Neil deGrasse Tyson Reveals the “Seeds of the Unraveling of Our Informed Democracy”

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Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, can turn any conversation toward science. That's the premise of his show Star Talk (the season finale just wrapped up on National Geographic), where he invites non-scientist celebrities — from Bill Maher to Whoopi Goldberg — on to talk about how science rules their world. When it comes to the lack of scientific literacy in the United States, then, it's no surprise that Tyson is outspoken — warning us it is harming our democracy as well as the nation's prosperity, health, and security. Here, Tyson sounds off on the state of science in pop culture, politics, and education. 

In a recent Star Talk episode, you had a remarkably frank conversation with Whoopi Goldberg and other guests about race in science fiction and geek culture. What was your goal in putting that together?

It's more random than you might think. The goal is to just get a famous person, with a huge following, [who] you would not associate with science. Then I have a conversation with them, in my office, that orbits all the ways in which science might have touched that person's life. Since science is ubiquitous in life and in society, it's not actually a very hard task. 

We take the scaffold of pop culture, which everyone walks into the room with. We find all the ways that science can clad that scaffold. In that way, you embrace the science, because it's part of something you care deeply about. That's been our recipe for creating this show.

Not everyone embraces science these days. Some researchers have been alarmed enough by this administration's attitudes toward science and scientists to organize a national “March for Science” in April. What's your take on that?

I never tell people what to do. You'll never see me bad-mouthing politicians. I want to just educate the public, let them know what science is, how and why it works, what is the cost of making some decisions versus others, what is the opportunity cost of not making decisions. And if people were trained that way from the beginning, you wouldn't even need a science march, because then the entire society would understand why science matters.

In a recent public talk in North Carolina you said that science illiteracy is a threat to the nation.

There are three things we care about most. One of them is health. Another one — in this, a capitalist society — is wealth. Another might be your security. Each of those, in the 21st century, will pivot on innovations in science, technology, engineering, and math. If you do not foster science literacy in this century, then those are the seeds of the unraveling of the informed democracy that our ancestors worked so hard to create. It would be a disaster for our health, our wealth, and our security, entirely.

When I say disaster, that's putting a value judgement on it. So let me say just what would happen: We would regress relative to other countries in the rest of the world who do value the role of STEM fields in their health, wealth, and security, and the United States would just get left behind. It's not a cliff that we'll fall over; we'll just fade to irrelevance on the world stage.

What do you make of anti-science members of the executive branch like Scott Pruitt, who is on record as disputing the reality of climate change?

When you have people that deny emergent, objective truths that have been established by the methods and tools of science, that is not a problem until and if those people have power. You want to think the Earth is flat? I celebrate the fact that we live in a free country where you can think that. As an educator I'll wonder, “Where did we go wrong there?” but I'm not going to beat you over the head for thinking that way. I will be concerned for the future of the country if you end up holding public office, and then you act on those objectively falsifiable beliefs.

I will not be dragged into the trenches on this. There's a high road here, and it's an important high road, and it transcends us all, and it has to do with objectively verifiable science, and what role that plays in the capacity of nations to sustain their health, their wealth, and their security. I like getting at least one head-of-agency per season on the show. So if the next head of the EPA does not understand why he doesn't understand, I'd be delighted to have him on the show and have the opportunity to explain it.

So how do we fix science education and scientific literacy?

I'm on a multi-year project to explore what might be a fertile solution to those problems. I don't suspect I'll have any fully baked answers until maybe 2020 or 2021.

That seems very far off!

It is. But anything I tell you now would be just half-baked, and it's not fully researched. Right now I have a lot of thoughts about the state of our educational system. Let me give you one of them, which I have thought deeply about, but I do not have an answer for it:

Much of what is taught in school, including in the science classrooms, presumes that you are an empty vessel. You pour knowledge into the student's head, and then you get them to convince you it was in their head at all in the form of a final exam. Whereas at no time are you taught how to think about the world.

What I mean by that is, do you understand what are facts, what is data? How do you turn data into knowledge? How do you turn knowledge into wisdom? This is a process that scientists go through daily [but] is not something that is ever taught as part of anyone's curriculum that I have ever seen.

I think it needs to be there, because once you know what science is, and how and why it works, it's a kind of inoculation against the virus of people exploiting your ignorance of how and why the world does work.