Neil deGrasse Tyson On Why Popular Culture Is Key To The Future Of Science

CREDIT: AP Images/Richard Shotwell

“I think culture is everything, here,” Neil deGrasse Tyson said at the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena on January 13. “I would not have necessarily said that a couple of years ago.”

Tyson was appearing at the tour to promote Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a documentary series that follows on Carl Sagan’s 1980 program Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, and that is executive produced by Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow, and Seth MacFarlane, who helped place the show on Fox, rather than on a science- or nature-focused channel like National Geographic. And the panel became an occasion to discuss the role that culture plays in changing the conversation about science, and elevating science in the ranking of public priorities.

MacFarlane explained that he’d first met Tyson through the Science & Entertainment Exchange, the National Academy of Sciences program that puts people who work in the entertainment industry in touch with science professionals who can help make their depictions of science and engineering more accurate and engaging.

“I said while National Geographic, Discovery Channel were some of the places that it was being considered to be pitched to and are great networks, in a way, you’re sort of preaching to the converted, and wouldn’t it be nice to broaden it a little bit even more?” MacFarlane, who has a long-running relationship with Fox, which airs both his animated programming and his much-derided live-action show Dads said. “And I thought that there was a strong possibility that this particular regime at FOX, as creative and open minded as they are, would be receptive to the idea of doing the show on a network, and sure enough, they were.”

Druyan said that broadcasting the second edition of Cosmos on Fox was in keeping with the mission of the original series, which first aired on PBS.

“When Carl Sagan was alive, you know, we wrote for Parade magazine,” she explained, arguing that the point of Cosmos was to awaken interest in science in new audiences. “We weren’t trying to preach to the converted. We wanted to evoke in people, who might have even had hostility to science, a sense of wonder, the questioning, or to excite people who thought that science was just too challenging to dream about the universe of space and time.”

And Tyson argued that his experience with Twitter had taught him that it was more important to try to change the electorate’s thinking about science than to try to skip over them to lobby individual lawmakers.

“Every morning I wake up and I would look at the numbers, and I would say this is a hungry grass roots public out there that is ready and hungry and desires more,” he said of the Twitter following that had emerged to watch him “tweet the universe.” “When you influence the electorate, that, then, influences governance, because in a democracy, you elect who helps to set the vision statement for your country or for the world. Like I said, a few years ago I would have said what politician can we speak to or what and I said, that’s the wrong level. The real level is at the base.”

Tyson also offered a vigorous defense of critiquing films like Gravity, a movie he criticized for certain elements of its handling of physics, on accuracy grounds. He compared movies that want to be taken seriously as meditations on science but get their facts wrong to sober period movies that mishandle their characters’ costuming, suggesting that such errors are an obvious sign of carelessness and lack of engagement.

“I just thought that they had earned the right to be criticized at this level,” Tyson said of Gravity. “I don’t run around criticizing the bad physics in Star Wars. Right? There are certain films that make no premise of being accurate so that I don’t even go there. So I was just surprised and enchanted by how much people felt strongly about it, bar fights in the blogosphere. People talked about the movie for weeks. And I said, ‘Hey, actually, that’s a good thing that people are arguing about the science of a movie that takes place in space, at the end of the day.’…Science, if you want to go there, you ought to be held to the same standards that any other storytelling elements are held to when someone finally analyzes how good was that movie.”