Neil deGrasse Tyson: We'll Have to ‘Sink Lower’ Before Congress Takes Action to Save the Planet
Neil deGrasse Tyson is a force. A respected astrophysicist with a custom space-theme wardrobe who moonlights as a late-night television guest, the director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, a living meme, and in his current star turn, host of the hit series “Cosmos,” a reboot of the Carl Sagan original, he’s also, without doubt, a sizable thorn in the side of the religious right.
What he is not, Tyson tells Salon, is an advocate. He trusts, instead, that science will speak for itself. But insofar as science has a human vessel, Tyson’s inarguably embraced the role. And so long as the science demands it, he’s never been one to shy away from controversy, be it demoting Pluto from its planetary status, or more recently, representing the emerging consensus on climate change as it comes under attack from religious and industry forces.
Tyson didn’t write the script for “Cosmos” — that was the work of Ann Druyan, who told my colleague Andrew O’Hehir that she’s surprised critics talk about the show “as if Neil has had something to do with its inception or its writing.” But she acknowledges, too, that part of getting the message across is having the right messenger, and Tyson’s certainly risen to the occasion. He articulated his own take on climate-change deniers — “people, if they begin to lose their wealth, they change their mind real fast, I’ve found, particularly in a capitalist culture” — during an appearance as Chris Hayes’ much-vaunted guest on MSNBC. By now, he’s become invested in this specific iteration of the culture wars to the point that Fox News saw fit to take him and his “white liberal nerd” admirers down a few pegs.
If climate-change-denying politicians can couch their false claims by asserting, “I’m not a scientist,” Tyson has the opposite task: He is a scientist, but he’s not a climate scientist; he can speak with authority on the tenets of settled science — whether climate change is happening — but has less to say about what we should do to mitigate its effects, and can only speculate with the rest of us about whether we’ll be successful.
After watching him engage with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa on global political issues at New York’s Beacon Theatre in June for a live recording of his StarTalk podcast, Salon followed up with Tyson to learn more about how he positions himself: as an educator, as a highly visible minority in a STEM field who’s spoken, in the past, of the societal barriers that stood in his way, and as a cultural icon who, while putting the science first, is still aware of how many retweets he gets from his 2 million-plus followers.
Oh, and while he’s not a policy guy, he does have some ideas about how to solve the world’s problems. Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, is below.
Lindsay Abrams: Through “Cosmos” and in recent comments you’ve made, you’ve become something of a spokesperson for the effort to fight climate change and especially to fight climate-change deniers. But you’ve also said you won’t debate deniers or creationists because the science should speak for itself. Where do you draw the line between education and advocacy?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: People, I think, may occasionally think of me as an advocate, but in my mind, I’m not. I’m just trying to get people as fully informed as they can be so that they can make the most informed decisions they can based on their own principles or philosophies or mission statement. What concerns me is that I see people making decisions, particularly decisions that might affect policy or governance, that are partly informed, or misinformed, or under-informed. And so I think there’s value as an educator, and especially as a scientist, to get as much of that information out there for people to respond to. And then I just go home and they do with it what they want, whether they reject it or embrace it or whatever. But I don’t have the energy, the interest or the urges to debate people on any topic at all. It’s just not due as an educator.
LA: Do you think that scientists should play any role in helping to shape policy or in leading calls to action from the public? Or is that just not the domain of scientists and educators?
NDT: There’s a long, storied history of scientists as advocates, scientists as major social/cultural spokespeople. And a lot of that stemmed from the Cold War where the major Cold War weaponry was completely traceable to the brain efforts of physicists — basically the Nuclear Age. So what you had were physicists who knew everything there was to know about these bombs and felt that it was not the way the world should go. And so you had these sort of “physics pacifists,” if you will, who were quite outspoken — Einstein was among them. Even though you can see in his equation the foundation of the energy derived from those bombs: E=MC². So I would say that during the entire Cold War there was a long and distinguished train of scientists who were quite visible and quite outspoken about their views on war, weaponry and this sort of thing.
In modern times, I find it odd that people turn to me to comment on these other matters. I’m an astrophysicist. But there are people who are climate scientists. I think more climate scientists should step up to the plate and serve that same corresponding role that the physicists played during the Cold War, and if they want, to empower lawmakers and the citizenry to make informed decisions about the future of the country. So I think it should happen more than it has happened. But, like I said, many of these issues are not directly at the center of my professional expertise and we have others for whom it is. So in the way that nuclear physicists stood up, I think we should have climate scientists standing up.
With any issue that comes up, when we have an emergent scientific truth, we can’t just sit back and watch people debate a scientific truth — they should be debating the politics that would follow from the emergent scientific truth. That’s really what the debates should be about, but they haven’t been. And I’m disturbed by that, because I don’t know what kind of democracy that is, if you’re gonna run around cherry-picking the results of science, of emergent scientific consensus because it conflicts with your philosophy and you want to be responsible for the governance of the nation, which involves thoughtful planning for the future of our health and our wealth, the state of the economy, all of the above.
LA: We talk about science with a capital S, as something that’s “true whether or not you believe in it” — especially settled science. And I’m wondering if that’s where some of the pushback might come from, because scientists do get things wrong sometimes, or scientific thinking changes.
NDT: So unfortunately that sentence — which I have uttered, and I think some people even have put on t-shirts, with my name on it — to fully understand what it means requires some qualification. In science, when you perform experiments and observations, and when the experiments and observations begin to agree with one another, and they’re conducted by different people — people who are competitive with one another, people who are not even necessarily in your field but do something that relates to your field — you start seeing a trend. And when that trend is consistent and persistent, no matter who’s doing the experiment, no matter where the experiment is being done, no matter whether the groups were competitive or not, you have an emergent scientific truth. That truth is true whether or not you believe in it.
On the frontier of science, stuff is wrong all the time. I mean, if I have an experiment — what typically happens is, if it’s an interesting result that nobody expected, the press will come, and then they’ll write about it and maybe my host institution will send out a press release which will feed this… state. And the press will say “New results: scientists say…” and then they say cholesterol is good for you. And then a few weeks later, cholesterol is bad for you. And the public is wondering, what the hell is going on? Do scientists even know what they’re doing? How come they don’t agree? Well, on the frontier, we don’t agree. That’s what the frontier means. That’s why there is a frontier; that’s the whole point of the frontier. If we all agreed on it, it would just be in the textbooks and we’d move on.
So people often confuse the raggedy, bleeding edge of scientific research with the established truths that consensus of observation and experiment reveal. And so that’s the whole, full explanation for that one sentence, which is hard to put into one quip. So, Earth is going around the Sun, whether or not you believe that’s true: that has been experimentally, observationally identified and demonstrated and we’ve moved on to the next question. The Sun is going around the center of the galaxy. Earlier people didn’t know that or they doubted it, some people thought we were the center of the galaxy — that was an active area of research. The evidence mounts and we learn that the Sun — in fact, there was a whole debate on this, back in 1920, to be precise — and we concluded, after better data became available, that the Sun is just orbiting the center of the galaxy, in much the same way the Earth is orbiting the Sun. And now that’s a closed issue and we’re on to other questions. So I think people are confusing the bleeding edge of science with established science, and somehow thinking that all science is like the bleeding edge, where that’s not true.
LA: It sounds like a lot of that is a communications problem and probably a lot of it is the media’s fault. But that has to make you worry about the power you have as a scientist, when you can slap a headline on something and say “Scientists say…”
NDT: Yeah, so, the press wants to be out ahead of any results, right? And it’s only an interesting headline if what the scientists found was different than what people were thinking or expecting that preceded it. So I understand that urge, but what the press doesn’t say is: “this result still needs to be verified by other experiments.” Something isn’t true because one scientist has one result from their one experiment. And I think not enough of the press recognizes this, and they need to, otherwise they’re giving a distorted view of what science is and how it works in the hearts and minds of the public.
LA: At the Beacon last month, you spoke a bit about the importance of STEM literacy. Obviously not everyone is going to go into the math, science and engineering fields, but do you have a conception of what every responsible citizen should know? Is it enough to watch “Cosmos” and get the basic concepts, or is there another level of understanding the public needs?
NDT: Excellent question. So I have an unorthodox definition of science literacy, and I’m trying to get more people to think about it in this way. I think typically when we think of science literacy, it’s “do you know what causes the seasons?” or what the DNA molecule is, or how our internal combustion engine works or what the Big Bang is or “what is evolution?” And this is chalked up as evidence of whether you’re scientifically literate or not. And while that’s an aspect of it, I think what’s more important than even that is how is your brain wired for thought, for inquiry and for curiosity.
If you are curious, and you want to learn more about something, and you question what it is you see in search of answers that would support or deny what you see, that to me is science literacy. And so it’s, how do you approach someone who makes a statement to you? Do you say “Oh, that’s great, that’s gotta be true! Tell me more” or is it “Well, why is that true? How did you come to arrive at that conclusion? What are the consequences of it? How does it affect others, how does it affect me, how does it affect civilization or culture?” To me, the capacity to even know to ask those questions is at the center of what it is to be scientifically literate.
Now, given that, we don’t want a whole world where everybody is a STEM professional; that would be boring. There would be no artists and comedians and poets, and novelists and journalists and the rest of what fleshes out what we call civilization. But at a minimum, I think everyone should be scientifically literate, no matter their profession, because here’s what could happen: Suppose we’re going into space in a big way and we’re tapping a whole generation of STEM professionals, but you’re not a STEM professional; you say “I want to become a lawyer” and so you go to law school. But then there are people worrying about who owns the rights to asteroid mining, and then you say, “Well, I understand asteroids, and I know what they are and I know what they’re made of and maybe I want to be that lawyer.”
And all of a sudden, society begins to participate on the moving frontier of STEM professionals. Artists will say, “Take me to the far side of the moon because there is a new sculpting series that I want to start and I need the inspiration that that would bring me.” Or there’s a new story that could be told about the crew of seven that was alone with one another on a generational ship. It’s a source of creativity among artists as well as others who flesh out, like I said, what we come to define civilization to be. And then everyone’s a participant.
LA: There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about science being under attack, and it seems like that could be the kind of thing that could help people become more aware of what’s going on, and maybe less hostile toward science. Or would you argue that that kind of scientific literacy would just be a way to get people to have science more involved in their lives than it otherwise would be?
NDT: Yeah, that’s a perceptive question and comment. I would say that the reason people even think that they can attack science is because they think science is this thing, this edifice. And when they choose to walk up to it, that’s when they address it and they query it, without realizing that science is so fundamentally all around us, in everything we do and say and think about. And one of the messages of “Cosmos” was how thoroughly dependent we are on science and its cousin, technology. And once you recognize that, you’re not going to say, “Today I’m not going to do science” or “I didn’t do well in science in school so I’m just going to ignore it.” It’s all around us and it invites you to embrace it. That will make you a more informed citizen of a democracy, where you elect people who will govern your lives with laws that they pass. You want them to be enlightened and informed, as enlightened and as informed as is humanly possible.
LA: After the Beacon event, you mentioned a time you got into a trouble for something you tweeted about education, that seems similar to what you’re saying now — that good teachers need to engender a love of learning. Why do you think that was so controversial?
NDT: What was controversial was that I said, “Why is it that you’re more likely to hear a teacher say ‘These students don’t want to learn’ than a teacher say ‘I suck at my job.’”
Some people said “he’s clearly never taught” but clearly they’ve never read my CV: it has all my teaching experiences clear and explicit there and it goes very far back. So, yes, it’s a strong tweet, and I just don’t ever want a teacher to put the blame of a student not learning on the student. You’re not there to just put up a lesson plan and hope that they follow it. You are if you’re a college professor, because people are paying big money to attend the school, and if they flunk out, it’s not your problem. But in the public schools, I think we should measure teachers by how much improvement their efforts bring about in the progress of students. Not by how many straight-A students they might put forth as a display of the excellence of their educational talent. A straight-A student gets straight As because the teaching talent of the teacher is irrelevant. That’s what straight As means. It means you got an A in every class you took — and that’s only possible if the variation in the teaching skills in the teachers of each of those classes is irrelevant to you.
You perform no matter how good or bad the teacher is. So the least illuminating student you can put on display at your school are the straight-A students. The one who is the greatest display of whether or not you’re a good teacher is the student who was flunking but is now maybe getting a C. Or the student who was getting a C and now is getting a B+ because of your intervention as teacher, because of your effort to think about how that student learns relative to someone else.
Now, that’s hard, particularly in big cities, especially in New York, where you might have 34 kids in a class. It may even be impossible to find the right key for every student. But the reason they’re not learning is not because they don’t want to learn; it’s because the system has not allowed you the time to find the key to every one of the students. And so the answer should not be “they don’t learn because they don’t want to learn,” it should be “they want to learn but the system does not allow me the time to figure out what their formula is.” And by the way, it’s something called individualized learning; it’s not a new educational concept. They need much smaller classes to enable that. But who I was indicting is those people who say that students don’t want to learn.
I spend every day of my life that I reach the public asking myself first “What are the receptors that exist in the audience I’m about to address?” Is it culture, is it sports, is it food, is it entertainment, is it movies? And I spend some effort of my life acquainting myself with all of these ancillary elements, so that when I do have a conversation with a person and I’m not reaching them by some traditional way, I access my utility belt that I’ve assembled for myself and say “Oh, this person likes this set of movies; I saw those movies, let’s start there.” And now the person gets excited, their eyes brighten up, and now the receptors are ready to engage in the science, which was my object of the lesson plan. You know, that’s a simplified example of what I’m trying to get across here, but you get the point.
LA: Somewhat related to that, when we talk about people who are going into the sciences — women and minorities are still significantly underrepresented in STEM — do you have thoughts about what we can do to lessen that gap? Or to encourage people who don’t traditionally go into these fields?
NDT: I don’t have a silver bullet there, but I’m thinking long and hard about that problem. And maybe I’ll have a solution or some insights that I could share with people in a couple of years but right now I don’t have deep insights to it. And there are interesting other questions: For example, there are other fields that are predominately women that don’t get the same level of analysis as the fields that are predominantly men. For example — maybe this exists but I haven’t seen it — no one is asking why veterinarians are 85 percent women. There’s no movement to reduce that number so that there’s equal numbers of men. And veterinary school is harder to get into than medical school in terms of percentage of applicants they accept. So, I wonder if the answer to that is more broadly, deeply embedded in society than just pointing to the cultural climate in one branch of science versus another.
You know, the NBA is 80 percent black — are we saying we have to reduce that number so that the blacks in the NBA are the same percent as in the population, so that there’s room for white people to play? Are we saying that? Well, we’re not. Why not? Well, there’s some expectation that there is equal opportunity for everyone, so if you can believe there’s equal opportunity, then things just shake out however they do and no one complains about it. So the challenge will be to ask, do women and minorities have an equal opportunity to study in the sciences? And if so, does that mean that that will ultimately become half women? And 12 percent black, or whatever the number is in the United States. If there are other fields where there is equal opportunity and we don’t recover the numbers that we have in society, and no one is studying why that’s the case, then that will make these other questions harder to address, is my point. So, I don’t have an answer; these are the questions that I’m posing to myself as I continue to think about the problem.
LA: So you need to figure out why this is happening before you can find a solution.
NDT: I think what would be interesting would be to go around society and look at fields that are dominated by some demographic well out of numbers to their proportion of the population. So, veterinary medicine: 85 percent women. Nursing: 95 percent women. Men could be nurses, but they’re not, so what’s going on there? Again, the NBA. You just go around and look at the list. Then you have particle physics or whatever that’s 85 percent men. So what’s the difference between particle physics and veterinary medicine? Are there opportunities that are in one place and not the other? Do we believe men have equal access to veterinary medicine? Is there discrimination against men in that field? If not, then what is attracting the women to it? Whatever that is that’s attracting the women to it, does that not exist in particle physics? And if it did exist, would it? So, I’m just saying, these are a zillion questions that are coursing through my head.
LA: To talk a bit again about climate change — not so much from a climate scientist perspective but in a general sense — in “Cosmos” you talk about the promise of green energy, but there’s also a lot of discussion lately about it being too late at this point to make meaningful change, and of people feeling discouraged. Do you think we have what it takes as a society to reverse course?
NDT: In my read of history, when things get very bad, people tend to come into agreement about what next steps they need to take and there’s less arguing. For example, in 1939, 1940 there were nationalists in America who didn’t want to engage in the war in Europe. There were strong debates in Congress and the executive branch — and then we get attacked at Pearl Harbor, and at that point everyone is aligned. And we, at the time, had the tenth or something largest army in the world — something much lower than other countries that were actively engaged in this war — but once all of our pistons were aligned, we built a military machine that tipped the balance of power in the world over a four-year period. We felt threatened, we felt down, we felt like we had to act as one.
So I’ve seen this country do that. On multiple occasions: We did it for Sputnik. If someone wants to fly over your country in the air, there’s a law, you need permission to allow them to do that. But if they’re above the air, they’re in space where there is no law that controls that — so there was Sputnik, launched in 1957, flying over the United States. A Soviet piece of hardware, launched on a vessel that would otherwise be used to carry intercontinental ballistic missiles. We freaked out. All of our pistons became aligned, and within 12 years of Sputnik going up, we are walking on the moon. We alluded to that in “Cosmos,” with reference to Kennedy’s speech about doing things not because it’s easy but because it’s hard.
So I think maybe we have to sink lower before the pistons of Congress and the electorate align to take meaningful action, to protect the planet going forward. And this idea about being too late, well that’s defeatist of course. That’s saying, “Well, okay, we don’t know what to do so therefore let’s do nothing.” By the way, I can imagine — I mean, I’m making this up, but it’s not far-fetched to imagine that someone invents some CO² scrubbing device — “scrubbing” is the word they use in the industry — where air blows in one on side and there’s some thing inside that just takes CO² and makes solid bricks out of it and it’s very effective, like the buried limestone of the cliffs of Dover. And then if you have that you can continue with industry. Because we’ve now removed the CO² that we put in, keeping Earth in equilibrium.
I mean that’s an interesting option; why isn’t anybody thinking of that? And by the way, that’s an entire world outside of my professional expertise. That’s engineering and climate and air and chemistry. So, people should know by now that if Kennedy says — before we have any spacecraft that can fly a human being without killing them — “let’s go to the moon before the decade is out,” and we go to the moon, well I remember that go-getter attitude; I’m old enough to remember that. It meant anything was possible, or at least was within technological reach — the laws of physics do prevent some things from ever happening, but technologically, there’s no limit.
LA: Because you do have this public platform and people are listening to you, are there other issues that you would want to bring to the public’s attention or that you think more attention should be paid to, be they social, political or environmental?
NDT: Yeah, people like dividing up all the problems and creating movements surrounding each one. And I think at the end of the day what we’re really missing maybe is widespread, rampant curiosity. The kind of curiosity that children have. We need more of that in adults. Because if you’re curious, then you’ll say, “Oh, I wonder why that works that way.” You didn’t have to take a class in it, your own curiosity forces you to go to Wikipedia, or get a book on it, or rent a video. And that curiosity grows the knowledge base of everyone.
I’ve tweeted multiple times on the concept and idea of curiosity and those, by the way, are some of my heavily retweeted tweets. One of them was comparing the curiosity of children to the curiosity of the adults raising them. And I was worried that if an adult loses curiosity then they won’t even see it in their children and they’ll squash it because they’ll interpret it as a destructive force in the household, when all the kid is doing is exploring what’s in the drawers or what happens if you drop a glass on the kitchen floor — things that are definitely destructive to your house but are the manifestation of just kids being curious. I was in New York the day before yesterday, and it had just rained so there were puddles in the walkway. And there was a little girl with boots and a little umbrella over her shoulder, and she’s walking straight towards the puddle. And I said, “Oh, this will be fun, I bet she jumps in with two feet.” And the mother says “No, don’t jump in the puddle, walk around it.” And I said, “There it is! There is a little bit of curiosity being squashed.”
Because what happens if you jump in the puddle? You get to — you’re losing the experiment on what a splash zone will look like and how big is the splash based on how hard you jumped in it and could you clear the puddle, based on having jumped in it? And then you learn the puddle is there because there’s a slight depression in the pavement, and so water collects where it’s a slightly low point compared to other points, that’s why it didn’t roll down the hill. There’s a whole experiment there that the kid would have done but did not because the parent didn’t want to clean the clothes.
So I promise on this: If all people were curious, that would just solve everything, I think. Almost everything. It’ll solve so much of what today we identify as problems that need separate solutions.