Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Utopia, Rationalia

Written by William M Briggs


Who’s up for Utopia? Neil deGrasse Tyson, that’s who. He tweeted, “Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy should be based on the weight of evidence.”

I know it’s like shooting a howitzer at dead fish in an empty barrel to pick on Tyson, but I have a weakness. Forgive me.

Hist tweet got the expected reaction, which prompted a wounded Tyson to expand his notion in a Facebook post.

In it he said, “The concept of Rationalia began when Taylor Milsal insightfully mentioned at a cocktail reception of the Starmus Science Festival in Spain’s Canary Islands…” Lord. The only thing missing was his description of the (expensive) jewelry worn by the ladies.

At least Tyson recognized the force of his many criticisms that a society founded on scientism must necessarily be silent on morality. He said,

Also consider that across time and culture, morals have evolved, typically by rational analysis of the effects and consequences of a previously held moral, in the light of emergent knowledge, wisdom, and insight. The Bible, for example, is not a fertile place to find anti-slavery commentary, nor discussions of the equality of women.

Religion is self-correcting, is it, Neil, old son? Forget it. It’s not true the Bible hasn’t much to say against slavery (and don’t forget there are many types of slavery). For instance, in Exodus 21 we find the rule, “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.” Harsh, that. It is the case there’s nothing on the equality of woman, probably because woman are not the equal of men, and men are not the equal of women. Why expect falsities in the Bible? Inequality, not coincidentally, is also the scientific, rational, weight-of-evidence view.

Anyway, here is everything (as in everything) that science has to say about morality:



Not many bones there upon which to build a society. Not that Tyson doesn’t try.

Consider further that the original Tweet specifically references Policy, which can itself become laws, but more broadly, Policy sets frameworks for thinking about laws. Examples of Policy would be a government’s choice to invest in R&D, and if so, by how much. Or whether a government should help the poor, and if so, in what ways…

Unlike what typically occurs between adversarial politicians, in scientific discourse, when we disagree with one another there’s an underlying premise: Either I’m wrong and you’re right; you’re wrong and I’m right; or we’re both wrong. The unfolding argument actually shapes the quest for more and better data to resolve the differences so that we can agree and move on to the next unresolved problem.

Fatuousness is the hallmark of the modern atheist. Another is monumental ego, the belief that he, the “rationalist”, is the first to think of ancient questions. And, what Neil, old man, if we’re both wrong? How can we know when we both claim to be right? I weep for Rationalia.

In Rationalia, since weight of evidence is built into the Constitution, everyone would be trained from an early age how to obtain and analyze evidence, and how to draw conclusions from it.

Sounds like the scarier pronouncements of some Jesuits. I wonder how Tyson reconciles that dogmatism with this:

In Rationalia, you would have complete freedom to be irrational. You just don’t have the freedom to base policy on your ideas if the weight of evidence does not support it. For this reason, Rationalia might just be the freest country in the world.

Just who picks the “weight of evidence”? Has Tyson never heard of scientists who disagree on even simple facts? Who arbitrates? Using what moral basis? Science can’t tell us.

At least our man is good for a belly laugh:

In Rationalia, for example, if you want to introduce capital punishment you’d need to propose a reason for it. If the reason is to deter murder, then an entire research machine would be put into place (if it did not already exist) to see whether, in fact, capital punishment deters murder. If it does not, then your proposed policy fails, and we move on to other proposals.

One can only imagine the experimental apparatus this would demand. But I hope he’s not planning on using statistical hypothesis testing. Statistics has nothing, zero, nada, zip, zilch to say about cause (as this book proves).

Here’s how “freedom” is defined in Tyson’s Utopia:

In Rationalia, research in psychology and neuroscience would establish what level risks we are all willing to take, and how much freedom we might need to forfeit, in exchange for comfort, health, wealth and security.

Science, informed by the weight of evidence, mandates that you shall wear a sweater today. You have to freedom to do whatever Science tells you to.

It goes on and on and on. The weight of evidence allows us to draw the conclusion that Tyson would nod vigorously in agreement with this summary of Rationalia’s Constitution, “The best decision is a decision which is best.”