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Neil deGrasse Tyson gets political

Why the influential astrophysicist is increasingly worried about scientific ignorance.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks during the 2015 Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting on September 28, 2015, in New York City.
Taylor Hill/FilmMagic

As a kid, I loved watching reruns of Carl Sagan’s PBS series Cosmos.

It was one of those rare shows that found a way to communicate the importance and the beauty of science at the same time. And Sagan, for his part, was so good at evoking a sense of wonder in the audience.

If there’s an heir to Sagan’s legacy in our time, it’s the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. In addition to reviving Cosmos in 2014, Tyson has become the most influential science communicator in the country. As of this writing, he has nearly 15 million Twitter followers; he’s a constant presence on TV; and he’s the longtime director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History.

But his new book, Starry Messenger, represents a kind of shift in his public mission. More than anything else he’s done, it’s an explicitly political — though not exactly partisan — book. Tyson’s goal is to show how science can inform our politics and maybe even assuage some of our deepest divisions.

I’m fascinated by the turn in Tyson’s work, so I invited him to join me for the first episode of my new podcast, The Gray Area, to talk about his ideas — and push him a little bit. I do, after all, think he might be a little naive about how our political world really works.

Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you find podcasts. New episodes drop every Monday and Thursday.

Sean Illing

You’re really leaning into politics in this book in a way I don’t think you have before. Am I right to see it that way?

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Yeah, this book is very different from my other books in that regard. But in a way, it has more science in it than anything I’ve ever written. Because it’s about all the things that matter to us — society, culture, politics, love, hate, life, death — and what those things look like through the lens of reason.

There are so many occasions in your life where you dig in your heels with a strongly held opinion to fight someone else who’s digging in their heels with a strongly held other opinion. And the book is an attempt to get warring factions to realize that there are places to stand, to look back on what you were arguing and say, Oh, my gosh. I wasn’t arguing about anything at all. Or I thought this was a strongly held view, but look at all the holes in the view that I didn’t even know were there because my bias blinded me to them.

So this book is an exercise in how to live in this world with a scientific outlook. My hope is that if anyone’s gonna buy it at all, they get it before Thanksgiving dinner when the crazy uncle and the weird aunt come in and share their views of the world. This will totally equip you to have those exchanges!

Sean Illing

Oh, Neil, you’re so naive! Seriously, though, are you doing this because you feel like our political dysfunction or scientific illiteracy has brought us to some kind of tipping point?

Neil deGrasse Tyson

It’s not that warring political factions is a new thing — that’s as old as democracy and elections. And even before elections, there were kings and queens that were killed for the sake of power of those who wanted to rise up. So if that’s not the ultimate expression of political conflict, I don’t know what is.

What is different, I think, is I remember a day when I would express an opinion and you would calmly listen and you’d say, Oh, that’s interesting, or Here’s what I think about that. And then we would discuss the differences. And then when we were finished discussing, we’d go out and have a beer.

Now, if you post any opinion at all on social media, it gets attacked by people who don’t want you to have an opinion that differs from their own. If that’s the world you seek, then what you’re really after is a world where everyone has exactly the same opinion you do. Last I checked, this is what dictators create in their inner circles, where everybody has the opinion of the dictator, and that is not the foundation of a pluralistic democracy.

What I’ve learned in my social media postings is if I’m gonna say anything political, I have to do it in a way where it’s not an opinion. And even when you do it that way, there are people who will think it’s an opinion. That’s what fascinates me.

Sean Illing

All right, let me see if I can get to the point where you and I may diverge a little, because I think we agree about most things. If I have a conservative instinct, it’s that I think it’s generally wise to be very humble about human nature and the limits of politics, which is to say, I think we have to accept, as I think you do, that human beings are not rational creatures, that human life can never be made entirely or even mostly rational, and that any attempt to do so will probably go disastrously. And I think you think that with the help of science or the scientific perspective, we can maybe grow out of our primitive impulses —

Neil deGrasse Tyson

I don’t know if it’s possible that we completely grow out of it in the sense that the species evolves so that our irrational conduct is in the past, but we can mature, and widespread enlightenment can happen and does happen.

Though there is surely slavery still in the world, there is no government that matters in this world that explicitly supports slavery in their doctrines. But that was widespread just a few centuries ago. I would say we have matured culturally and socially to recognize that this is not how we should behave.

So I think it is possible to progress (with whatever fits and starts it involves), that overall society can have a more progressive, rational outlook on its present and on its future, for having learned from our mistakes in the past.

Sean Illing

I think we agree there, so let me try this another way —

Neil deGrasse Tyson

You’re still trying to pick a fight, aren’t you?!

Sean Illing

No, no, no, you think I’d pick a fight with America’s favorite astrophysicist?

Neil deGrasse Tyson

America’s personal astrophysicist. I don’t know if I’m anybody’s favorite!

Sean Illing

But when you write that “When people disagree in our complex world of politics, religion, and culture, the causes are simple, even if the resolutions are not,” I think I know what you mean, and it’s at least partially right. But I don’t think the causes are simple at all. I think human beings are remarkably primitive and impossibly complicated at the same time. Protons and electrons, by comparison, are so much simpler. That’s why we can predict the way they’re gonna behave. But people are weird and convoluted and contradictory and puzzling —

Neil deGrasse Tyson

I would say for individuals, yes, but collectively, not so much. If you look at the causes of wars, sure you can say it was this king, or this queen, or this line in the sand. But at the end of the day, it’s about power. It’s about access to resources. There aren’t a hundred reasons why humans have engaged in organized warfare.

The details are distinct, of course. We have Hitler rising up in the 1930s Germany, and he was in jail and he was elected and he was charismatic. But at the end of the day it was a charismatic, power-hungry person who managed to create an enemy and bring his people against what he perceived as an enemy.

That’s pretty simple to me. Now, how you resolve that given the complexities of a culture and society, and how you end it and how you create longer-lasting peace — that’s very complicated.

Sean Illing

I’m glad you used the word “power” just now. Because I don’t think we have a knowledge problem, and while I do think most of us lack perspective, the real problem in my mind is fundamentally political. Our inability to tackle climate change, something you talk about in the book, is not a knowledge problem. The issue is that power is concentrated in ways that make it difficult for us to do what we know we have to do. I don’t pretend to have the answers. I just know more data ain’t it.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

I see it differently.

Sean Illing

How so?

Neil deGrasse Tyson

I see it as people do not understand what an objective truth is. I actually think it’s that simple. They see various published scientific research. One in a hundred of [those studies] denies human-caused climate change and 99 of them show that we are the cause. They cherry-pick it because it fulfills a worldview that they have and they’re not self-aware of the bias that is infused within that worldview. And they happen to also be in power — either political power or financial power — and then they act on it.

So you’re right, it’s not a matter of knowledge. It’s a matter of a self-awareness, of not seeing how you’re arriving at what you think is true and what is not.

You need to know what science is and how and why it works.

Sean Illing

Okay, you’re gonna hate me for saying this, and I annoy myself when I say it, but I really think we overstate how important objective truth is for many people. It’s not that a lot of people have lost sight of what distinguishes facts from opinions. I think the problem is worse than that. People become attached to certain beliefs, values, certain cultural poses, and these things seem small from a cosmic perspective (and they are!), but they’re the things that anchor our identities and our social lives. That’s the stuff that drives us. And it’s beyond truth and falsehood. It’s beyond facts and opinions. It’s deeper than that.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

I thought you were more optimistic than that!

Sean Illing

I’m trying, Neil, help me out here!

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Okay, let me see what I can do with what you just said.

So in the book, I quote language from the actual platform of the Texas Republican Party. I don’t remember the words exactly, but there was an explicit sentence in there not too long ago that actively denied the scientific claims about human-caused climate change. And then two years later — ’cause they update the platform every couple of years — that sentence was softened. It no longer actively denied the scientific claims. It said, “We support the defunding of climate justice initiatives.” So that’s actually progress. Because it’s not coming at the scientists and scientific consensus. It is possible for the truth to get through among people who actually didn’t think it was objectively true.

So now, getting back to your point, there are things that people just want to believe, no matter the evidence, such as those who think Earth is flat. I don’t chase them down. We live in a free society with free ideas and free expression. And if you wanna think Earth is flat, go right ahead. There’re plenty of jobs for you — including NBA professional basketball player, one of whom was a big exponent of the flat Earth [theory] — where you don’t have to know or understand that Earth is spherically round.

I’d say that your susceptibility to thinking this way is enabled by how science is taught. You’re taught that it’s just some facts that happen to be true today but might not be true tomorrow. And then there are these boldface words in the chapter that you memorize and you recite them back for the final exam.

At no time is science really taught as a process, as a means of querying nature, as a way to know what is and is not true in this world. And if you have power, your power and money, it will be more likely sustained if you make decisions based on objective truths than in anything that you wish were true without the benefit of evidence to support it.

Sean Illing

I think people in power already know what’s true, and if they don’t care, it’s because they’re invested in falsehood. But the real question here is about the public and whether we think human nature has really changed all that much. Or have we just gotten better at building institutions and structures that channel our worst instincts in more constructive directions? And if it’s the latter (and I think it is), then once those trappings melt away, we revert pretty quickly to our barbarian past.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

That’s a very important and perceptive comment. So let me just agree and further reflect on it.

Earlier, you said we’ve never been exposed to more access to knowledge. That’s correct. But there’s nothing more bias-feeding than typing a crazy idea into Google, and Google will find every other crazy person who thinks exactly the way you do, giving you a false sense of authenticity, or a false sense of truth about your crazy idea.

You can type in “hollow Earth” and up will come websites of people who are all into the idea that Earth is hollow and that there’s an inner Earth and that there’s civilizations within that. So our system of access to knowledge does not have a tandem set of filters to allow you, unless you have other kinds of training, to judge what is more likely to be true. And you need ways to have your belief system unraveled in the face of some truths versus others.

If you’re not ready to have that happen, you don’t have the tools to receive conflicting information and change your mind; you become ossified. And that tribalizes people. So, yeah, in the old days, your tribe were people who looked like you and lived a few blocks around you. Now if you have an idea, you can find everybody else in the world with that idea and that is the new tribe, and we’re gonna fight everybody else who resists us.

Sean Illing

Yes, and that’s kind of what I’ve been driving at in this conversation. It’s often not about truth so much as tribe and community and purpose and these sorts of things. You know, no one has ever blown themselves up in defense of string theory or whatever, right?

Neil deGrasse Tyson


Sean Illing

But people have always died and killed over their ideas about freedom or God or whatever. And I don’t know if enough scientists think really seriously about why that is and what it says about us. I imagine a lot of scientists would say, Yeah, I get that. We just have to give people more facts and data so their ideas about freedom are coherent. But I don’t think that acknowledges the problem here —

Neil deGrasse Tyson

It’s more complicated than that. I would say that the less data the individual has available to them to support their belief system, the more strenuously they will defend their belief system. Of course there are exceptions to that, but that’s an extraordinary fact.

I spend a fair amount of time distinguishing these various truths. I would call those “personal truths.” Is Jesus your savior? In a free, open country where religion is protected, no one is gonna take that from you. But if you want to require that others think the same way, that requires an act of persuasion and in the extreme an act of violence.

And then you have “political truths,” the truths that just exist cause they’re repeated so often. The weakness of the brain makes us think, Wow, I heard it a lot. It must be true. Without any reference to evidence or repeated evidence. Again, we had to learn that evidence mattered.

The objective truths are what really matter here. And once people understand what role they play in establishing something that applies to everyone — ’cause an objective truth is true whether or not you believe in it — we can at least let the laws we create be founded in objective truths. That way, your personal truths don’t collide with it. But if you have strong personal truths and you rise to power, that’s dangerous for a pluralistic democracy.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts. This October on The Gray Area, you’ll hear from guests like Reza Aslan, a leading expert in world religions, Luke Mogelson, a combat reporter for the New Yorker who was in the Capitol building on January 6, and Judith Butler, a pioneering gender theorist.

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