Neil deGrasse Tyson: We'll Have to ‘Sink Lower’ Before Congress Takes Action to Save the Planet
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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.