “God” exists or not. My only point is that if one is going to mount an argument for or against something, come ready, and come strong. Challenge assumptions, seek out the flaws in an argument, evaluate explanations. Be a critical thinker. Do not rest on your education and assume that it is sufficient or that it automatically means that you are a critical thinker. And lastly, do not be afraid to constantly question what you believe. After all, that is what critical thinkers do.

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