Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of America’s leading science popularizers, directs the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. The host of PBS-Nova’s ScienceNow, he appears regularly in the media. He has just been named a Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism. This passionate science educator recently discussed communicating science to the public with D.J. Grothe, associate editor of Free Inquiry.—Eds.
Free Inquiry: Has science education gotten better? Are people more into science now than they were twenty years ago?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: What is certain is that people have more access to science than ever before. Let’s go back to 1980 when Carl Sagan’s Cosmos first appeared. At that time, how many television stations were there? Back then, you could go months before you would stumble on a program on science, the kind of science programming you find now, when you have three hundred channels including some entirely devoted to science.
This leads us to an interesting conundrum: how is it that access to science can be so high, yet it appears that science literacy in the population has made only marginal gains, if any at all? Some would say the public has reverted to superstitious thinking over rational analysis of the world in which we live.
FI: You have been on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report numerous times. Both Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have said you are among their all-time favorite guests. Do you think your appearances sometime undercut your science education agenda because you have to speak in sound bites, reducing what you say down to the simplest terms in order to have the widest appeal?
Tyson: When I am invited on shows like this, I look at past episodes to see what kind of opportunities I can expect to have to get my message out. This helps me better package my message for that forum. If someone comes to my college class, I am not going to sound-bite astronomy for them; but the moment I go into this other medium, I owe it to the viewer to ask: How do I not compromise on the science yet deliver it in comedic short form or evening news sound bite? If as an educator you try to understand what’s going on in the minds of your audience, you can then shape the message in a way that best intersects their capacity to receive it.
FI: Does science need better PR? Do you need to downplay some implications of science because of the negative impact those implications might have?
Tyson: There are a number of scientists who have the set of social skills to effectively communicate science to the public, but the science community needs to have more incentives to attract scientists with those skills. Now, about downplaying implications of science . . . at the Center for Inquiry’s recent conference “The Secular Society and Its Enemies” in New York City, I was honored to be elected to the International Academy of Humanism. Reflecting on this, however, I realize that I have lived my whole life successfully avoiding any “isms.” Now I seem part of a “humanism” movement. I worry that what it means now is that someone can label me as a humanist and then tune me out on the premise that they know my worldview. This makes it hard to leave the doors of communication open with some people, because someone believes they already know what I believe as a humanist, an atheist, an agnostic, or what have you. The day that happens to me, I get pigeonholed, and that hurts me as an educator.
FI: You don’t want to draw a line in the sand. You want to keep the conversation going even with people who may believe, unlike you.
Tyson: Precisely. Otherwise the conversation—my attempt at educating—begins in a fight. The conflict between religion and science can be very cleanly defined. It is not whether or not you’re going to heaven or hell, or whether Jesus is your savior. The conflict between science and religion on school boards is when people looking at a religious text assert that they have knowledge about the physical universe that is demonstrably false. If you’re going to tell me that Noah had dinosaurs on his Ark, I must tell you that you’re ignorant and scientifically illiterate. You don’t belong in a science classroom, and that’s what I care about. But if you want to teach that in a Bible school, I’m not going to go knocking on your door to stop you. Yet you have fundamentalist religious communities trying to knock down the doors of the science classroom. As a scientist, I am not here to fight religious people; I am here to defend the science classroom.
This is only a small part of the conversation. To hear the rest of D.J. Grothe’s talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson, go to www.pointofinquiry.org.