Neil deGrasse Tyson Says This Short Film on Science in America Contains Perhaps the Most Important Words He’s Ever Spoken

Astro­physi­cist Neil deGrasse Tyson has won a rep­u­ta­tion as a genial, yet pedan­tic nerd, a sci­en­tif­ic gad­fly whose point of view may near­ly always be tech­ni­cal­ly cor­rect, but whose mode of deliv­ery some­times miss­es the point, like some­one who explains a joke. His earnest­ness is endear­ing; it’s what makes him so relat­able as a sci­ence edu­ca­tor. He’s whole­heart­ed­ly devot­ed to his sub­ject, like his boy­hood hero Carl Sagan, whose shoes Tyson did his best to fill in a remake of the clas­sic Cos­mos series. Tyson’s coun­try­men and women, how­ev­er, have made his job a lot hard­er than they did in Sagan’s day, when ordi­nary Amer­i­cans were hun­gry for sci­en­tif­ic infor­ma­tion.

The change has been decades in the mak­ing. Like Sagan, Tyson’s voice fills with awe as he con­tem­plates the mys­ter­ies of nature and won­ders of sci­ence, and with alarm as he com­ments on wide­spread Amer­i­can igno­rance and hos­til­i­ty to crit­i­cal inquiry and the sci­en­tif­ic method. These atti­tudes have led us to a cri­sis point. Elect­ed and appoint­ed offi­cials at the high­est lev­els of gov­ern­ment deny the facts of cli­mate change and are active­ly gut­ting all efforts to com­bat it. The House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives’ Com­mit­tee on Sci­ence, Space, and Tech­nol­o­gy mocks cli­mate sci­ence on social media even as NASA announces that the evi­dence is “unequiv­o­cal.”

How did this hap­pen? Are we rapid­ly return­ing, as Sagan warned before his death, to an age of “super­sti­tion and dark­ness”? Tyson has recent­ly addressed these ques­tions with earnest­ness and urgency in a short video called “Sci­ence in Amer­i­ca,” which you can watch above, “con­tain­ing,” he wrote on Face­book, “what may be the most impor­tant words I have ever spo­ken.” He opens with a state­ment that echoes Sagan’s dire pre­dic­tions: “It seems to me that peo­ple have lost the abil­i­ty to judge what is true and what is not.” The prob­lem is not sim­ply an aca­d­e­m­ic one, but a press­ing­ly polit­i­cal one: “When you have peo­ple,” says Tyson, “who don’t know much about sci­ence, stand­ing in denial of it, and ris­ing to pow­er, that is a recipe for the com­plete dis­man­tling of our informed democ­ra­cy.”

One must ask if the issue sole­ly comes down to edu­ca­tion. We are fre­quent­ly remind­ed of how much denial is moti­vat­ed and will­ful when, for exam­ple, a gov­ern­ment offi­cial begins a com­plete­ly unsup­port­ed claim with, “I’m not a sci­en­tist, but….” We know that fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies like Exxon have known the facts about cli­mate change for forty years, and have hid­den or mis­rep­re­sent­ed them. But the prob­lem is even more wide­spread. Evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gy, vac­cines, GMOs… the amount of mis­in­for­ma­tion and “alter­na­tive fact” in the pub­lic sphere has drowned out the voic­es of sci­en­tists. “That’s not the coun­try I remem­ber grow­ing up in,” Tyson laments.

There are plen­ty of good philo­soph­i­cal rea­sons for skep­ti­cism, such as those raised by David Hume or by crit­i­cal the­o­rists and his­to­ri­ans who point out the ways in which sci­en­tif­ic research has been dis­tort­ed and mis­used for some very dark, inhu­mane pur­pos­es. Yet cri­tiques of method­ol­o­gy, phi­los­o­phy, and ethics only strength­en the sci­en­tif­ic enter­prise, which—as Tyson pas­sion­ate­ly explains—thrives on vig­or­ous and informed debate. We can­not afford to con­fuse thought­ful delib­er­a­tion and hon­est reflec­tion with spe­cious rea­son­ing and will­ful igno­rance.

I imag­ine we’ll have a good laugh at cre­ative rede­ploy­ments of some clas­sic Tyson harangues. (“This is sci­ence! It’s not some­thing to toy with!”) And a good laugh some­times feels like all we can do to relieve the ten­sion. The real dan­ger is that many peo­ple will dis­miss his mes­sage as “politi­ciz­ing” sci­ence rather than defend­ing the very basis of its exis­tence. We must agree on the basis of sci­en­tif­ic truth, as dis­cov­er­able through rea­son and evi­dence, Tyson warns, before we can even get to the polit­i­cal ques­tions over cli­mate change, vac­cines, etc. Whether Amer­i­cans can still do that has become an unset­tling­ly open ques­tion.

via Big Think

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Carl Sagan Pre­dicts the Decline of Amer­i­ca: Unable to Know “What’s True,” We Will Slide, “With­out Notic­ing, Back into Super­sti­tion & Dark­ness” (1995)

An Ani­mat­ed Neil deGrasse Tyson Gives an Elo­quent Defense of Sci­ence in 272 Words, the Same Length as The Get­tys­burg Address

Neil deGrasse Tyson Remem­bers His First Meet­ing with Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan Issues a Chill­ing Warn­ing to Amer­i­ca in His Final Inter­view (1996)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Frank says:

    Oh please. “Rep­u­ta­tion”? Go insult some­body else’s intel­li­gence. No one can or ever has ever called Neil deGrasse Tyson a “pedan­tic nerd” or a “sci­en­tif­ic gad­fly”! He is any­thing but. Who on earth writes this intel­lec­tu­al rub­bish a sopho­more in yel­low jour­nal­ism? He is every­thing pedant or gad­fly is not and that is pre­cise­ly why he is so famous. Get some intel­lec­tu­al integri­ty already!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.