Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Proposed “Rationalia” Government Won’t Work

Rationally speaking, it would be bad for people and bad for science
National Geographic is turning cosmologist Neil deGrasse Tyson's radio program of the same name into a late-night talk show. Filmed in front of a live studio audience, Tyson continues the conversation about extraterrestrial life and space travel. April 20 Marius Bugge

Science is a beautiful, wonderful, fascinating, illuminating process. We at Popular Science wouldn’t be in this business if we didn’t love science. Which is why it’s painful to see Neil deGrasse Tyson, who does a great job at explaining plainly the beauty of science, suggest a science-inspired form of government that would lead to vast human suffering and stifle the progress of knowledge.

Tyson’s proposed system of government is called “Rationalia,” and it’s small enough to fit in a single tweet:

“All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence” is a deceptive promise. Certainly, for people worried about global climate change, the lack of weight given to evidence by politicians is maddening. If politicians were obliged to follow the consensus of science, then here, they might have made better choices, choices that would improve the entire world.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is not advocating for a return to the days of phrenology, when generally accepted science was used to support racist agendas, but his Rationalia puts a burden on science that it cannot bear: to work, it must be immune to the passions of the day, promising an objective world and objective truth that will triumph over obstacles.

Science is not a window into a perfectly rational world. It is, instead, an ever-evolving tool used by humans to better understand the world around them, and a method for other humans to replicate the same work, so they see if the original findings hold true.

Humans doing science have their own ideas and interests, and a pressing need for food, shelter, and the basic comforts of life.

Scientists study what they want, and they study what they can get paid to study, so the work of science is not free from the pressures of money, nor interaction with the business world.

It would be good, for many causes, if scientific evidence was taken more seriously in the political realm. Yet the human problems that government exists to address are solved by choosing among options based on human values, while of course listening objectively to reality.

In a hypothetical world where a single person (let’s call him “Neil”) decided policy based on precisely measuring the weight of evidence, how that person selected evidence would matter a great deal, and would likely come down to values.

If Tyson is interested in weighing the evidence for and against his system of government, and how outside values could influence it, it turns out there’s already a discipline for that. It’s called Political Science.