Neil deGrasse Tyson: Politicians Denying Science Is ‘Beginning Of The End Of An Informed Democracy’

CREDIT: National Geographic Channels/Scott Gries

What will you be doing on Monday, 4/20, at 11 p.m.?

Perhaps watching the premiere of acclaimed astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new show StarTalk. Tyson, who may be best known for hosting the reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series in 2014, will now be appearing weekly on the National Geographic Channel in what may be the first late-night science talk show. Along with a trusty cast of comedians and science-minded folks like Bill Nye, Tyson hopes the adaptation of his popular podcast to a broadcast format will make getting a regular dose of science as pain-free as possible. He thinks that by embedding it between pop culture discussions and entertaining asides, the science will go down easy, and even leave you wanting more. And he’s right.

The first episode features an interview with George Takei, who requires no introduction to any Star Trek fans: he played Hikaru Sulu, helmsman of the USS Enterprise. Takei has also become known for his activism surrounding human rights. Other guests this season include President Jimmy Carter, director Christopher Nolan, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, astronaut Chris Hadfield, and Ariana Huffington.

ThinkProgress was lucky enough to snag a few minutes of Tyson’s time to ask him about his new show, his feelings on how the media covers science, what we can do about climate change, and more.

Who is StarTalk trying to reach specifically?

We are trying to reach people who don’t know they like science, and people who know that they don’t like science. We are doing this through the use of three pillars: science, pop culture, and comedy. Who doesn’t like listening to a great comedian? Who doesn’t like occasionally, whether they’ll admit it or not, picking up an issue of People Magazine and checking out the latest stars. I think it might even be hardwired; seeking out people who get the adoring attention of others.

If you explore all the ways that science falls into that then you get people’s interest for free, because the pop culture got them there, and then they learn about the science as part of it. There is this eternal golden braid that we’re attempting to weave.

What was the reasoning for having the first episode feature George Takei?

There were other guests we had that could mislead you into thinking what future episodes would be like. For example, if we presented Richard Dawkins first, you might think StarTalk is about interviewing scientists, but we hardly ever interview scientists. We wanted a representative show that balanced science, pop culture and comedy and the Takei show did that in exactly the way we aim to do every week, whether or not we succeed. My stand-up comedian co-host is also a trekkie.

You recently spoke about who to blame for the state of the climate change debate in the U.S., the electorate or the politicians. Can you elaborate on that?

The issue here is not what politicians do because the electorate votes them into office. So what does it mean to complain about what politicians do? We should complain about what the electorate does. I’m an educator, so I see it as one of my duties, especially as a science educator, to alert people of what science is and how it works. About what it means for there to be an objective truth that we would then act upon.

If you want to lean in a political way because that’s your politics, you should do that based on an objective truth rather than cherry-picking science before you even land at an objective truth. You can’t just cherry-pick data and choose what is true about the world and what isn’t.

So I’m not blaming the electorate in that sense. I’m blaming an educational system that is not positioned to educate an electorate such that they can make informed decisions in this, the 21st century, where informed decisions based on objective scientific truths will play a fundamental role in what kind of society we create for ourselves.

How does the media fit into this? What responsibility do we have?

There’s this journalistic ethos saying if I get one opinion then I need to get another opinion that countervails that. So if I say the world is round, are you obligated to say the world is flat, lest someone think you are being biased in your reporting? Well, that’s absurd. You wouldn’t do that, you’re educated. You know that there are certain points of view that have no foundation at all in objective truth.

So the question arises then at what point should a journalist give equal time to equal points of view that are opposite or in denial of emergent scientific truths. If you allocated column inches in proportion to the scientific consensus of experiments, there would be one sentence talking about people who deny climate change and the rest of the ten columns talking about research that supports it. But that’s not what we see in the public.

I think journalists are abandoning what would be their sensibility of following the emergent truths and in some cases painting a debate as though there’s a scientific debate when in fact there isn’t one — and that makes for headlines and more clicks.

There was one headline that said, “Tyson defends Scientology” and people said, “oh I didn’t know you like Scientology.” I would ask if they read the article, which made no such claim, and they’d say “oh no, i just clicked on the headline.” So I’ve seen some journalistically irresponsible headlines.

What’s your approach to dealing with climate deniers?

StarTalk is not about debates. The goal of StarTalk is to enlighten you, and in my judgement and my experience, observing a debate never enlightened anybody; all it does is make people dig in more strongly into the point of view they had entering the debate, typically. So you’ve never seen me in a debate, ever, because that implies that we each have opinions and “oh let’s see who can give the best argument for this audience so they can believe my opinion instead of yours.” But if you’re more charismatic than I am or have better word use, or are more articulate, then you’ll win the debate, and that means you’ll be right and I’ll be wrong. This is not how it works.

Going forward, can you predict where the conversation around climate change will be in a decade or two? And maybe where we’ll be in meeting the challenges it poses?

I can’t predict where it will be, but I can suggest where it should go. The conversation that needs to happen — here it is: you have conservatives and liberals in a room, people with power, let’s say they are representatives or senators. They shake hands and say, “ok humans are changing the climate of this planet, this is the consensus of scientific experiments being conducted, what policy and legislation should we debate in the face of the information?”

The Republican is thinking different suggestions from the Democrat, and that is the healthy political conversation that should unfold. Should there be carbon credits or not? Should there be trade regulations or not? Should we invest in solar panels rather than clean coal?

That would be a fruitful debate that could be held in the political arena. But the moment the politicians start saying they are in denial of what the scientists are telling them, of what the consensus of scientific experiments demonstrates, that is the beginning of the end of an informed democracy.

When can we expect you to run for public office?

I was asked that by the New York Times a few years ago when there was some impasse in Congress and they did a fun thing and found a set of people who were not traditionally associated with elected office and asked them what they would do if they were President. They were looking for ideas that maybe hadn’t surfaced yet and could possibly solve the problem. So I responded to that and it’s on my website. It’s pretty clear where I stand on the issue and you can quote it with abandon — provided the headline you put above it is accurate.

From Tyson’s “If I Were President” post:

When you’re scientifically literate, the world looks different to you. It’s a particular way of questioning what you see and hear. When empowered by this state of mind, objective realities matter. These are the truths of the world that exist outside of whatever your belief system tells you.

One objective reality is that our government doesn’t work, not because we have dysfunctional politicians, but because we have dysfunctional voters. As a scientist and educator, my goal, then, is not to become President and lead a dysfunctional electorate, but to enlighten the electorate so they might choose the right leaders in the first place.

Neil deGrasse Tyson
New York, Aug. 21, 2011