Pile-On Against ‘Rationalia’

via Wikimedia Commons

Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) fired out a tweet on Wednesday, June 29:

Earth needs a virtual country: Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence

… and the response was weird.

I know absolutely nothing about Tyson’s motivation, but I suspect he put it out there in mild and humorous frustration at how utterly NON-rational current society and government is. Suggesting ONE way it could be better — with a more-rational, rather than more-religious, or more-politically-factional, approach to social problems.

This is also a TWEET — you know, 140 characters? — so if he meant something beyond that, there was no way to explain it IN THIS ONE TWEET. It’s ludicrous to expect otherwise, don’t you think?

Some people took the suggestion not only seriously, but as if it was a dire threat to all mankind. They lost their collective shit, not just saying it was a bad idea, but likening it to the French Revolution, Hitler, and eugenics. Some even took swipes at Charles Darwin for good measure.

A rational nation ruled by science would be a terrible idea

Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s ‘Rationalia’ Would Be A Terrible Country

Is A Rational Nation Ruled By Science A Terrible Idea?

Neil deGrasse Tyson proposes a terrible new political policy called ‘Rationalia’

The Road to Rationalia

Terrible! Terrible! Terrible! Terrible! It’s like they all got the same memo.

Random excerpts:

“Scientism” is the belief that all we need to solve the world’s problems is – you guessed it – science. People sometimes use the phrase “rational thinking”, but it amounts to the same thing. If only people would drop religion and all their other prejudices, we could use logic to fix everything.


Scientism refuses to see this. The myopia of scientism, its naive utopianism and simplistic faith, bears an uncanny resemblance to the religious dogmatisms that people such as Tyson and Dawkins denounce.


The republic of reason Tyson thinks will logic away the world’s problems has been tried before. It was called the French Revolution, and it caused a lot of people to lose their heads—literally and figuratively.


Tyson, too, has a philosophy, whether he realizes it or not. It’s called “scientism,” the belief that science is the only valid source of knowledge. The rule-by-self-identified-experts he envisions for the happy land of Rationalia is scientism’s logical outcome. But when you insist that facts and evidence speak for themselves, it has a funny way of silencing everyone else. As one intrepid Twitter user replied to Tyson’s initial tweet, “Convenient how the ‘evidence’ always seems to line up with Tyson’s personal beliefs.”


Politicians already misuse science, construe evidence, or outright ignore evidence to get what they want. Do we want scientists doing the same in their studies if they think their findings could influence laws based on their own beliefs?


Professor Tyson, who may be the dumbest smart person on Twitter, yesterday wrote that what the world really needs is a new kind of virtual state — he wants to call it “Rationalia” — with a one-sentence constitution: “All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence.” This schoolboy nonsense came under withering and much-deserved derision. Conservatives, who always have the French Revolution in their thoughts, reminded him that this already has been tried, and that the results are known in the history books as “the Terror.”


Man, I’m glad we settled that. Now back to the utterly perfect world we currently live in.

  • sugarfrosted

    I’m not sure you’ve seen his other tweets. I’m pretty sure he was serious.

  • Tobias 27772

    What would these people like to substitute for rational, evidence-based thinking ??

    • James Yakura

      Not “substitute”. Supplement. Running a country requires that you have trade-offs between various priorities (balanced budget, social welfare, security, etc.), and science can’t make those kinds of choices.

      • Tobias 27772

        Neither I nor Mr. Tyson mentioned science. We are both promoting evidence-based rational thinking. That is exactly what should be (and is not) applied to all of these trade-offs that you point out.

  • Lucy

    Ideally, science would be looking to find every truth. However, often scientific research is directed by a set of preexisting biases. Sure, those biases can be disproved, but they aren’t always. It does not necessarily mean they are right; biases can influence what kind of experiments are done in the first place, and if you set up the experimental parameters one way, you may get entirely different results than if you set them up another way, say, if you tested the strength of cheetahs, fish, humans, and monkeys by having them climb a tree. Granted, not every example is that extreme, but some may come close; for instance, when a seagull drops a shell on an anvil, it is very likely using a cognitive process much like those of animals classified as tool-users (have you ever tried to do that, and find the right rock to break a shell on? really?), but seagulls are not classified that way because they don’t carry anvil rocks (seriously, how would it even be possible for a bird to pick up one of those rocks and carry it, unless that bird was a phoenix like Fawkes, maybe?). However, even humans don’t carry all of their tools; have you tried to pick up a hadron collider, pack it in a car, and drive it across the country? I don’t think so. And yes, we built those, but that is why the hadron colliders are advanced technology, not a simple tool, and we also do not typically classify buildings as tools, even though the hadron collider is both building and tool; if we did, we would have no logical reason not to classify beaver lodges and dams as tools too (oh, the horror!). Also, birds do build nests, even though they don’t carry them. Not to mention, we have used trees as tools to hoist food out of the reach of bears, and we neither carried those nor altered them in any way; we just added our own stuff to the trees.
    And this is only an example of human exceptionalism; there have been worse biases, like people not considering that the Moai statues might really have “walked”, as the Easter Island natives said; they immediately assumed that that was a backwards superstition about the statues walking all by themselves. however, recent research suggests the statues really did “walk”, or rather were “walked”, with the aid of a system of ropes pulled in a carefully coordinated sequence by a team of people. In other words, when the Easter Islanders said the statues “walked”, they were using a different linguistic nuance than the white people who visited the island; for a long time, no researcher considered that possibility. A possibly even worse example of how prevailing biases affect scientific studies was how Richard Burton, a nineteenth-century scholar, proclaimed (incorrectly) that the idea that mosquitoes cause malaria is a Somali superstition, as is stated here: http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/the-new-somali-studies/
    Also, Sigmund Freud, at the dawn of his career, published a paper called “The Aetiology of Hysteria” which correctly stated that some of the “irrational” ways in which many women reacted towards sex were the result of trauma they suffered from being sexually abused. Severe professional pressure led him to come up with the now-discredited Oedipus complex theory, along with other dubious theories, that were in line with the biases of the day and continue to hurt women even now.
    There are many more examples where that came from; science and scientific interpretation unfortunately is often influenced by the prevailing biases of the scientific community, which are often influenced by the biases of the day. This is why, even though we should not reject science wholesale and should be willing to work with it, “Rationalia” ultimately would not work.
    What would work is having rights that are there to make it possible for as many groups as possible to live a decent life, not just cis, straight, white, neurotypical, and able-bodied people. And no, I don’t mean “morally pure”, I mean they would have a chance to be able to live without being severely traumatized or deprived of basic physical or psychological needs; in short, they would be able to live without being hindered by prejudice. And yes, scientific evidence would be a vital tool in helping people to get the things they need, but if it is the sole principle, we would be living in a dystopia because science by itself does not have a sense of ethics; we do. It is our job to bring our ethics to the table, to fight for the rights of groups that are now being marginalized, and to have our ethics cooperate with the science so that we could help people to the best of our abilities. And this might mean both accepting various studies and taking a second look at studies that support preexisting biases; it is not uncommon for studies designed a certain way to be able to seem to support biases when a more comprehensive study would not do so, because variables that do not support those biases may not even be taken into account. Also, unlike with the so-called link between vaccines and autism, which was utterly, thoroughly researched, other phenomena may only have been studied a few times, or even once; such thorough research as was done on the mythical vaccine/autism link is not nearly as common as you might think.
    And no, this is not anti-evolution; lots of research supports that, too, from different fields. The existence of evolution is another concept that has been thoroughly researched.

  • bill gorrell

    I’m totally for evidence-based decision-making but I fear that Tyson and other prominent atheists don’t realize that they are reductionists. General Systems Theory was devised by Bertalanffy because he was a biologist frustrated by physics-style thinking.

    • Michael Neville

      What’s wrong with reductionalism? Breaking complex ideas or situations to more manageable parts is a reasonable way to deal with them. Systems theory is complimentary to reducationalism, not antithetical to it.

  • William

    The problem isn’t the idea of evidence-based policy, it’s the “one-line Constitution” bit. Evidence-based policy is necessary, but not sufficient, and the suggestion that it is, shows that he hasn’t really thought this through.

    What kind of world do you want to live in? That, though not always articulated, is the central question of politics. And it is not answerable by reason alone — it’s a question of taste; of emotional preferences. Two different, equally rational people can come up with two different answers.

    In practice, of course, politics is full of irrational ideas, and it’s tempting to dismiss your opponents’ views as based solely in error. But that’s the gravest mistake. If, tomorrow, we could purge all illogic from people’s thoughts, they would still have varying answers to that central question.

    P.S. I will say that the responses quoted above are terrible.

  • Grady Elliott

    He’s advocating for the Reality Based Community.

    People hate that!


  • Matt Cavanaugh

    Better than living in the People’s Republic of Social Science — where all policy shall be based on a priori conclusions.