Today is Leap Day, which, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson would like you to know, does not imply any literal leaping.
The unspoken final two words of that tweet may as well be you idiots. In fewer than 140 characters, Tyson manages to both introduce and debunk an unscientific idea, never mind the fact that no one could have possibly believed the idea in the first place. This is some next-level debunking, and it seems I am not the only one who is annoyed by it.
Tyson is a talented scientist, and yet his actually habit on Twitter is a grating one. True, correcting misinformation is an important part of a science communicator’s job. And yet debunking has become such a popular way of drumming up science content online — and Science of Us has certainly done its share; I basically even did it earlier this morning — that it’s led to something Guardian psychology writer Oliver Burkeman has termed the pseudo-debunk, the finger-wagging argument against a concept few ever argued for. The 10,000-hour rule is a good example of this. “You may have learned, in recent months, that you can’t actually become a world-class expert in anything you like, merely by putting in 10,000 hours of practice,” Burkeman writes. “But do you realize that nobody really said that in the first place?”
This may in part be due to people’s tendency to view negativity as more highly intelligent than positivity. For instance, a famous study in the 1980s, led by Harvard Business School’s Teresa M. Amabile, found that if you give people two book reviews from the New York Times — identical except that the positive language in one was replaced with a more negative tone — they’ll rate the writer of the more critical piece as being smarter than the writer of the less critical review.
People want to sound smart, and so many will parrot Tyson’s needless debunkings — like the time he saw the new Star Wars film and unhappily tweeted about the scientific inaccuracies in the science-fiction franchise. (Make all the criticisms of TIE fighters and parsecs you want, but leave BB-8 alone, please.) It’s a rather joyless approach to science communication, one that neglects to consider the inherent awe and wonder of the sciences, which his show Cosmos was particularly adept at conveying. Tyson might want to keep in mind the words of Victor Hugo, which are used as the title of a particularly enjoyable science blog: “Science says the first word on everything, and the last word on nothing.”