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Neil deGrasse Tyson has the wrong model of politics

Voting is not about "thinking for yourself" at all. It is about working in concert with your fellow voters.

Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Once again, Neil deGrasse Tyson, an incredibly smart person, has tweeted something not so smart.

Tyson knows science but apparently not social science. Why do endorsements matter? Maybe because people don't have time to think for themselves about everything, so they take cues. I'd dismiss most celebrities, but if you find out that the organization dedicated to your favorite cause is for a candidate, that's incredibly helpful.

But it's not just that Tyson appears to be unaware of the usefulness of cues and heuristics. He's working from a fundamentally flawed model of democracy. Voting is not about "thinking for yourself" at all. It is about coordinating with your fellow voters. So especially in a primary, you need to know which candidate the people like you are backing, so you can join them. Endorsements help.

Tyson's inaccurate model of democracy is unfortunately pretty common. He wants to believe that voting is simply a matter of about expressing your opinion, and then that opinion will be magically aggregated into results. That's not what happens. The electoral rules aggregate the votes, and those rules matter.

In a plurality-rule system like ours, you need to have the most votes. So you coordinate. Politicians and organizations who have devoted their lives to politics might be particularly influential in that coordination. As they should be.

Tyson's wrong model of democracy was on display in some of his other out-of-his-element comments on politics. In March, he said that people who were against Donald Trump are against people voting for Trump.

Well, yes. If you don't like Trump, then you think Trump voters are making a mistake. And you should be free to tell them. Give them some cues. They are free to take them or not. That's how political campaigns work.

Even after we have coordinated with our fellow voters, we need professional politicians to translate those votes into action. Tyson doesn't like that idea either. In a meme-worthy interview years ago, he objected to all the lawyers and businesspeople in Congress. "Where are the scientists? Where are the engineers? Where's the rest of ... life?" he asked.

The rest of life is off doing what the rest of life is good at. There aren't many lawyers working at the Hayden Planetarium, I imagine. The job of Congress is to make laws. You might expect that a law degree would be useful for that. It would be nice to see more science knowledge on the floor of Congress, although it might be enough if politicians took cues (there it is again!) from scientists about science issues.

But if you think democracy is just about people expressing their opinions, and then, poof, governance, then all this complicated work of politics is easy to dismiss.

Sadly, since Tyson is so smart, many people will listen to his endorsement of this inaccurate model of politics. People should listen to Tyson when he tells them that Pluto is not a planet, but maybe we should find better cue-givers on politics.