I’ve never been a huge fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson, but at least he was good at conveying the wonders of physics and cosmology. My one problem with him as a science communicator was that he tried too hard to cater to his audience, as if making them like him was one of his main goal. (Ergo his former issues with being called an “atheist” rather than the gentle and acceptable “agnostic.”) And, by and large, people did like him, for he was smart and enthusiastic.
Now, however, he’s gone into another area, and here he hasn’t been so successful. The area is sex and gender, and in his 14½-minute diatribe below (for that’s what it is), his blustering is directed at nothing other than trying to eliminate women’s-only spaces, like changing rooms, sports, jails, rape counseling centers, halfway houses for battered women, and any number of places in which biological women would feel uncomfortable if biological males who identify as trans females, were to be present. Note that Tyson addresses and dismisses only the concern of biological females, not biological males. Why is that?
He also gets angry, arrogant, and pedantic in a way that’s profoundly unappealing but gives us a window into his psyche. He may not be an unpleasant and haughty character, but he sure seems like it here.
Here’s the relevant video. It’s short, so I urge you to watch it.
Tyson has gone down this road before (I posted on it here), but in this case he devotes time not only to the gender “spectrum”, misconstrued as people feeling “X% female and 100% – X% male”, but, more important, also to getting rid of women’s only spaces, which he thinks is merely a scientific problem that’s not too hard to solve in a way that allows men into women’s-only spaces. He’s wrong, because here he fails to recognize that we’re dealing with a complex and largely insoluble problem dealing with both human emotions and the inevitable differences between men and women in both thought and physicality.
First, the YouTube summary:
Konstantin Kisin questions Neil deGrasse Tyson about his views of gender on a spectrum. They discuss societal constructs of gender, female-only spaces and debate the future of sports and how to resolve the issue of trans athletes.
You all know Tyson, but perhaps not Kisin, described by Youtube as a:
Russian-British satirist, podcaster, author and political commentator. Kisin has written for a number of publications including Quillette, The Spectator, The Daily Telegraph and Standpoint on issues relating to tech censorship, woke culture, comedy and culture war topics in the past but currently publishes articles on these subjects on his Substack. He has co-hosted Triggernometry since 2018, a YouTube channel and podcast featuring fellow comedian and co-host Francis Foster.
There are two parts to this conversation. The first involves Tyson’s claim, which he made in a video before, that gender is a flexible spectrum because “people wake up feeling 80% female and 20% male and thus put on makeup.” Or, if the proportions are reversed, they put on a “muscle shirt”. The claim is not only that people dress and adorn themselves based on their assumption that they’re a separable mixture of male and female notions, leading to a “sex spectrum”. Tyson wants to be the good guy, so he says that people should be able to dress how they want depending on how they feel.
Kisin notes, properly, that that is not in any sense the problem because everyone already agrees with that. The problem is that there are two discrete biological sexes and that they (especially females) should be able to have some privileges, including female-only spaces, depending not on a spectrum of gender but on their discrete biological sex.
I’ve discussed this before, and I can only repeat myself: the world doesn’t seem to work the way Tyson thinks it does. There are two issues here. First, people recognize members of their and the other sex not based largely on how they adorn themselves, but on visual cues about how their bodies look, including features like size, musculature, throat morphology, and so on. That’s discussed in this tweet by Carole Hooven (read her whole tweet):
Fascinating discussion with @neiltyson .
Here's one surprising admission from Tyson, starting at 53 minutes. He described how "girls" have certain "features that were manifest" to him. These were all ornamentation (makeup, jewelry, long hair), and "boys'" features were less… https://t.co/SmRmscZRST
— Carole Hooven (@hoovlet) September 21, 2023
Second, if a woman goes to a party and puts on makeup and a nice dress, does that mean that she feels “more female” than a woman who wears jeans and a tee-shirt to class? I don’t think the world works that way, or that people think that way. If you told such a woman, “Well, I guess you feel more like a man today,” you’d probably get chewed out. And you’d deserve it. Here’s a response I put up before to this fatuous claim by Tyson. It’s a bit heated, but I’d be upset too if, when I put on a nice aftershave before a date, somebody told me I must feel 10% female:
But the important part is the second half of the discussion, in which Kisin reminds Tyson that he’s been dealing with a non-controversy, and that the real controversy is whether we should have sex-limited spaces. Tyson seems to feel that this devolves only on “the bathroom issue”, which, he says, has already been solved by having two-sex bathrooms with stalls.
I used to think that that was a good solution, but I’m not so sure any more. I’ve talked to several women about this issue, and they just don’t want men next to them in a stall taking a large dump, nor do they want men in the room when they’re putting on makeup. (Bathrooms with a single stall are one solution, but that creates another problem, one that you can see by looking at bathroom lines at halftime during a sports event.)
Women also object to the fact that men’s bathrooms are dirty (we all know that men pee on toilet seats). The bathroom issue is discussed by Helen Joyce in her book Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, a book well worth reading. I now think that yes, you can have single-sex bathrooms with stalls, but there should also be separate men’s and women’s rooms if you want multiple stalls, a necessity in a large facility. And, needless to say, there should be separate men’s and women’s changing rooms in sports.
And this brings us not only to sports, an area where Tyson’s ignorance of biology is palpable, but also to other issues that he seems to have forgotten: women’s prisons, rape-counseling centers, halfway houses for battered women, and yes, even genital waxing. Tyson seems to think that all of these are problems that can be solved by allowing men or trans women to occupy spaces previously claimed by women. It is, he thinks, like a physics problem. And while the bathroom issue can be addressed (provide several alternatives), what do you do with biological men who abused women and then claimed they were trans women, just so they can get into women’s prisons and abuse more women? The solution is not to find some halfway position, but to just say “no”. There’s no good solution that will allow men who say they are really women (and yes, that’s the ubiquitous claim) to enter women’s spaces.
That’s even truer with sports. Tyson shows a profound ignorance of why women’s and men’s sports are separated when he first claims it’s all due to hormone differences. Kisin reminds him that that’s not true, and there are differences in musculature, physiology, grip strength, and so on.
And that, at about 8:20, is when Tyson gets really peeved, starts interrupting Kisin, and becomes loud and arrogant, saying that if the problem of male wrestling or rowing can be solved by creating weight classes, then surely we can solve the sex-differentiated sports issue by “finding ways to slice the population so that whatever the event is interestingly contested.” But how many classes do you need to have “equal” competition between men and women if you incorporate factors like hormone titers, musculature, previous performance, and so on? I can say two things in response. First, whatever solution you find will still be unfair to women, and second, you’ll surely going to have a ton of different categories, not just two. It’s unworkable.
Reminded of this, Tyson gets more ticked off and yells: “So fix the playing field, dammit. . . . We’re in the middle of solving that problem now.” Well, we’ve “tried” to solve the problem, like banning trans women from women’s cycling and women’s rugby, but that’s not the solution Tyson wants. He wants men and women to compete against each other, and no matter how you slice the bologna, if you include trans women as biological men, which they are, you’re going to create an unfair solution for women. The best solution is not making up a bunch of different categories of competition in the Olympics (the Olympics has already bailed on this issue!), but to either retain the sex-segregated categories, create three categories: “men’s”, “women’s” and “other”, or have two categories “women’s” and “other”. Tyson, of course, wants a lot more categories, though he can’t even begin to suggest how that would work. He just thinks that, like all scientific problems, it can be solved. (No, not all scientific problems can: we’ll never know what the first replicating organism looked like.).
In the end, I was disappointed by Tyson’s apparent lack of understanding of the problem, by his arrogance and anger at those he considers his intellectual inferiors, by his apparent indifference to the fact that yes, there are two sexes that differ biologically in both athletic abilities and ways of thinking, and above all by his casual indifference to the reason why women are demanding their own spaces. He may be an okay physicist, but as a social thinker he’s inferior to the many women (and some men) who have thought seriously about this issue.