Neil deGrasse Tyson on Scientific Literacy, Education, and the Poetry of the Cosmos
“Science is a way of equipping yourself with the tools to interpret what happens in front of you.”
By Maria Popova
“People,” lamented Richard Feynman in 1964, “I mean the average person, the great majority of people, the enormous majority of people — are woefully, pitifully, absolutely ignorant of the science of the world that they live in.” In the half-century since, we’ve sequenced the human genome, put a man on the moon and rovers on Mars, confirmed the existence of the Higgs “God particle” boson, and achieved innumerable scientific miracles, small and large, that enhance our daily lives in fundamental ways. And yet, bad science spreads, good science journalism is fighting an uphill battle against media reductionism and distortion, and the general public remains as just as woefully and pitifully distrustful of or, worse yet, unconcerned with science as in the Feynman days.
In this fantastic conversation with Stephen Colbert, Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson — passionate crusader for space exploration, eloquent champion of the whimsy of the cosmos, modern-day Richard “Great Explainer” Feynman — brings his characteristic blend of sharp insight, quick wit, and unapologetic opinion to the issue of scientific literacy and how it relates to everything from education to government spending to morality.
Highlights below, though the entire hour-long conversation — including the most brilliant and hilarious James Cameron Titanic critique you’ll ever hear — is more than worth the time.
On the ethics of discovery vs. the broader morality of application:
We are collectively part of a society that is using or not using, to its benefit or its detriment, the discoveries of science. And at the end of the day, a discovery itself is not moral — it’s our application of it that has to pass that test.
On the misunderstanding of science:
[Science] is distrusted not because of what it can do, but because people don’t understand how it does what it can do — and that absence of understanding, or misunderstanding, of the power of science is what makes people afraid. … Just because you don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it’s bad for you — go figure out how it works! That’s why we need a scientifically literate electorate — so that when you go to the polls, you can make an informed judgment and you can draw your own conclusions rather than tune into a particular TV station to have your conclusions handed to you.
On the poetry of astrophysics:
Some of the greatest poetry is revealing in the reader the beauty of something that is so simple you had taken it for granted. That, I think, is the job of the poet. The simplicity of the universe, if it doesn’t drive you to poetry it drives you to bask in the majesty of the cosmos.
On what’s wrong with education:
Our academic system rewards people who know a lot of stuff and, generally, we call those people ‘smart.’ But at the end of the day, who do you want: The person who can figure stuff out that they’ve never seen before, or the person who can rabble off a bunch of facts?
A brilliant addition to history’s best definitions of science:
[Science] is a way of equipping yourself with the tools to interpret what happens in front of you.
On our broken yardsticks for assessing the value of scientific research:
Today, you hear people say, ‘Why are we spending money up there when we’ve got problems on Earth?’ And people don’t connect the time-delay between the frontier of scientific research and how it’s going to transform your life later down the line. All they want is a quarterly report that shows the part that comes out of it — that is so short-sighted that it’s the beginning of the end of your culture.
He goes on to point out that people grossly misperceive how much is actually being spent “up there,” assuming anywhere between 10 and 15% of taxpayer money, whereas the real number is a mere 6/10 of a penny on the tax dollar, or 0.6%. The solution:
The greatest need is to be able to have the foresight necessary to make investments on the frontier of science even if, at the time you make those investments, you cannot figure out how that might make you rich tomorrow.
Finally, when Colbert asks the grandest cosmic question of all — why there is something instead of nothing — Tyson answers with a brilliant haiku-esque retort that hints at the power of ignorance as a tool of science:
Words that make questions
May not be questions
Tyson’s latest book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier (public library), is a must-read.
Published September 24, 2012