Neil deGrasse Tyson – Communicating Science

February 28, 2011

Our guest this week needs little introduction—he may be our most famous public communicator of science.

He’s Neil DeGrasse Tyson, renowned American astrophysicist, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, and the host of PBS’s NOVA ScienceNow, which just completed a new six part season.

Tyson is also the author of 9 books, most recently Death By Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries, which was a New York Times bestseller, and The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet.

In this double length episode, Tyson discusses a wide range of topics: the just finished 2011 season of ScienceNow; how to restore a science “Zeitgeist” in our culture; Bill O’Reilly’s recent foot-in-mouth comments about how the world works; this million-view YouTube clip of Tyson and Richard Dawkins; and much more.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, February 28, 2011.

Welcome the point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney.

Point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grassroots. This week’s guest needs no introduction. He’s Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of our most famous public communicators of science. Dr. Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. And the host of PBS is Nova Science Now, which just completed a new season. He’s also the author of nine books, including The New York Times, best selling Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries. And most recently, the Pluto Files The Rise and Fall of America’s favorite planet. Neil deGrasse Tyson, welcome to Point of Inquiry.

Thanks for having me back. I think my fifth time or something. Did you have enough for me? Do you think?

No, I’m not sure that we have. It’s an honor to have you again. And you’ve just completed in a new season of a PBS Nova science now centered around the six big questions. Some of them were, how does the brain work? How smarter animals. I guess I want to ask you first, what did you learn in the process of doing this series that may have surprised you? Struck you?

Yes, a great question, because, of course, professionally, I’m an astrophysicist. But if I host a show on general science, I’m exposed to fields. That would be no other occasion for me to know about. And I would say among my favorite subjects were the one where they’re trying to grow human organs in a hospital in Boston. That was that was just creepy, freaky, amazing and astonishing where you taken you take a an organ from a pig, for example, pigs large of a pig. It’s large enough. The organs are about the same size and what you find in humans and then you dissolve away, they take your heart. For example, you dissolve away all the pigs cells that are attached to the to the scaffolding. That’s the structure of the heart itself. And then you have this sort of his college in ghostlike structure that had contained all of the pig cells, that made it a heart. And then you grow you culture, your own cells onto that architecture, and then you implant that organ into your own body and your body doesn’t rejected it thinks it’s its own. It’s the right size. It pumps to the way it’s supposed to. And it could be or it could be liver. It could be could be lungs. And just the idea that you would just sort of grow your own organs for someone later. Emergency for me was was that’s the future right there. And forget this, plastic inserts and all these other non organic helpers that their kidneys install in our body, that that one, I think left me in a new place. And I say another another segment that was particularly intriguing to me was the one that has just aired. But of course, you can see it online. All of these segments are available on Nova Science now as Web site, but it’s in the answer to what’s the next big thing. We selected the efforts to modernize the electrical grid in America. Normally when people think of big things, they think of a single big thing and they look at and touch it. Whereas the electrical grid is more subtle than that, of course. And it’s so much of it we take for granted. You just walk in your home and flick on a switch and all the lights turn on where the electricity come from. How did it get there? Was it efficient? What? How do they know how much to send? And we have an electrical grid that’s that’s 70, 80 years old. And it’s time to modernize it and make it work with the efficiencies that we know and expect for any kind of modern use of electricity. So just to watch what the grid had been doing and what it will be doing, that was a new that was new for me as well.

Lizabeth, great topics. And I guess the first is under the heading of Can We Live Forever? And the second would be about modernizing electricity. Um, on the second. I’m actually interested. There’s been a recent story in The New York Times about how people are actually resisting smart grids because they’re afraid that it’s going to do something strange to their brains.

Yeah, I mean, this is, you know, part of you that’s not the first time people would fear a new technology. And I it’s unfortunate. So I you know, what do you do? Do you say, no, it’s not going to you think your brain or you just educate them properly in the first place. And my task as a scientist and as an educator from my earliest days has been to really just try to get people to understand the causes and effects of things and the operations of nature at its most basic level, so that when they’re confronted with a fear factor, it’s really ignorance. You know, the consequence of ignorance is you make decisions that you think are informed. But in fact or not. And whereas if you’re trained and understand, then whatever subsequent decisions you make are are based or anchored in a physical reality. And that’s the kind of state of mind we need the electorate to be in.

You also did one of them was about how the brain works. How does the brain work? And and you point out that it works in part by diluting us and even by diluting us with cognitive and precognitive biases. And that the crazy thing is you could argue that this is sort of functional because that’s how we got here.

Yeah, I’ve had an interesting point because I think the science exists in part in large measure, because the data taking faculties of the human body are faulty. And what science does as an enterprise is provide ways to get data acquired, data from the natural world that don’t have to filter through your senses. And this ensures, or at least minimizes as far as possible, the capacity of your brain to fool itself. So it’s to the neuroscience scientists.

The brain is this amazing organ and to the physical scientist is like, get it addictive. Leave it and leave it at home.

Just bring your box and we’ll have the box, make the measurements. So that’s an interesting sort of duality. You have a brain you can survive. Know, my favorite among these is how easily the brain recognizes patterns. Even when there are no patterns there.

You can statistically show there are no patterns, but your brain creates patterns. And the long term explanation for that has always been it’s better to think that’s a tiger in the bushes and then run away from it then and have it not be a tiger then for it to be a tiger, not notes it’s there and then you get eaten. So the people who did not see patterns in the history of the species got eaten by creatures that were in fact making patterns.

And in the in the individual den of the forest, the birth of science is, of course, the attempt to override this. And Francis Bacon talked about the idols of the mind. And that’s essentially what we’re now understanding through neuroscience. But it suggests something about human nature where scientific thinking is always going to be kind of the kid who gets left out of the group.

Yeah, I think the the, you know, is science. If it were natural to think scientifically, then science, as we currently practice, it would have been going on for thousands of years. But it hasn’t. It’s relatively late in the activities of a culture science as we now practice it. And that would be, you know, a hypothesis, an experiment, a. a.. You know, the careful taking of data. This is a relatively modern that’s been going on for no more than about 400 years. And you look at how long civilizations have been around and you say, well, there’s a disconnect there. It’s clearly it’s not natural to think this way. Otherwise we would we’d been doing it from the beginning. And meanwhile, mathematics is the language of the universe, fascinatingly so. And yet science and math tend to be the two subjects that you will commonly hear people complain about in their in your in their time in school. And and so I’m remain perennially intrigued by that fact that the operations of the universe can be understood through your fluency in math and science. And it’s math and science that give people the greatest challenges in the school system. That’s an interesting disconnect. And it calls for a greater attention to science education and science funding and all the things that will help us bridge that gap between the failures of the human mind to interpret reality and the methods and tools that that enable it.

Well, that’s a good way to shift to some points about public policy that I know you’ve spoken about. We’re in a pretty perilous situation these days when it comes to federal funding of science pretty much across the board.

I know you’ve advocated the idea that you have to fund all strands of research because you don’t know where any one of them is going to lead. Could you explain why that’s the case and how would you apply it to the kind of science budget situation that we’re looking at?

Yeah, that’s. Thanks for following up on that, because there’s some very YouTube clips of me. You know, the funny thing about YouTube, because I don’t post any of it. What happens is people, they they bring in their, you know, their camcorder or whatever. And they and they they film the whole lecture and then they take out the best parts. And so some of my best stuff is on YouTube. And if you miss out over on all the boring part that they didn’t put up but or the rest of it, that fleshes out the argument. So if this is this is a great occasion for me to make that clear. The the the urge is for people to say, why are we funding that when we should be funding this? You know, why are we going into space? When we haven’t cured cancer yet. And so let’s put money to cure cancer. And so let’s fund this cancer research. Let’s fund this research on AIDS or this other disease. And so the urge is to guide scientific efforts towards the direct solutions to problems that befalls society. And that urges is fully understandable. All right. I’m not faulting anybody for feeling that way. But I will fall people for believing that that’s the only way you would get those solutions or that it is even the best way to get those solutions. So, again, I’m not faulting for feeling that way. But if you actually analyze the history of discovery and how those discoveries influence society, there was a not the best ways to arrive at those solutions, which is not to watch what you end up doing as you create bandaids to the problems and you get a temporary solution and ill. And it makes it feel a little better. But the profound solutions to the greatest ailments that have ever been befallen in society have hardly ever come from a direct application of intellectual effort to that problem, period. And so the sooner people recognize this, the better.

And I can give my my favorite examples here. If you walk through a hospital, any large, large, busy hospital and look at every machine with an on off switch brought into the service of diagnosing the condition of the human body.

It’s based on a principle of physics discovered by a physicist who had no interest in medicine. Period. Retter medicine was not what drove the discovery that led to the creation of that medical device.

And one of the best examples here is the MRI magnetic resonance imager. You know, here it is, imaging the soft tissue of your body without having to cut you open. Awesome. Well, where did that come from? Well, that comes from the physical principle of nuclear magnetic resonance. Well, you can’t use the nuclear word N-word in the hospital because people scare people. So they took out the N-word. So it’s not NMR. It’s an MRI in the hospital, but it’s principles of nuclear magnetic resonance, which was discovered by a physicist who happened to be my physics professor in college, but was discovered by a physicist interested in the behavior of nuclei and atoms in the galaxy, in the galaxy. And he discovers that nuclei will respond to a magnetic field, a strong magnetic field if you pass it across it and different mass nuclei will respond differently. So that if you pass a magnetic field across this mixture of atoms and then send light across it, particular kinds of radio waves, the light will bend and be affected by those different nuclei in different ways. And if you’re clever about it, you can create an imager that will show one level kind of soft tissue versus another. And that’s what became this medical imaging device that’s diagnose people’s conditions and save people’s lives in countless. How do you put a value on that? You can’t live without being saved daily from this application of the efforts of a physicist when William Runyon was just was exploring high energy radiation and discovers x rays. All right. He wasn’t happy. His goal was not to create a new medical device. Its application was obvious at the time. He put his hand in front of the rays and the other side he sees his bones rising. The first time you ever see that? It’s like, whoa. This thing is seeing through me. And so it’s it’s it’s a medical application was obvious at the time. But that’s not what drove him. He was a physicist. When Einstein wrote down the first equations that would later enable a laser. Einstein is not saying barcodes. Yeah. That’s what the will. He’s not saying this. All right. So. So I could go on and on and on. But you only have a 30 minute show. My point is, if you want deep solutions to problems, you field all frontiers and then you find ways to cross pollinate those frontier. That’s where the great solutions come from.

Well, I know I think it seems like President Obama agrees with you. He’s been talking a lot lately about competitiveness and science. And you’ve written that, you know, in America, I’m quoting you, contrary to our self image, we’re no longer leaders, but simply players. We’ve moved backwards by just sending standing still.

How do you encourage the kind of situation in which those giant leaps forward are going to be more likely to happen?

Yeah, I think it’s two pronged. Actually, it’s three pronged. It’s three pronged. One of those prongs people think. Should be bigger than I think it should be. People say, well, we need better science teachers and that’ll solve the problem. No better science teachers makes us scientifically literate public. That’s a good thing. Yes. You want a scientifically literate electorate. That’s what a good science teacher will do for you. But that doesn’t make scientists what makes scientists are people who. Yes. Ah, ah. Ah. A flame is lit within them from a teacher for sure. But at the end of the day, they’ve got to land somewhere at the end of their educational pipeline. And so there has to be interesting science for them to do to continue to attract their interest beyond the semester where they had the great science teacher. And when you think of the 1960s, we were going to the moon. The moon created a the Apollo program created as eight guys in the country where science was seen as this as a way to take us into the future. And once once that attitude descends on a culture, it affects everything. It affects what you want to be when you grow up. It affects how government moneys are spent. It affects how people treat the field of science. Why are you hostile to it or are you receptive to it? It affects the entire attitude. And so so I see NASA as in itself a force of nature, a way to shape a nation’s vision of itself. And because of the visibility of the agency as a single dollar spent there pays huge dividends in terms of people’s awareness of what science can achieve. And so the three prongs that, yes, you need to do the teachers, but that’s necessary, but insufficient. Then you want to fund agencies like the National Science Foundation where and the National Institutes for Health. These are agencies that fund pure curiosity driven science, especially the National Science Foundation. Fine. But kids have never heard of these agencies. So they’re not. There’s no eighth grade. This is when I grew up. I want to be an NIH researcher. If you don’t find that typically. So now you need a visible force that can that can that can seduce an entire generations of people into fields that will ultimately reshape the future. And I I guess I see NASA as practically a unique force in that realm. So I see this three prong. The teachers, the actual agencies that fund curiosity driven research and then the vision statement and the vision statement comes from saying, we’re going to Mars. We’re going to land on an asteroid, whereas we’re going to understand the nature of the universe. All three of these together, I think is the one, two, three punch that will that can that can take us out of our doldrums and put us back in the leadership role that so many of us took for granted in the 20th century.

Well, that does seem like a very good recipe for sort of a zae geist, as you put it before, although I guess some would argue this is the thought that I was prompted to have while you were speaking. Some would argue there’s a fourth ingredient that we don’t have and that’s the problem, and that is that we were really afraid of the Soviet Union back.

So what we do is. Yeah. So we went to the moon because of war. War. That’s correct. And so you have to ask. So there was a Cold War. Right. That was kind of a landscape on which the rest of the night guys unfolded. No doubt about it. And so you and you don’t want war to be why you do science. But of course, it is one of the greatest drivers of scientific innovation ever. So we shouldn’t sweep that fact under the rug. It’s just that it’s just the reality of being human in this world. But what you don’t want that to be the driver because it’s you want something more noble. And there are plenty of noble ways to do this.

And among them is about simply national security. For example, suppose there is some bioterrorism.

You call the Marines. No. What good are they? You want the best people who could have been biologist to be biologist at your at arm’s reach. And the only way you do that is, well, the best way I know how is in the school system. You have really interesting biology frontiers to attract the next generation into. Who do you turn to again? NASA. Oh, we’re looking for life in the sub ice oceans of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Who is going to help us find life? I’m going to get the very best students in that class to join that bandwagon. I will have the best biologists, the best chemists, the best geologists, the best aerospace engineers, because they’re going to be designing and airfoil to fly the rarefied atmosphere of Mars rather than me saying who wants to be an aerospace engineer and then design a airplane that’s 10 percent more fuel efficient than your last generation’s fleet of planes.

That one will get him. The other will not at that age. I’m convinced of this. And so so it may be that the future of security as well as cyber security is going to rely on having the best possible students to become the best possible scientists in each of these fields. And they’ll come when called. They came when the Manhattan Project was to build the bomb. The physicists were there, fully employed in the laboratories, and nearly all of them came when asked. And so. So it may be that security in the future is all about how many scientist you have in your silo and not how many bombs are there.

Another thing that came out of this incredible period of zae, guys selling Sputnik in, you know, space race and then subsequent missions by NASA was one great science communicator, Carl Sagan, who popularized all of this through the 70s and 80s. It’s been said in many ways you are his his design. And I think that’s true. I have to ask, though, what do you think he would say about our state of scientific awareness, literacy, engagement in this sort of decade, two decades plus?

Well, OK, a couple of things. Thanks for that. That reference there. But I would say I would word it a little differently. I would say not that I am his sort of descendant. I would say that first he was essentially unique in what he created as an as as a as a science, as an enterprise, for exposing the public to the joys and the beauties and the frontiers of science. So so at the time, he was unique. There were very few TV channels. Everybody watched Johnny Carson at night. And so the singularity of his impact on that enterprise will never be equaled again. So that first second he carved open an entire swath through the brush in the bramble of what is required to bring science to the public. So, yes, I’m in his footsteps, but so are a dozen other people there. Brian Cox over in England, this Miccio Koku, there’s Phil played many these people you surely have had on on your show. And so he created room enough for for many of us. And that’s a really good and important fact that I think is not widely enough recognized. And in his day, you could channel surf for weeks and maybe you’ll find Marlo Perkins, you know, the Mutual Omaha Animal Show or Jacques Cousteau, perhaps, but that was it. There’s no other science programing on television. Not in the 60s and. Maybe Nova PBS Nova had just been born in the early 70s. That’s it today you can channel surf any time of day. If you channel surf long enough, you’re going to hit a science program, the entire network given unto science. And so I can only celebrate the level of access that people have to learning about science in modern times. What would Carl Sagan say? I don’t know for sure. I think he would celebrate all these venues for receiving science. I think he would have been disappointed by the level of science resentment that exist among some politicians, among some elements of our culture. It’s the kind of anti science attitudes that prevail, or some of it is a fear science. Some of it is they don’t like science because it conflicts with their philosophies. I think he’d be disturbed by that and but would simultaneously celebrate how much access people have on an unprecedented level.

Well, I think that, you know, definitely if you’re interested in science and you want to go find it, there is so many places, as you said, to do it. And we should celebrate that proliferation and all these flowers blooming. But at the same time, you know, this blessing is a bit of a curse because if you don’t if you aren’t interested, you don’t ever have to see it.

Yeah, I guess so. But that would have been true at any time.

So the real very variable here is that those who want to learn science in a previous era would have to go months or years before their first encounter where their next encounter, whereas today they go ours. And so, yeah, the issue is not the people who would have never lifted a finger then or now. It’s those who wanted to lift a finger and didn’t have a way to do it. And so I think that’s where we really need to celebrate. By the way, if I were to follow up on your point about the blessing in the curse, the if I were to think of a curse aspect of this, it’s given that there’s so many outlets for people to convey information. It has multiplied the outlets of misinformation as well. So a person can. Here’s an interesting fact about a Google search or any Web search engine. Of course, if you believe something is true and you type it in, you will find the Web sites that agree with your belief whether or not their belief is actually true. And so you can reaffirm your thoughts simply by finding some documents somewhere that also says what you think. And so that the the error checking has been compromised. And with the, you know, how many billion Web pages there are and how many blogs there are. We no longer do. We have. So we have to be a little more vigilant about our capacity to edit what we see and to and to filter what we see, judging what what is the the ravings of a mad man who are crazy people and what are the what are the and what content has it secure in its foundation?

Oh, no, absolutely. I know that. I think that’s what I was getting at. Because you can have blogs that explain science really well and you can have blogs that attack science. And the latter might be very popular. In fact, they wrote in my book, Unscientific America, that the winner of the 2008 Best Blog Award was a blog that attacks the science of global warming Best Science Blog Award because I was popular.

So that’s kind of the the problem with the information environment, I guess, in it. And it’s so it’s a different one for scientists to communicate in than the one which Sagan existed. But we’re training all sorts of scientists to communicate. Now, that’s that’s a major new trend.

You go around and it’s training without the stigma that once existed for a scientist reaching out to the public. And I think that, you know, there’s blood on the tracks from Carl Sagan having done that first.

And I’m fortunate that he was in the field of my choice where I can do it now. And we have that legacy where not that my activities accrue to my professional standing. They they don’t subtract from it. And so that’s an important. Step forward compared to what was once the case.

What advice would you give to a young scientist today who wants to reach out to the broader public? Not really sure how.

How did you so you know that it’s it’s not it it’s not a predetermined path that you can say, yes, here’s what I’ll do. And here is how I mean, look at, for example, Phil Plait. Phil Plait is a professional astrophysicist. And then he had a blog and the blog became a book. And in the book, a lot of interest in the book. And then, you know, then he saw the need to for his skepticism to be addressed in society. And then he became a big part of that movement. You don’t you don’t prescript that. It’s hard to prescript it. You don’t. My career path, you just don’t prescript that. You do what what you do best and what you like the most. And you and you figure out along the way how that best fits into the opportunities of culture and a greater society. So in graduate school, I wrote a question and answer column for Stardate magazine out of the University of Texas. And that became a book. And then when you have the book and TV shows, once your views on things and and one thing leads to another. But in all cases, the common denominator is that it starts out by writing. And so my advice to someone who wanted to be a science communicator is you write writing is the excuse you can give yourself to organize ideas in coherent sentences in ways that make sense, not only word to word, but sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph. And that is the art of communication being clear and succinct. And the proving ground for that is writing today blogs. You get a popular blog, you can gain some weight in that way. And in an earlier day, I would have said, you write op ed letters to the editor, way to get your name out there with your point of view that others might not have. And but regardless, he’s writing and initially you’re not paid for the writing. You’re just writing because you can’t not write or because the urge is so strong. You just have to then eventually people take notice. If you say interesting things and you say them well or humorously or perceptively, then others take notice it and then one thing leads to another. So you can’t prescript that. You just have to do what feels right and do express what what inspires you. And then watch where the chips fall at that point.

I think that is really great advice. And I have watched fill plates meteoric rise and I’m glad that we did have him on the show. And he was one of our most popular guests. And he is he’s a very good one.

Yeah. And you even had the TV show, you know, I mean, it’s he. So so, you know, here I am. I got my TV host in a TV show on over. And what a luxury to live in a time where where that’s not even the only scientists hosting a TV show. Right. I mean, you know, you can count, you know, just just count them. Just go on down the list. And so and I bet he didn’t start out when he’s writing as. He’s not saying to himself, we’re they’re going to host a TV show. I mean, he might have thought about it, but that’s not what’s driving him.

That’s not what’s. So I’m charmed by the entire enterprise. And I think some there’s some headway. I give a quick example here. What got a lot of attention in the last couple of weeks, if you’re in sort of the right circles, was Bill O’Reilly commenting that nobody can explain how the tides come in and out and why the sun rises and sets? It was it was sort of a back handed reference to the power of God and the inability of humans to understand all of God’s creation. And so so Stephen called Bear decided to poke fun at this and invited me in to do a quick little skit with him, where he plays back the clip of O’Reilly saying that no one understands how the tides could come in. And so Kolber says so no one says only God understands. So then I knock on the door and I come in.

I say I understand how tight. And so it was a cute little skit. And but what’s interesting is there might have been a day in the not too recent past where Bill arrives. Bill O’Reilly’s comment would not that it would have gone uncontested, whereas his comments are now being contested by an active, energized resistance movement. Well, there’s a movement, scientifically literate people in the population themselves, not necessarily scientists who are not no understanding for this level of profound ignorance among people in power. If you have a talk show and you have the ten million dollar paycheck, you’re in power, as is true with Bill O’Reilly. And so the fact that these are. That the tolerance for that level of ignorance is dropping. So you, as that resistance goes on, continues. I think that’s a consequence of the widespread access that people have to two sources of rational thinking. And I can only see that continuing.

No, I think that’s I think that’s probably true. You do see that. And, you know, the fact that, you know, the cold air reports, steward, so forth, have had you on so many times. And many other people who talk about science is itself an indicator of the the way this rises to the top of the culture, although.

Yeah, exactly. You know, I’ve been on October eight times, and while that’s a big number, if I I think it’s the most of any one guest. Two interesting points. It’s interesting that I his most invited guest am a scientist. Point one. And it’s not a science show. Point two. I’m not the only scientist that he every week. They’re scientists on the show. So it’s not like I’m even unusual in the fact that I’m on his show as a scientist. So these are all indicators that I think need to be sort of celebrated. And it gives me hope for the future of the country in ways that I don’t think I had that level of hope even just a few years ago.

You’ve also, you know, in it and it relates to to your your prior comments about Bill O’Reilly. You certainly add a lot to say about this topic of science and religion. I guess you could say your quote, religion is kind of that of Einstein. No, God necessarily, but plenty of on wonder at the universe.

Well, actually, it’s not that I’ve had plenty to say about science and religion. In fact, that subject occupies no more than about one percent of my writings and an even smaller percent of my public talks. But what happens is these things get clipped and put on YouTube and and they get requoted. And so if you if you do a search on my writings, what people with people seem to have reacted to the most are these comments and and and and thoughts on science and religion. But they don’t drive my interest in public discourse, public discourse. And in fact, I’ve been invited to appear on to debate religious people on panels that I’m just not interested. It’s not part of my public platform to to argue about religion and God or the existence of God. I just don’t have the interest in that. There are plenty of other people who do who forged their modern careers on it. And so go go find them. I’d rather get people sort of thinking straight in the first place and getting them to celebrate the beauty of the universe and the laws of physics and all that drive it.

Yeah, and items. I didn’t mean to mischaracterize that. I, too, have seen the famous YouTube clip, which is pretty spectacular when you think about it. You and Richard Dawkins at Beyond Belief.

And it’s spectacular because it’s you and Richard Dawkins, first of all. But it’s spectacular because you you kind of represent two views on the complex debate and relationship between science, communication, education on the one hand, and criticizing religion on the other. And so I guess even if you don’t want to end up kind of having to be pulled into it a little.

Yeah, exactly. And people and the association is there and I’m widely claimed by the atheist movement when in fact, I don’t. I just really it’s just not a part of my public persona.

And it’s funny. I don’t know who created my wiki page, but in there a few years ago, it said Neil deGrasse Tyson is an atheist who’s an astrophysicist. And I said, well, not really. So I said, I put in there, Neil Tyson is agnostic. And then three days later or so, it was back to Earth.

So there’s an urge to claim me in that community. So then I had to. So so I had to put it worded in a way that would survive and edit. So I said widely claimed by atheists, Tyson is actually an agnostic. And so that X that managed to stick. I haven’t checked lately, but that’s how I left it off.

The point is, if you if you look at the people who there are philosophers who want to debate me about my saying that I’m agnostic rather than atheist because they want to claim that it’s the same thing. And, you know, you could read definitions of words. But at the end of the day, it’s how people behave who associate themselves with those words that define what the word is. And so if you look at the conduct of atheists in modern times, that conduct does not represent my conduct, pure and simple. I just I just don’t behave that way. I don’t cross off the word God in every dollar bill that comes through my possession and in God we trust. I just I just don’t do that. And so so there’s got to be some other word for people like me and Agnostic seems to to fulfill that that that role. But the that encounter that I had with Richard Dawkins, which I think is if it’s the one you’re referencing, is the most watched YouTube clip I’ve ever been in. And it was the first time I ever met him. And there’s Dawkins. I’d read all of his books. And the guy is brilliant. And he’s Oxford trained, which means he speaks well and speaks perfectly in ways that Americans can only envy. And there he was. It wasn’t just his written word is spoken. Word was so sharp and so, so brilliantly barbed that it was like, wow, you know, if I were not as educated as I am, I would be completely turned off by the power of his capacity to communicate and lead me thinking that I’m stupid. And that’s was that’s what led to my comment, that I thought that he did not give enough attention to thinking about what’s going on in the mind, who’s listening to him. And because he’s not then persuading anybody, he’s turning them into enemies, sworn enemies. He’s so good at what he does. He’s making enemies out of people rather than friends. And that’s what led to my rebuke of his methods and tactics in that two minute clip of me commenting on his ways at that Beyond Belief conference, but that I give to other hold presentations at that conference.

One is semiautobiographical and another one is on intelligent design, which was an all the news at the time, because the Dover, Pennsylvania case with intelligent design in the classroom, in the public school classroom had I don’t know if it had been resolved by then or was certainly in the news. And I just wanted to give to all these people as intelligent design. It’s a, you know, separation of church and state and it’s not. And I just try to, you know, put a reality check on that. Intelligent design has been around for millennia. You know, Ptolemy in the notes on his Ptolemy’s, one of the great propounds, proponents of the geocentric universe, a brilliant mathematician, an Alexandrian mathematician, and he wrote in the margin of his greatest tome, when I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies.

He’s referring to the planets going forward and in retrograding and going back again when I trace it. My pleasure. The windings to and fro the heavenly bodies. I no longer touch Earth with my feet. I stand in the presence of Zus himself and take my fill of ambrosia. That’s a quote from one of the greatest scientist of his day, Claudius Ptolemy. And it’s essentially intelligent design. He doesn’t really understand why the planets are doing this. He thinks he has at some angle on it with epicycles and the like. But at the end of the day, Sing’s uses its use in them. You know, I’m basking in zoos, his handiwork. And so we look at that poetically. We’re not saying get it out of the school. Stop it. So so just look at the history of this and it’s there. You can’t or shouldn’t ignore it. The issue here is not that people think and feel that way. The issue is that it is not science, period. Therefore, it does not belong in the science classroom. Put it in history class. Put it in religious philosophy class or or the history of philosophy class. But it never leaves to discovery. That was the only point I was making. I wasn’t debating the existence of God. I was just simply saying it’s not science. It doesn’t lead to discoveries.

And so that’s that’s that’s the kind of ways I’ve been engaged.

And even that had has very heavy viewership. So I would say it’s one percent of my public commentary, but it’s 25 percent of all the views that people have of me on YouTube clips. So they think I’m all about the religion science conversation, but I’m not.

Well, I am glad we gave you the chance to sort of clarify and explain that. I think one reason also that that thing got so many views is that Richard Dawkins then responds with a marvelous joke that we cannot utter on the air.

People can Google that being quite an exchange. These are very just for your listeners is very Google.

But by the way, one other thing, a point that I don’t think is is is is addressed on this whole sort of religiosity God thing. There’s the the sort of the modern atheists describing we’re leaving one to feel that if you are religious, that you are somehow steeped in ignorance of the operations of the world in ways that these enlightened atheists are not, that they are their land and you’re not. Right. And so. So. All right, fine. However, there’s the little matter of that 40 percent or 30 percent, very fine. A third of Western scientists claim a personal god to whom they pray. And so what does it mean to attack the public for their religious ways? When members of your own community numbering albeit less than what you find in the public, but still not zero. Nowhere near zero. A third is very not zero. All right. A third of your brethren. If so, it seems to me that should be their first target. And until that number becomes zero, they really have no I don’t see how they can justify beating the public over the head, saying they’re stupid because they’re religious. When a third of the scientists among their professional ranks feel exactly that same way about their religious conviction. So so why don’t you start with the scientists and have a conversation with them first and they don’t. But I think the public becomes an easy target because they’re not as educated as they are. So it say I think it’s it’s pedagogic unfair to to launch the movement in that way.

Well, it also suggests that the relationship between science, religion and literacy is not completely linear.


I mean, it’s correlated. Yes.

The higher education level, the less likely it is that you will be religious. That’s well known. And the more elite you are in the scientific world, the less likely you are to be religious.

So these correlations are there, but they don’t you know, they don’t go through the zero point. Right. And so there’s still leftover folks who are highly educated, highly elite, yet still believing in a personal God. And so that’s I think that’s fascinating. And maybe that should be the subject of study. How how is it that it could be so resistant even under the action of those forces that would otherwise remove it and others?

Well, I only have two more questions for you. One other controversial subject, though, Pluto. You are in some way.

You mentioned Pluto in your book. Don’t pretend like you didn’t because I’m here on the phone with you now. I’d like to page one or something of the book.

Exactly. In so, you know, if you were one of the early de motors. And so now we learn that Eros, if I’m browsing right. The rock out there whose discovery most closely triggered Pluto’s change status, may not be as big as Pluto after all. So does Pluto get a do over?

Yeah. If you only imagined that Pluto not being the biggest object out there, if you thought that that was the reason why Pluto was reclassified, then it’s natural for you to think that Pluto has regained the largest object status in the paper about this region, where you see you find all these icy bodies, including Pluto, then you would think, yeah, let’s reopen the conversation. But the conversation was never based on whether or not Pluto was the largest or the second largest object. It was never based on that. And so it’s it’s false reasoning to suggest that Eris once thought to be bigger than Pluto is now smaller. Therefore, Pluto is a planet. Note that the definition adopted by the International Astronomical Union does not rely or depend on Pluto being the biggest, the second biggest or the third biggest. It depends on its Pluto around. Yeah. OK. Put a check in that box. Is Pluto cleared its orbit gravitationally? No, it hasn’t. The mass of everything else in the Copperbelt vastly exceeds the mass of Pluto. So Pluto isn’t a swarm out there. And that so that box doesn’t get a check. And the classification goes from planet to dwarf planet. And there’s another object such as that. There’s there is the largest asteroid series, S.R.. Yes. Series and name for the Greek goddess of Harvest, I think. And so the word cereal comes from that that name, a series is large enough to be round. Gravity makes you round if you’re have enough mass. And that’s why small objects like the moons of Mars look like potatoes. Idaho potatoes. They’re they’re they’re they’re too small for their gravity to override the structural integrity of the rocks themselves. And above a certain size, everything is essentially round. So so series’s round, but hasn’t cleared its orbit. It’s orbiting with countless thousands of other bodies in the asteroid belt. So the asteroid belt, the Kiper Belt and the round objects in those zones are dwarf planet period. And who cares if Eracism? Bigger or smaller. And so in that way, Mike Brown in his book How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming. He overstates the importance of errors of his discovery of Eris being bigger than Pluto as a driver for demoting Pluto. It was and it helped. You know, people accept the inevitable demotion. But it’s not true. There was a conversation that was in progress for four decades, actually. Well before the discovery of. So that’s why I’m not losing sleep over errors.

Fair enough. Fair enough. Well, let me just ask you one concluding thought, Dr. Tyson, you probably, you know, our most prominent science communicator or at least you know one of them. If anyone knows what works and what doesn’t. It’s probably used. Let me just ask you this final question.

Is it working? Are we getting through?

You know, if I admit that science communication is not working, then what do I make of my modern life as a communicator?

I say I’ve just failed. Actually, I think I’m fully capable of admitting failure.

If, in fact, that’s what I see happen. However, for me, the signs are all good. If you look at how many Twitter followers Brian Cox has in England and how popular he is, I’m told he’s more popular in England than Carl Sagan ever was here in America. You look at the fact that it fluctuates, but at any given moment, you know, half of the top 10 grossing movies of all time are based on science themed subjects. The biggest grossing movie of all time is Pandora. And it’s it’s a it’s astrobiology. That’s what that would drive that space exploration and astrobiology. So these are all good science. It means people are thinking about it. It means it’s there. It means it’s been within arm’s reach. And I’m on a landscape populated by multiple other science educators, by the way. There’s there’s always been science educator, journalist yourself among them. That’s that’s been a constant over all of this time from Macfie, who’s been who wrote about about geology. You have Dava Sobel, who writes about the history of science. You have Timothy Ferris. You have people who write about science. Another one, Michael Benson. These are people who are fundamentally journalist but who have a deep interest in science and have written books. So there’s there many science editors who have books, to their credit, in an effort to bring science to the public. That’s been a constant, I think. And I’ve always been charmed by that fact. You add to that the fact that you now have a half dozen, a dozen scientists who are visible, who are active, who are themselves writing books for the general public and being interviewed on television, bringing the frontier of their trade to the masses. And I think that can only be a good thing. And yes, it’s slow, but it’s steady. And I think it’s real and I think it’s irreversible. And if you remember Obama’s inauguration speech, he mentioned science in this speech. I tried to look back at previous presidential speeches and I don’t know the words science is not common in in the inaugural speeches. And Kennedy referenced it. But it’s it’s just not. And so the fact that it’s there gives me further hope that he’ll become part of the country’s agenda and that there are two reasons to do it. One, because it’s great to learn about how the universe works. But I’m not so naive as to think that that’s going to drive Congress. Well, you know what drives Congress? They don’t want to die poor. And the sooner people realize that innovations in science, engineering and technology and math are the engines of tomorrow’s economies. The sooner we will take action to remedy this problem administratively, if not just in terms of the pop culture venues that television and Twitter streams represent. And we recognize this because we’re fading as the rest of the world moves forward. They’re investing in their science and engineering and technologies. And America, I think, tends to respond to military threats and economic threats with efficiency and with resolve. More so than it responds to anybody’s urge to want to explore. So if it’s because we’re fear, our economic strength will evaporate. I’ll take it. I’ll take it as a reason for her studying science. Meanwhile, I’m doing it because I think it’s the greatest enterprise humans have ever embarked upon.

Well, Dr. Tyson, I want to thank you. For what? Ranging episode in a very inspiring closing thought it’s been great to have you on point of inquiry.

Well, thanks for this. And I think it’s the first time you’ve interviewed me. And so welcome to that post. And and I think it’s a great way for you to spread the love.

People think again. All right.

I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved in a discussion about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s views and works.

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One of inquiry is produced by Adam, Isaac and amrs New York, and our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Chris Mooney.

Chris Mooney