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How to Navigate Arguments During Holiday Dinner

By Neil deGrasse Tyson

Social Media — OpEd

Inspired by the contents of the book Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization

We’re approaching that time of year when a third of a billion people, all residents of the USA, plan and gather for holiday dinner. Bad day for turkeys. Good day for catching up with all the relatives, close friends, and their friends.

The three generations of family gathered around the dinner table in Norman Rockwell’s famous painting “Freedom From Want,” surely thought all the same thoughts as one another, on all the same issues that confronted them in 1943. Today, however, holiday dinner conversations commonly devolve into a cage match of verbal combat. What were once calmly held opinions are now tribalized and weaponized. Dinner guests express their views as unassailable truths, to be defended at all costs, complete with fork-pointing accusations of being socially, culturally, or politically clueless about everything that matters in society.

Are you woke? If so, are you woke enough? Or are you too woke? Are you a libtard leftist? A crazy conservative? Did you vote for Trump—twice? How about Obama—did you vote for him twice? Who do you sleep with? Who do you pray to? Do you pray at all? What bathroom do you use? What countries do you favor? Which ones do you hate? Do we send in our military? Should we have a military at all? Do you love guns? Do you embrace law enforcement and the justice system? Do you like the Supreme Court? Do you watch FOXNews or MSNBC? I guarantee that during this year’s holiday dinner, some or all of those topics will be raised and contested.

Consider what happens when scientists disagree. We look for one of three outcomes: either I’m right and you’re wrong, you’re right and I’m wrong, or we’re both wrong. That’s an implicit contract we carry into all arguments on the frontier of discovery. Who decides the outcome? Nobody does. Arguing more loudly or strenuously or more articulately than your opponent simply reveals how annoying and obstinate you are. The resolution almost always comes when more or better data arrive.

Here are a few examples of calm, rational analysis that might take place in a scientist’s head. An exercise in thinking out loud, but with training to seek and evaluate not “both” sides of an argument—but all sides, while sensitized by Leonardo da Vinci’s edict: “The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinion.”

  1. Do you love all animals? If yes, does that include ticks, fleas, leeches, and mosquitos? If any of these parasites were endangered, would you lead a movement to protect them? They’re animals too, trying to make a living like the rest of us. They just don’t happen to be furry. Not into bloodsuckers? Then confess to yourself that you want to protect only cuddly, cute animals, invoking a form of species bigotry upon the tree of life.
  2. Do you eat line-caught tuna? If so, that protects air-breathing dolphins that might otherwise get caught in nets, where they suffocate and die. Tragic, indeed. Personally, I seek out line-caught tuna for that reason. But amid the outpouring of sympathy for the dead dolphin, and all the lobbying to save them, where’s our collective concern for the dead tuna?
  3. But dolphins are mammals. Gotta love mammals. We’re mammals. Yet last I checked, so are lambs, pigs, and cows. And we eat them. Maybe a dolphin’s big brain relative to its body size is what we value. We surely respect elephants and whales for that reason. But the animals with the largest brain to body-weight ratio, far exceeding that of humans, are various species of ants—logging up to 15% of their bodyweight in brain-matter. Come to think of it, they do have huge heads. In the US, we don’t eat ants, but for reasons that have nothing to do with their big brains.
  4. What about political tropes? We all know that Republicans are pro family values. But the lowest divorce rate in the country, by far, is the perennially blue state of Massachusetts. And nine of the ten states with the highest divorce rate voted red in the 2020 election. Further, if you analyze childbirths, you find that nearly half of all babies in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, and South Carolina are born out of wedlock. Yet each of those states voted red in every general election this century. The corresponding rates for the famously blue states of California, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and New York are half that. So conservatives cannot claim the high ground when it comes to family values.
  5. Another political trope: Liberals embrace science while conservatives reject it. Indeed, the denial of human-caused climate change poses an existential threat to civilization, and that sits squarely within Republican rhetoric. Yet liberals were the original vaccine deniers. Liberal enclaves also contain crystal healers, astrologers, homeopathic medicines, as well as strong anti-GMO and anti-pharma sentiments. To absorb these lines of thinking requires you reject some or all mainstream science related to them. So liberals cannot claim the high ground when it comes to who does or does not embrace science.

Might this be you? “I always voted at my party’s call. And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.” –Sir Joseph Porter’s Song, 1878, Gilbert & Sullivan (HMS Pinafore)

Nearly every thought, every opinion, and every outlook I formulate on world affairs has been touched—informed and enlightened—by knowledge of our place on Earth and of our place in the universe. Far from being a cold, feelingless enterprise, there is, perhaps, nothing more human than the methods, tools, and discoveries of science. They shape modern civilization. And what is civilization, if not what humans have built for themselves as a means to transcend primal urges and as a landscape on which to live, work, and play.

What then of our collective and persistent disagreements? All I can promise is that whatever opinions you currently hold, an infusion of science and rational thinking can render them more informed than ever before. But that path can also expose unfounded perspectives or unjustified emotions you may carry. That’s when many disagreements soften, while others simply evaporate, leaving you with nothing to argue about in the first place.