Every Thursday in LOL Interwebz, Luke T. Harrington explores the quirks and foibles of Internet culture from a Gospel perspective.I‘m going to write about something that by this point is old news. Everyone who cares about it has probably moved on, but it still sort of sticks in my craw. And besides, it’s been a while since anything interesting has happened on the Internet, so give me this. Attacking people is fruitless. At best, it’s a playground tactic.The incident in question involved two entities who are taken very seriously by their fans, but neither of which I care about very much: science popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson and conservative outlet The Federalist. It all started back in September, when site founder Sean Davis published a piece titled “Super Scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson Doesn’t Understand Statistics.” His main point was that Tyson clearly didn’t know what an average was because he was conflating “average” with “median” in a talk he gave, and never mind that a median is a type of average, because Neil deGrasse Tyson is stupid, that’s why. But—and this becomes a bigger deal soon—he also pointed out that a couple of quotes Tyson used in the talk were apparently fabricated. (Then, as you might expect from an angry, conservative, totally-not-racist site like The Federalist, the comment section immediately overflowed with assertions from totally-not-racists that Tyson was only successful because black men have it so easy in America.) That was only the beginning, though. Davis managed to dig up several other quotes Tyson had made up, and posted no less than 13 entries demanding his blood, leading a campaign to get the fabricated quotes added to Tyson’s Wikipedia page, and accusing Tyson fans of “idolatry.” Tyson responded with several bizarre evasions and non-apologies on his Facebook page. The whole thing went on for nearly a month.
Now, I personally don’t feel like I have a dog in this fight. I count myself as a fan of neither The Federalist nor Neil deGrasse Tyson—the former is shrill and obnoxious, even on the rare occasion when they have something interesting to say, and the latter just has a stupid mustache and a large backlog of completely baffling social media posts.
I tend to think the Federalist‘s criticism of Tyson is warranted—using fake quotes to prove a point is pretty tasteless—but the outrage was pretty out-of-proportion. We are, after all, talking about a series of talks given for entertainment, not presentations of serious, peer-reviewed papers. When asked to entertain a crowd, most of us play pretty fast-and-loose with our anecdotes. It’s why Bill Cosby tells heartwarming and probably-embellished stories about his family life, and not his true adventures drugging and raping actresses.
I also tend to think that we Protestants should consider giving accusations of “idolatry” a bit of a rest. I get it: we use “idol” as a metaphor for anything people love more than Jesus—but guys, it’s hardly shocking that non-Christians would have something they love more than Jesus. At some point, we’re just acting shocked and outraged that people exist who think differently from us. Let’s all take it easy, lest our shock and outrage become…an idol for us.But no, the real reason I want to address this bizarre saga is that it’s something that only could have happened in the era of the Internet. In parallel universe where the Internet isn’t a thing, assuming The Federalist existed as a print rag there (yeah, right), we would have seen maybe one or two articles about Tyson, and then a month later he might have given a heavily edited interview where he explained himself (instead of rambling, 500-word Facebook posts where he said basically nothing), and then another month later everybody would have forgotten about it. This sort of post-every-day-(or-two) witch-hunt wasn’t really a thing back then.
And this is what’s weird to me about the Internet age. We have what ought to be the world’s finest tool for the free exchange of ideas—really the natural descendent of the forums of old (which are probably overrated as well)—and instead we just form little camps around the public figures we like and shoot arrows back and forth. Instead of attacking ideas, we attack people.
I don’t deny that the Internet is swarming with kids who idolize Tyson (most of whom “f**king love science,” while remaining steadfastly ignorant of very basic things like the scientific method and peer review); however, this is far from notable, because kids are stupid. There was a time when every kid in the English-speaking world thought Clapton was God; for my money, worshiping a science popularizer is at least a slight improvement over worshiping a vaguely racist white guy who happens to be pretty good at guitar.And I do understand why so many of us on Team Jesus are annoyed with Tyson. Like many people with an impressive knowledge of science, the guy also has an impressive ignorance of religion and history—and he’s devoted too much of his career to spreading that ignorance, such as when Cosmos went after the Inquisition, without bothering to find out what the Inquisition was. However, such claims are easily debunked; why, exactly, do we feel such a need to attack the man making them as well?
This is an important distinction to make because our classically liberal society is built on the free exchange of ideas—a fact that you’d think a site using an old-timey name like The Federalist would appreciate. Attacking people is fruitless. At best, it’s a playground tactic. And while playground tactics may get a lot of clicks, they’re not a useful tactic for changing minds.
What I’m trying to say is, if you substitute insults for having a substantive argument, you’re a poopiehead.
Image via Scott A. Hurst and Wikimedia Commons.