Neil deGrasse Tyson Responds to “Rationalia” Critics

On Sunday, August 7, 2016, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote a response to critics of the idea that nations should “base policy on the weight of evidence” — and that citizens of Earth who support the idea should become members of a virtual nation, “Rationalia.” The thought of Rationalia was first conjured by Taylor Milsal, a marketing executive, in casual conversation with Tyson and other scientists like particle physicist Brian Cox.

Tyson tweeted about it in June: “Earth needs a virtual country, Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy should be based on the weight of evidence.”

Of course, around the web, some were quick to take this one sentence and attempt to tear it to shreds, jumping at the change to “educate” Tyson and let him know science — the gatekeeper of evidence — isn’t always accurate, and can result in terribly immoral policies.

Thus some brought up the eugenics of the Nazis, and of course other crimes against humanity like the pseudo-science that justified black slavery and Jim Crow, conclusions that homosexuality was a sickness, and so on. A contributor for U.S. News & World Report insisted the whole idea was nonsense because if you don’t “subdivide data” you can get the wrong conclusions (here he used batting averages and medical tests as examples), and a writer for New Scientist whined about how “nobody really knows what science means,” how “rationality is subjective,” and that “scientists can’t tell us if it’s right to kill a baby with a developmental disability, despite how well they might marshal evidence about the baby’s life prospects or her capacity to think or move on her own.”

Tyson’s response first pointed out the obvious:

A common critique was the question of where such a country would get its morals, and how other other ethical issues might be established or resolved. The last I reviewed the US Bill of Rights, there was no discussion of morals there either. Nowhere does it say “Thou Shalt Not Kill”. Meanwhile, there’s an entire Amendment — Number 3 — that prevents the military from bunking in your home without your permission.
He then made clear that basing a nation’s laws on scientific evidence doesn’t mean you have to throw morality (nor the liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights) in the garbage. Instead, morality would be debated — just as it is today — so that all viewpoints might be considered.
In Rationalia, you could create an Office of Morality, where moral codes are proposed and debated. What moral codes would the citizens of Rationalia embrace? That is, itself, a research project. Countries don’t always get it right, of course. And neither will Rationalia. Is slavery moral? The USA’s Constitution thought so for 76 years. Should women vote? The USA’s Constitution said no for 131 years. If we learn later that Rationalia’s Constitution needs additional Amendments, then you can be sure there will be evidence in support of it.
(Please note, if you are one of those writers for U.S. News or New Scientist, that Tyson did not just say that such an Office would decide morality for everyone and create all the laws for everyone. Tyson did not just propose abolishing citizen voting or Congress.) Basing policy on well-established scientific findings, Tyson says, could actually make human beings better and more moral people.
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.

Tyson explains that “in Rationalia, the Constitution stipulates that a body of convincing evidence needs to exist in support of an idea before any Policy can established based on it.” This does not mean checks and balances must be obliterated, that scientists and politicians will be allowed to implement any old policy that will kill, imprison, experiment on, or otherwise harm “lesser peoples” or “undesirables.” Literally all he is saying is this:

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. In Rationalia, if you want to fund art in schools, you simply propose a reason why. Does it increase creativity in the citizenry? Is creativity good for culture and society at large? Is creativity good for everyone no matter your chosen profession? These are testable questions. They just require verifiable research to establish answers. And then, the debate ends quickly in the face of evidence, and we move on to other questions.

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