The HUMANIST Interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson

EDITOR’S NOTE: Ahead of this Sunday’s premiere of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, revisits our 2009 interview with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, winner of that year’s Isaac Asimov Science Award at the American Humanist Association’s 68th Annual Conference.

Tyson’s reboot of Cosmos follows Carl Sagan’s wildly popular original. Watch the premiere on Sunday, March 9 at 9:00pm on FOX or Monday, March 10 at 10:00pm on National Geographic Channel.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where he was born and raised. He graduated from the Bronx High School of Science, and earned his BA in physics from Harvard and his PhD in astrophysics from Columbia. His research interests include star formation, exploding stars, dwarf galaxies, and the structure of the Milky Way. In 2001 Tyson was appointed by George W. Bush to a commission to study the future of the U.S. aerospace industry, and another on space exploration policy, for which he received the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal. He is currently the president of the Planetary Society. Tyson regularly contributes to a number of publications, including Natural History magazine, and he is the author of nine books, including Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandries and The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet. In 2004 he hosted a special NOVA miniseries titled “Origins,” and he currently hosts the PBS program NOVA scienceNOW, which continues to bring intelligent discussions of cutting-edge scientific and technological advances into millions of homes. Tyson is also a regular on the History Channel and makes occasional appearances on Jeopardy, the Daily Show, and the Colbert Report. His contributions to the public appreciation of the cosmos have been recognized by the International Astronomical Union in their official naming of asteroid 13123 Tyson. And in 2000 People magazine named him the Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive.

The Humanist: Dr. deGrasse Tyson, it’s great to be with you here at the 68th Annual American Humanist Association Conference in Phoenix, Arizona. Is this your first humanist conference?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: My very first. I didn’t even know they existed. I guess I’m a little out of it, being a scientist all my life.

The Humanist: Well, we’re really glad you’re here and that you’ve discovered us, in a sense. What are your impressions so far?

Tyson: Everybody is friendly, the topics are all very interesting, and it’s clear that there is quite a lot of work to be done to make sure we have the country that we all thought we were given 230 years ago when it was founded.

The Humanist: Do you consider yourself a humanist?

Tyson: I’ve never identified with any movement. I just am what I am and occasionally a movement claims me because there is resonance between my writings and speeches and what they do, and that’s fine; I don’t mind that. But no, I have never been politically or organizationally active in that way. Astrophysics—that’s what I identify with.

The Humanist: And as an astrophysicist, do you find it a challenge that people may be less interested in the actual science that you’re doing and want to hear more about your position on science in our culture?

Tyson: The relationship of science to our culture is of fundamental importance in the twenty-first century, where whether or not we embrace science as a nation will play directly into our ability to compete economically with other nations that already value what it is to invest in science and technology. Whatever people feel the need to explore with me, I’m happy to go there with them. I spend enough of my life as an expositor of the frontier of science; I don’t need to do that every time I’m in front of an audience. Clearly this [AHA conference] audience has an important mission ahead of it and I would be very happy to share my life experiences with regard to that mission, compare notes, and look for best and worst practices.

In the category of worst practices, there are occasions where people—either humanist or atheist—are just completely obnoxious in a conversation with others. I even had a tussle with Richard Dawkins (I think it’s my most viewed YouTube clip) in which I accused him of being completely ineffective because he is so sharp of wit in the service of his point of view, and he is so well educated that he may fail to fulfill the directive of his title, which at the time was Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. That implies that your conversation with another person is an act of persuasion in some ways, not hitting them over the head. You want to understand what is going on in another person’s mind and meet them there. Otherwise, you’re not as effective as you could be. Dawkins has been hugely popular with his books and his speeches, so it’s not as though he’s ineffective, but I’m convinced he could be much more effective than he’s been.

My goal is to get people to be scientifically literate and to observe the world as something to investigate and not something to either fear or be mysteriously befuddled by to the point where they’re driven to supernatural explanations. The history of our investigation of the universe is one where supernatural explanations fall in the face of naturalist explanations, so there is no reason to presume that going forward we would need to change that approach to our knowing.

The Humanist: People argue that Dawkins and Hitchens and others are raising the profile of nontheism in general. But human beings are complex and even conflicted at times, so it’s reasonable to think about re-tailoring your approach once you have the spotlight. Certainly in science you want to ask questions and then go in search of the answers. I do think scientists working as scientists and touching on these issues are really the best spokespeople that we could hope for. So thank you so much for doing what you do.

Tyson: You just put an even greater burden on my shoulders saying that scientists have to first figure out how the universe works, then we’ve got to get it out there to the public!

The Humanist: Speaking of the public understanding of science, you’ve talked about getting letters from kids and so forth. Do you do much in science education with children?

Tyson: Hardly any of my professional activities directly target children. At the American Museum of Natural History there is an entire education department made up of people who are trained in K-12 cognitive processes and curriculum. Occasionally I come in and make a presentation for the kids. That being said, the books I’ve written are very readable by kids, and the TV show that I host, NOVA scienceNOW, has a playful spirit that kids can enjoy and that resonates with them.

But I can tell you that the urge to stimulate science literacy in children is sometimes done at the expense of raising science literacy among adults. Adults far outnumber children, adults vote, they run the country, they run the world. There is nothing scarier than a scientifically illiterate adult with a finger on the button. So much of my efforts have been to stimulate and re-stimulate a level of scientific curiosity in adults that we all had as children. Only then do we get the whole society to participate in the enterprise.

The Humanist: Your ability to communicate science and your ideas is so sharp. As a writer, as well as a presenter, do you find that you have a very specific technique for communicating?

Tyson: Technique implies that one invokes a method. And you repeat that method because it has shown to be successful. What I’ve found, however, is that one should not have any method at all because everyone is different, and so you come prepared for any audience at any time—any age, any demographic, any political leaning, tolerance for humor, religious sentiment, and so forth. All these factors influence the ability of a person to receive the message you are giving them.

So, no, it’s not a technique. You have to be much more fluid than that. And part of what empowers fluidity when speaking to the public is your exposure to pop culture. You have to know what the hit TV shows are, and have at least seen a few of them; you have to know what Paris Hilton is up to; yes, you have to have seen some sporting events. These are what matter to the general public in their casual conversations at a cocktail party or at the bar or at the laundromat. And if you speak to a group as an educator in any discipline and you’re not prepared to engage what interests them as a stepping stone or as metaphor or as a means of fleshing out a conversation in ways that have the emotional, intellectual, and cultural relevance to that audience, then you are not communicating.

I hold it as my highest priority to understand the audience I’m about to speak with so that the words I use, the rhythm of my sentences, and the references I make are all tuned for that audience at that time. That’s why the modern day posting of videos on YouTube is a bit more difficult for me because I’ll give a speech or a talk to a specific audience, it gets lifted on to YouTube, and then anybody can watch it. So all I can guarantee you is that if you were there in the room, the talk would have felt much more real than anything you would have seen online because I am reacting to the room.

So, I challenge my fellow educators and scientists and others who have a mission of enlightenment for the public to spend some time engaging the public in these ways. You can only be more effective rather than less after you have done so.

The Humanist: Have you shared this imperative with teacher groups?

Tyson: I gave a talk to the National Science Teachers Association. That is an important group of people, K-12 educators in science. I asked by show of hands how many people—because I knew it would get an interesting reply—didn’t own a television. Half of the hands went up. Of those who owned a television, I asked how many only occasionally used it to watch a movie, and half of the hands went up. So fully three quarters of that audience whose job it is to teach the next generation science don’t watch television, yet the average American watches thirty or forty hours of television a week. That disconnect is pedagogically fatal.

You can get on your high horse and say TV is just the undermining of all that is good in society; it doesn’t change the fact that it is the most influential force out there. And if you don’t know the magnitude of that force and what direction it’s pointing, then you will be correspondingly less effective standing up in front of a room. I told the teachers, don’t come up to me and say, oh they just don’t want to learn; it’s not a good class; they don’t want to listen. Excuse me, it’s your job to get them interested enough to want to listen. Otherwise, do not count yourself amongst the rest of educators; take up another field of work.

The Humanist: I imagine that was a little controversial.

Tyson: Yes, and when I say pop culture I don’t mean only the TV shows that are kind of cool and interesting. I also mean the hit shows. I’m talking about Dancing with the Stars. I’m talking about the reality shows most educators thumb their noses at as being of no educational or intellectual value. Yet clearly millions of people watch them every week so there is a disconnect. Once there is a disconnect, you’re not communicating.

The Humanist: The message I’m getting from you is of an unending need to understand human beings as both complex and able to be stimulated with the right approach. Thank you so much for communicating it to us so effectively!