Neil deGrasse Tyson – Communicating Science to the Public

July 29, 2013

Point of Inquiry is on a short hiatus right now as we transition to a new podcast team. In the meantime, enjoy these classic episodes from the POI archives, featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Susan Jacoby, and other luminaries in the science and secularism movement.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of America’s leading spokespersons for science. The research areas he focuses on are star formation, exploding stars, dwarf galaxies, and the structure of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. In addition to many scholarly publications, Dr Tyson is one of America’s most respected science writers, and he writes a monthly column for Natural History magazine simply titled the “Universe.” Among his eight books is his memoir The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist; and also Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution, co-written with Donald Goldsmith. His most recent book is Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries. He is the on-camera host of PBS-NOVA’s program ScienceNow, which explore the frontiers of all the science that shapes our understanding of our place in the universe. He is the first occupant of the Frederick P. Rose Directorship of the Hayden Planetarium in Manhattan, where he also teaches.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Neil deGrasse Tyson examines various approaches to informal science education, his experiences teaching science through pop-culture media outlets, and controversies regarding science popularization. He explains his views on the implications of science for religious belief, questioning the strategy of science educators who seem to equate science and atheism. He also recounts the direct influence of Carl Sagan on his professional development.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, November 16th, 2007. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe growthy point of inquiries, the radio show, the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing science and reason and secular values in public affairs. We recorded this week’s guest, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the head of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. At a recent conference, the Center for Inquiry put on in New York City called the Secular Society and its enemies. The conference was held at the majestic new headquarters of the New York Academy of Sciences overlooking Ground Zero, and it featured many of the world’s leading thinkers on issues. We talk about a lot here on point of inquiry. And we recorded a number of interviews. We’ll be bringing those to you over the coming months. Before we get to Neil deGrasse Tyson, here’s a word from this week’s sponsor. 

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I’m happy to have this week’s guest on Point of inquiry, Neil deGrasse Tyson, he’s one of America’s leading public figures for advocating science, a major public face for science in North America. 

Like Carl Sagan, he’s kind of a celebrity spokesperson for the outlook based on the sciences. 

The research areas he focuses on are star formation, exploding stars, dwarf galaxies and the structure of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. In addition to many scholarly publications, Dr. Tyson is one of America’s most respected science writers. He has a monthly column for Natural History magazine simply titled The Universe. Among his seven books is his memoir. The Sky is Not the Limit. Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist and also Origins 14 billion years of cosmic evolution. His new title is Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries. He’s the on camera host of PBS Novas program Science Now, which explores the frontiers of all the science that shapes our understanding of our place in the universe. And he’s the recipient of a number of awards, seven honorary doctorates and the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal. He’s the first occupant of the Frederick P. Rose directorship of the Hayden Planetarium in Manhattan, where he also teaches. He joins us on point of Acquire today. Well, actually, this makeshift studio at the Secularism and its Enemies Conference here in Manhattan. And we’re going to talk about some of the things we’ve talked about at the conference. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Neil deGrasse Tyson. 

It is a pleasure to be back. This is now my third time. Third time. And this is for me. I listen to your podcast all the time. I take them with me to the gym while everyone else is watching sitcoms on the TV. I’m they are not watching anything. Just listening to all of your fascinating guests. And I’m honored and privileged to be counted among those who you count and considered to be fascinating. 

Well, thank you for saying that. Let’s start off by asking you about science education. You’ve been at this beat for quite a while. Do you think it’s gotten better? Are people more into science now than they were, say, 20 years ago? 

What is certain is that people have more access to science 20, 30 years ago. Let’s go back to 1980, for example, when Carl Sagan’s Cosmos first appeared at that time. How many TV stations were there? Four, maybe five. And you would go months back then before you’d stumble upon a program on science, not including the Marlo Perkins nature program. Yes, that science, but not the kind of science that is now common on television now that you have 300 channels, entire channels devoted to science, for example. 

So access to science today is greater than ever before, not only on television, but on, of course, on the Internet. And so that leaves us with an interesting conundrum. How is it that access to science could be so high? Yet it appears that science literacy in the population has made only marginal gains, if at all. Some would say it’s reverted to superstitious thinking over the sort of the rational analysis of the real world in which we live. And I don’t have an easy answer for that. And the more I recognize that things might be going backwards, the more I’d have to admit that I am failing. But I’m trying to do is create some increased level of science literacy in the electorate. 

That paradox you’re talking about, that there are more channels, not just TV channels, but more means by which people can learn science today than ever. And there are there are opposing trends to that that make us wonder if all that’s paying off. Let’s talk about informal science education for a minute before we talk about your media appearances and how how that might be impacting the widespread appreciation of science. You direct the Hayden Planetarium, one of the leading informal science education institutions of the United States. In fact, one of the panelists, Vik Stanger, who’s also been on point of inquiry in our panel discussion a couple of minutes ago, he talked about the influence that Hayden Planetarium had on his own scientific passions, his interests. He’s one of thousands for whom that is true. And you have you have a similar story. I hope you’ll recount an amazing story how then you end up at Hayden Planetarium. But here’s the question. We have 150 or so science centers, Exploratorium. Whatever they called it, all throughout North America. In Asia, there’s single digit numbers. There’s seven or eight or something like that in all of Asia, not just Japan. And yet they graduate more actual scientists than we do proportionally. They they seem to be succeeding at this science education thing when we’re investing so much in widespread science appreciation. And you’re questioning if there’s a payoff. Maybe maybe the payoff is that it’s not as bad as it would have been. 

Not we can always take that perspective. Another one of the great mysteries of the cosmos is how it is that in the Far East, the level of science literacy is hugely greater than what goes on here in the United States. Yet it’s been the United States that’s been the innovator in science and technology over the past century. Most of the past century. And so how why is that so? And then I asked myself, when an adult speaks about children in modern times, more often than not, they’re saying, oh, that children, they don’t respect the adults. They’re irreverent. They don’t respect authority. Then you go to China. You go to Japan and you see students in class. It’s the opposite. They deeply respect the elders. They deeply respect authority to the point of not even questioning what is spoken, even if they feel that they may be wrong. And it may be that the simple irreverence that adults like to complain about with regard to their children here in America is the kind of irreverence that spills over into intellectual creativity. Think about it. If you are only told that what you know is what is known by your teacher, then in what position will you ever be to discover something that your teacher didn’t know? Whereas if you have complete wholesale disrespect for the people in authority, then your brain is free to explore new thoughts undreamt of by the ruling class, by the pedagogical class, whose task it is to teach you what to know. So I have this sort of delusional wishful thinking that perhaps we are successful in spite of ourselves, simply because of the freedoms we begrudgingly accept in the pipeline of students who disrespect either the teachers or their elders. I don’t know, I. I may be delusional there and wondering whether that is the secret to our innovations in our creativity. 

We’re innovative. Yet there’s not as much widespread appreciation and understanding of the fundamentals of science. 

That’s true. But you don’t need every single citizen to become a scientist, to have a scientifically rich culture. You need people who are innovative to become the scientists. You want the artists to become the artists. I as much as I want to boost science literacy in the nation. It’s never my objective to turn the nation into 300 million scientists. What a boring country that would be. You want other forms of creativity expressed in your population. And yes, you do need lawyers and investment bankers and the like. 

But I can tell you this, that when it’s time to vote on some issue that involves a level of science literacy, few to make an informed judgment, I’m saddened when such issues come before the public and the public just believes they understand what is fundamental, but in fact, do not. That worries me greatly because in a democracy, we get the government. We vote for and I want people to vote and as an informed a way as possible. 

We both agree. Everyone agrees science education is important. Everyone should work hard to increase scientific literacy, not to turn everybody into busy scientists. But for the reasons you just mentioned, there are civic payoffs to widespread appreciation science. And let’s go further and say that it enriches our lives. It fleshes us out. 

Oh, by the way, the enrichment of one’s life, I don’t want to understate. There are those who only require that what they learn in school directly affects their capacity to put food on their plate. The economic, the economic. And that would be unfortunate if people only viewed science in that context. Science, which is a way of knowing, a way of understanding the physical universe, connect you to the universe in ways that no other enterprise does. It connects you to other humans recognizing our genetic commonality that connects you to the rest of the life on Earth. Recognizing the biological commonality we have at all other lifeforms on Earth, the chemistry we have in common with any life that we find on another planet, the atomic correspondence we have with matter across the universe. These are ennobling, enlightening concepts. Some would even say spiritual. So one’s fulfillment as a human being in a world where we have the capacity to understand our place in the universe. If you go through life not knowing that place in the universe, you are intellectually impoverished. And I want people to have as rich the thoughts as is humanly possible to end up celebrating all that we’ve come to learn about our place in the universe. 

So you’ve convinced me. Science is for everybody. We should all be into it. You’re going about that project more effectively than just about anybody I could. In America today. Every time I turn on Kolber reporter, you’re on the show. Do you think that mass media going that route, does that do you think it sometimes undercuts your science education agenda? Because you have to speak in soundbites, you have to kind of reduce it down to the simplest terms for the widest appeal? 

That’s an excellent question. And I think what I’ve done, and I will say invested a fair amount of my cultural, social and intellectual effort in is to recognize and understand the various parameters around the media that I’m using. So, for example, if I’m invited on to The Colbert Report or to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, I’m going to study previous episodes of what the dynamics are between the host and the guest. And I’m going to see what kind of opportunity does the guest have to speak? How many words are likely to come out of my mouth before I am playfully interrupted? Because they’re comedy shows, of course. And so I will then package the message I want to deliver into the context of that program. That takes effort. I don’t think I think most people don’t do that. Who are on these programs and who can make for some awkward moments. 

That’s a challenge for most scientists to package what they do in kind of Kolber speak. 

Yeah. And so I do that willingly because I know that I am visiting them in their medium. If they’re going to come to my class. My college class, they’re going to listen to my one hour lecture. I’m going to soundbite it for them at that time. They’re they’re visiting me in my habitat. But the moment I go into their habitat, I owe the viewer a delivery of content that fits that habitat. And so my challenge is, how do I not compromise on either the principles of science or the content of science, yet deliver it in that form, in the form commensurate with either the comedic short form soundbite or the evening news soundbite, which is a little different. What should it be? Just simply be a little more factual rather than playful for any of us who are scientists? There’s always the temptation to sort of dumbed down our field to then share it with someone who is uninitiated in the language and the subject matter. And in the jargon, it’s a strong urge to do so. But it’s possible to resist that. I have found and to resist it, it means you need to know what’s going on in the mind of the person. What are the tangled pathways that may interfere with what you’re about to say? When you understand that, then you could shape your content in a way that does not dumbing down. 

But you shape it in a way that best intersects their capacity to receive it. 

So not just science, science education. You’re an educator in this. Yes, yes. 

Yes, yes. You become not a science lecturer. You become a science educator. And you set up the conduit of communication between you and your target audience. Be it the person next to you on the airplane, the child in the street, the construction worker, whoever it is who’s got that burning cosmic question, they will all walk away with the same understanding of what it is I need to deliver to them. But I will invoke different tactics of delivery, and none of them involves dumbing down in any sort of fundamental way. Yes, I’m leaving out the calculus, but you don’t need to know the calculus to deeply appreciate the content of what is being conveyed. And that next time I hear an educator say, oh, the audience just didn’t want to learn or they they are just not smart enough. 

I say, nope, you’re not smart enough to figure out how to communicate your trade. The burden, as far as I can see, is back on the shoulders of the educator, not on the audience. 

Here we are at this conference this weekend, hundreds of people convening now of the conferences on all kinds of subjects, secularism and its enemies. But a common thread in many of the discussions has to do with science, its outlook, science education, science literacy, those sorts of things. So hundreds of people are here at the New York Academy of Sciences and we all agree science education is important. What can a listener do short of going back to school and learning, you know, a field that he or she might not have been steeped in already? What can a listener do to one become more scientifically literate, him or herself? And to support this? It’s kind of a movement. There’s like a science education movement. 

At the risk of sounding self-serving, I think I think people who want to further promote science literacy should actively read the books of scientists who have taken the time to communicate to the public through the form of books. I think there are more scientists writing books for the public today than ever before. Not only in biology, certainly in astronomy and physics and geology and health sciences and the like. 

So it’s easier to learn science now than it was 50 years ago. 

Yes. And you’re not relying on someone who had to learn this subject just to write the book, which could then be at risk of either not getting to the subject as deeply as possible in the way people have devoted their lives to the subject. Can bring. So, yes, I’m one of those people who’ve written books, but I think the book is an immensely portable medium by which one can become enlightened on all manner of subjects. Then if you like the book, pass it on to someone else. Share it. Tell others about it. Take the content of that book and get into an argument about it at the cocktail hour after work. Rather, just talk about the previous night’s football game. There are many other things to get into fights about at the bar, some of which are fun and interesting and even philosophical. But that helps to spread the valuation of what it is to be scientifically literate. And yes, there’s plenty of television programing, but you need to be in front of a TV to make that happen. And enough of us are, of course. But I celebrate the fact that there are producers, directors, filmmakers in general who see science as a viable, sellable subject in their trade question along those lines, how how much risk is there that well, that we’re only preaching to the choir, that we’re only commodifying merchandizing science for science enthusiasts. 

And we’re and we’re kind of increasing the divide between those people who are boosters for science. You know, it goes scientists than science communicators, than science enthusiasts. So all of those people are on one side of the fence. And the people who just aren’t into science never hear that conversation. 

That’s an excellent point. And it’s not unique to science education, is it’s the eternal crossover problem. You know, who. Who is the market for the product? Is the market the same people that it’s always been preventing you from spreading a message wider than would otherwise go? 

I am certain that my appearances on the Kolber report or Jon Stewart broadened that market. Now it turns out the audience for those two programs happens to be better educated and more more geopolitically literate than those who watch the evening news. This study was done to demonstrate this. So in some sense, I’m appealing to an already sort of college educated, literate public. One of my great challenges that I welcomed freely was to write a cover story for Parade magazine, which has 70 some million readers. It’s the largest audience I’ve ever written for. Talk about crossover. There’s a crossover market right there. There’s Middle America. Bullseye. And I welcome that opportunity. And did just that. I wrote an article on the value of science literacy for the future, not only for celebrating our place in the universe, but for the future of our economy. The 21st century will flow from innovations in science and technology that take place within a culture. And if we don’t value in other countries will. In fact, they’ve already begun to do so. China graduates a half a million scientists and engineers a year. We graduate 60000. There is something, half a million of which we graduate, and that’s lawyers. So. So we’re a different kind of construct here in America than what is going on in the Far East. And that may come back and bite us in the rear end in terms of our self-image as being leaders in science and technology. So. In order to get the message out, you got you need crossover marketplaces and they exist and they’re slowly becoming more receptive to scientists who have the energy and have the interest to communicate in that medium. 

One criticism of the science community is, yes, that they don’t reach out to new audiences, that they only kind of talk among themselves. But another is that the way they go about communicating science shuts doors. Do you think science as a community? Do you need better PR? You need PR agency. And that opens a whole can of worms in terms of questions about spin. And do you do you want to downplay some implications of science because of the negative PR impact that those implications might have? 

That’s a fascinating point at which any enterprise is at risk. Once public exposure to that enterprise becomes in the hands of marketing professionals, and I’m sensitive to that, it turns out. 

To have highly refined social skills is not a prerequisite to become a successful scientist. So we need to recognize that fact and not criticize science for. The fact that there may be someone who’s head of a major research project and then you go to interview them and maybe they’re uninteresting or boring or speak in jargon and it might turn some people off. 

That’s not a fault of science. Because it’s not a prerequisite to become a scientist. So we can’t now blame the person if they don’t have such skills. But there are enough scientists that a subset of them would have just that profile of social skills that would work well in front of a camera, in a broadcast and radio writing for the public. 

So the problem then is not that we need better marketing, but the scientific culture itself needs to value what may be the presence of social skills. And some scientists and not others. Historically, if you had shown interest in communicating your trade to the public, you were dismissed. That was counted against you, against your professional standing, your professional development. You were disparaged as a popular only a popularizer. That’s correct. Now, at least in my field astrophysics, we are fortunate enough so that we had a pioneer in this for whom there’s blood on the tracks. Carl Sagan did this first. He did it better than anybody. And there’s blood on the tracks for it. He was not widely celebrated, particularly in the early days, for his efforts to reach the public in the scientific community, in the scientific community. He was criticized for showing up on Johnny Carson, for example. Johnny Carson, a scientist. What are you doing? What is something wrong with you? And this was a widely prevailing sentiment. I can say that in astrophysics today. That is not the case. 

It is not the case. There are social rewards for the astrophysicist to presents his findings, his discipline, his field to the public. 

Well, there have always been social rewards. The question is whether there’ve been professional rewards. And as a minimum, you just you don’t need a reward. You just don’t want it to be a demerit. There are many, many who have the energy to do it, even if there is no specific reward. And I can say that in astrophysics we are past the point. It happens if it happens, it all happens at the edges, but fundamentally, if you say you’re gonna appear on TV talking about the science, you are celebrated in the community of astrophysicist. I do not yet see that at that level taking place in physics or in geophysics. Some of the other branches of science who did not have the pioneering personality that Carl Sagan was. So I am fortunate that I am in a field that values what I can bring to it in that regard. So really, we need a change of the scientific culture so that that subset of the total community who have. The talent set that can bring science to the public in understandable ways that that can be continue to be celebrated. 

So if on the one hand, scientists need to to market better, but we have these fears about changing the message because of the marketing. On the other hand, there’s kind of a faction of science, I don’t know if I want to call it a faction, but there’s a sub there’s a part of science that equates science with anti religion, that it necessarily has implications against the vast majority of people’s religious beliefs. You don’t you don’t necessarily see it that way. You think that you could be religious and be a good scientist. 

Allow me to back up for just a moment and reflect on the fact that at this conference I received this honor. 

You were elected a member of the International Academy of Humanism. 

Yes. And it is indeed an honor to be thus. We honored. But I realized upon reflecting on that fact that I’ve lived my whole life until that moment successfully avoiding an ism. I’ve never been an ism before. Now I’m part of a humanism movement for having been elected to that academy, and I have mixed feelings about it. Of course, it’s an honor to be honored. So I do want to be little that fact. However, I worry that what it means now is someone can label me a humanist. And then to me, out on the premise that there’s a portfolio of world views that they already know that I somehow carry with me. And it prevents a conversation from unfolding from the most basic sense of all. What are you about and how do you feel about this or that? 

And as an educator, you want all those doors left open. 

They have to be left open. Otherwise, you can’t start a conversation. The conversation kicks in at some level. 

That’s already an argument. You’re already fighting because there’s a premise that as a humanist or as an atheist or as it agnostic, that all of a sudden the person claims already know half or whatever they need to know about you. And the day that happens about me, I cease to become a creative thinker about the world. And I’m a pigeon holed perspective. And so I have mixed feelings about it. Truly mixed feelings about being an ism. And so I I didn’t tell that to Paul Kurtz. But plus, since this is being recorded. 

Of course, he will learn of this fact. But. 

Well, I think he’ll understand. This is a nuanced point. You’re not you don’t want to draw a line in the sand because you want to keep the conversation going, even with people who might believe, unlike you. 

That’s precisely because maybe they’ve got some insight that I’ve yet to see for myself. I want to keep that communication channel open. Otherwise, the conversation begins in a fight rather than only ever ending that way. 

Do you think scientists should be more skittish than they now are? There are leading public intellectuals equating science with atheist. Should they be more reticent to tell someone? 

Here are some obvious. It seems to me obvious implications of the scientific worldview and that if you believe X, Y and Z about the universe, not based on science, let’s say creationism, something like that, then you’re plumb wrong. And that’s what science says. Should should we have that posture as scientists or science enthusiasts? 

Well, let me comment on the on the word atheist. I I’m also uncomfortable carrying around a word. That says what you’re not. This is their word for me because I don’t play golf. Of course not. Do I gather together with the non golfers to talk about and celebrate what it is to not play golf? No. OK. 

It’s hard to organize people if the only thing you have in common is your lack of belief in something. 

Right. So I don’t. I can’t rally around words that celebrate what you’re not. But with regard to the conflict between religion and science, the conflict can be very cleanly defined. The conflict is not whether or not you’re going to heaven or hell or whether or not you believe Jesus is your savior. That’s not where the conflict is. That’s not what’s going on in the school boards. What’s going on? The school boards are people who, based on their religious texts, assert that they have knowledge of the physical universe that is demonstrably false. That’s where the conflict is. And I got something to say about that. 

So it’s less the church state separation thing with you than just an out and out science education. It’s science education. 

If you got to tell me that Noah had dinosaurs on his ark. I’m sorry. You are ignorant and scientifically illiterate and you don’t belong in the science classroom. 

And really, that’s what I care about, what goes on in the science class. 

If you want to teach that in Bible school, I’m not going to go knocking on your door to stop you. By the way, there is no tradition of scientists beating down the door of Sunday school saying that might not necessarily be right. Yet you have fundamentalist religious communities trying to knock down the door of the science classroom. And that asymmetry there bothers me because churches have been literally and figuratively a sacred place for families to go to whenever they felt the need. And by and large, the history of science has respected that. Certainly in America it has. So I’m not here to fight religious people. I’m here to clean up what’s going on in the science classroom. And the moment you take your religion and put it in the science classroom and claim something that is demonstrably false, I’m going to be up in your face telling you go learn about how the universe works, but not because you’re anti religious, but because you’re practicing scientifically ignorant. 

If they said, you know, rub these crystals cause you’ll get healed, I’ll have the same kind of argument with them. 

I’m not particular about the source of your false beliefs. If you come into a science classroom claiming it’s science and it’s not, then I’ve got something to say to you. Now, by the way, there. There’s this talk about not overlapping Magisterium Stephen Jay Gould’s notion, this truce between science and religion and basically those scientists who are productive and are also religious by and large, ascribe to that. OK. The productive scientists who claim a personal God are not the ones saying the universe is 6000 years old. 

They say science only speaks about the natural world and these are supernatural beliefs. Therefore, you know, they’re they’re speaking different conversations and they don’t overlap at all. And I’m OK with that. 

OK. I don’t have a problem with people feeling that way, except it’s a little disingenuous because not long ago, what it meant to be religious wasn’t simply a belief in the supernatural forces. It was a belief that the contents, the literal contents of your religious text apply to the natural world. So that religious authorities were saying Earth is in the center of the known universe. Earth is flat because there’s no reference in the Bible, for example, to a three dimensional thing called the Earth. All references have Earth is flat. All maps drawn of the earth at the time were flat. That’s the fact. OK. And there is a flat circle. That is what the earth was with water on the edges and demons waiting for you if you ventured too far. Educated people who ascribe to the non overlapping magisterial reject the notion of a flat, circular earth but accept other elements of the religious text. My point is. That it is false to assert that religion and science do not overlap. They’ve overlapped forever and every place where they did overlap. By and large, science has demonstrated something false about their prior understanding. So religions, territories just getting smaller and smaller and smaller to the point where now what you’re claiming as what is not overlapping is yet to be touched by science. And it’s the sort of the spiritual supernatural domain where you go to heaven or hell, will you? What happens to the spirit, the soul, these things that for the moment are pretty much outside of the reach of science? I don’t claim they will forever be outside the reach of science. We may learn one day in the research, in neurophysiology that parts of the brain are what enable the belief in a soul, in the face of evidence to the contrary. For example, there’d be a fascinating discovery if it comes if it comes that way or or not. I don’t know. So they’re being a little disingenuous. 

But the fact remains. 

That if among scientists, a third of Western scientists, American scientists claim a personal God. All right. Well, that fraction gets a little lower when you get to those in the National Academy of Sciences, the elite scientists, that fraction is even lower. But it’s not zero. It’s far lower, but it’s not zero. Well, what is Farlow? I mean, it’s a third or half, but it’s not one one hundredth. It is not zero. It’s what is it, seven percent? It’s not it’s not one percent. It’s not a tenth of a percent. It’s not 100 percent. It’s not zero. It’s not any of these really tiny numbers. So I wonder among those who are particularly adamant about ridding society of religion and its and the ailments that it brings. We’re talking about people like Richard Dawkins. Yes. And Christopher Hitchens. These are people were very vocal and visible in these sentiments. And they somehow you would be left thinking that the public is that they just need to learn and then they’ll figure out that they’re deluded. 

You can’t say that if a third of our own professional science community feels just that way. I want to see that explain first before you want to take on the general public. Some of the most highly educated scientists in the land and most highly successful scientists in the land. Some of them claim a personal God. If you don’t have an explanation of that for me, I don’t see what right. You have to run out into the street and tell the masses that those who are religious, there’s something wrong with him. 

There might be something. 

Fascinating to learn about how it is that you’re most highly trained scientists. You know, one out of 14 of them, the seven percent, prays to God to intervene in their lives. Maybe that seven percent is the limit of how far you can get in convincing someone that there’s no such thing as God and a religion. If that’s the case, let’s study those people, find what’s going on in their brain. That’s different from everybody else’s. I want to know that this should be viewed as interesting science experiments. 

These are scientific questions as opposed to the social agenda of Collum, the new atheists who want to go out and play and legislate and legislate or change policies. 

Yeah. Let’s find out what’s going on in the minds of the seven percent of the National Academy of Science scientists. 

Well, you’ll be back on the show in 20 years and will survey the cognitive neuroscience revolution that they say is happening. We’ll see if we can uncover the brain’s use slosh around in your noggin. That explains God belief. 

And by the way, quickly, I did hear your marvelous interview with Francis Collins, and I was happy to see that he agreed to the interview and he’s very candid about his views. He also had very strong views about getting things like intelligent design out of the classroom, recognizing, of course, that it is not science yet. He, of course, as we all know, has strong personal convictions about a belief in God and that Jesus is a savior. He once came to the American Museum of Natural History for a panel discussion. I was in the audience and I asked him a question. At the end, I said, suppose in a few years we learn that for those people who are religious, there’s simply an area of their brain that has sort of more electrical activity than others, and that you could take someone who is not religious, stimulate that area of the brain, and all of a sudden they start believing in God and Jesus or the Koran or whatever. But whatever else, you take away the electrical activity and it all goes away so that we learn that religiosity and the capacity to believe in that, for which there is no evidence or any strong evidence in support or in denial of it. That that’s all simply electrochemical activity in the brain. What would he then say to that? 

And I was so disappointed in his answer. It was I don’t think being religious is that simple. 

I think it’s much more complex than that and that we will learn that it’s not that that it’s something much deeper that connects us today. 

What would you have liked his answer to be? 

I mean, what were you looking for when you I gave him a scenario that is completely plausible that I wanted his reaction to that science could conceivably one day completely explain religion. 

Correct? That’s correct. 

When people say there are things outside of the domain of science like love or why is it that I like this painting, but not that science can never end? Well, I don’t know for sure, but. It’s plausible to me that you could take the feelings of love, analyze the neurochemical reactions going on in the brain of someone in love, map that find someone who’s not in love. Stimulate all those same combinations of neurosis lapses and have that person fall in love with whatever sitting in front of them. 

Well, I think they do stuff like that with oxytocin and vasopressin. Although, I mean, you give that’s just give a person a right kind of chemicals and they’re in love. That’s just the bit. So maybe we give the right kind of chemicals to people either there, you know, it explains their religiosity or people without it, their lack of religion. And so Collins wasn’t really interested in that scientific inquiry. 

And that’s what disappointed me. I thought I just gave her a very clean, not an outlandish possibility about what it is to be religious and what he might have said, which was. Well, then I would recognize that my whole belief system is just something that’s kind of my term and does not exist outside of myself, where the creator of the universe is listening to my prayers. And but he wasn’t prepared to go there. And so that disappointed me a bit. I didn’t make a big fight about it, but I just politely sat down. And so I’m just intrigued at what neurophysiology will show. And by the way, I if I were to label myself, I would say I was an agnostic. And in that agnosticism, if some prayer study shows that people get better, faster because they’re prayed for. I say let’s do it. OK. And these are double-blind and repeatable studies. And in the normal way that we don’t want to fool ourselves into an understanding that is not really there. And that’s, of course, the whole point of the methods and tools of science. If we find that people pray and Jesus drops out of the clouds and blesses them and. 

OK, let’s let’s find that out. I don’t I don’t have a problem with this. 

Ditto me. I’m a religious believer. The second I find evidence sufficient to warrant that belief. Right. 

As long as you’re going to require that I believe something in the absence of evidence, I can’t go there. And so hence my agnosticism. So for me, the real test is what’s what’s going on in the minds of religious scientists. They should be our laboratory, not the public right now. 

Let’s finish up, Neil, with. Would you mind recounting for me the influence Carl Sagan has had in your life? You’ve spoken about it elsewhere and other time this this weekend at this conference. And it’s a moving story. And I think it exemplifies the role that an individual can have in promoting the next generation of science enthusiasts, scientists. 

Yeah, I was in high school. By the way, I’ve been interested in the universe since I was nine years old, which predates Carl Sagan’s visibility. So I do not cite him as a as the one who got the ball exactly where although many others have who came of age during the era of Cosmos, that the landmark television series that he hosted. So my first encounter with Carl Sagan was very different. I was in high school applying to colleges. My application to Cornell, as was true with my other applications to college, was dripping with the cosmos. It just it was all over. I’d known what I wanted to be when I grew up since age nine. So my whole life tracked this fact. And apparently the admissions committee had forwarded my application to Carl Sagan. And then he sent me a personal letter and I got this letter in Milk from Carl Sagan. I’m thinking, Carl Sagan, is this a misprint? Is this that Carl Sagan has been on Johnny Carson The Tonight Show? And I opened the letter and it says, I understand you’ve applied to Cornell and have been accepted because of this window of time where you have to decide where you’re gonna go. And he said if you plan to visit the campus, give me some advance notice and I’d be happy to greet you and give you a tour of our labs and let you know what we do here to try to help you decide what college you will ultimately attend. So I did take a trip to Cornell. It was in the winter and he did meet me at the front entrance of the building, brought me up to the lab, which behind and pulled out one of his books and signed it to me, which I still have. And we spent so many hours together and it began to snow. It was time for me to return to New York City. Cornell is in upstate New York, of course, four hours away by automobile. 

And he jotted down his home phone number. He said in case the snow gets too heavy and the bus doesn’t make it through. Give me a call. You can spend the night at my place. And who am I? I’m just some kid in high school. I’m a nobody. Yet he spent hours with me with a level of caring that I didn’t think was possible for someone of that level of fame. And I said to myself, if I am ever remotely this influential. That I will for damn sure treat the next generation of students the way Carl Sagan treated me. 

So to this day, I get e-mail from a student who is trying to figure out what to do in life. I put everything aside. I tell the all the high level administrators who need time with me. You’re gonna have to wait because I’ve got this student who I’ve never met coming to my office, and we’re gonna talk about that person’s future. And I find myself now reaching behind my own desk and pulling out a book and signing it to them. 

It’s and it’s the great lesson here, I think is. Not that Carl Sagan expected me to return that favor to him. What good would that do? The real step one needs to take is to ensure that the kindness and generosity that he expressed for me is something that I then pass on to a next generation. And I’m happy to say that at least thus far, I’ve been able to sustain just that in my professional career. 

Thank you very much for joining me on point of inquiry yet again, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Thanks for having me. 

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Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved with an online conversation about science education or any of the other topics we discussed today with Neil deGrasse Tyson. Go to our online discussion forums at Center for Inquiry, dot net slash forums. Views expressed on point of inquiry don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at points of inquiry dot org or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiries produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer Paul Cook’s point of inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael. 

Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. And I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.