Anti-science movement fueled by poor education and anger, says Neil deGrasse Tyson

May 25, 2024

By Bruce Lee

The continuing spread of anti-science sentiment and misinformation and disinformation about science has become a very dark matter, so to speak. So it would make sense to hear what astrophysicist, author, and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson has to say about it.

After all, Tyson has been in the science communications space about, well, space — and other areas of science as well — for the past couple of decades. For example, he’s written a monthly “Universe” column for the Natural History magazine and 17 books like Death by Black Hole and Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, as well as hosted the television shows NOVA Science and Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Tyson also has served as the Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History since 1996.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

An opportunity to hear what Tyson had to say came on April 29, when he was being honored at the 25th Annual Stars of Stony Brook Gala in New York City. The Gala was part of the Stony Brook Foundation efforts to raise funds for scholarships to enable students to study STEM (that’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. There Tyson shared with me his thoughts about how science is doing in the U.S. And spoiler alert, it ain’t doing so well. There be problems.

“The problem is that many people don’t know what science is and how and why it works,” Tyson said. “It’s missing in the standard educational background. When I see how science is being taught or not being taught, I have a bit of sympathy for them as an educator.”

He emphasized that science is about understanding how the world works and “when you don’t know science, you don’t really know how it works.” He went on to say, “You have to put the burden back on shoulders of education and educators. When science it taught in school, it’s a lot of tests on vocabulary, problem sets and regurgitation. At no time are most people told how fundamental science is to what we do and care about.” Indeed, this can make science seem separate from daily life, as something you may look at to nerd out to rather than something to use in everything that you do.

The lack of scientific understanding can make people very susceptible to what Tyson described as “personal testimony. One person with a YouTube channel can say I’m right and everyone else is wrong. We can respond maximally to this kind of personal testimony.” Psychologically, it can be very different when someone with a name and face tells you something rather than charts and graphs. He added, “By contrast, scientific consensus can seem like a faceless data point, a faceless statistic.”

Tyson further emphasized the lack of proper training in probability and statistics. He mentioned how a lot of science is about understanding the chances of something happening and how “much of training in any type of scientific discipline is in some sort of statistics classes.” When you don’t have a good idea of likely or probable an event may be, chances are you are going to overemphasize or underemphasize the wrong things.

He gave an example as food for thought: “If you read about some type of food associated with say a 20% increase in cancer risk, that may sound like a lot. But what if the baseline cancer risk is one percent? That would mean going just up to 1.2%, not to 20%.”

As another example, he talked about people writing books about such-and-such diets. “Say someone has cancer and goes on a something diet and in doing so declines standardized medicine. If the problem resolves that person may write a book about how good that something diet is.” But such books don’t necessarily use science. If-it-happened-to-me-it-should-happen-to-you is not science. Otherwise, everyone in a reality TV show should expect to become President of the U.S. some day, right?

Tyson interrupt edour conversation about science with a theoretical question, a conspiracy theory question: “Can you allow me one conspiracy theory?” Why not, since he has spent plenty of time combatting a range of conspiracy theories and asked politely? When I gave him the OK, he offered, “Most of the revenue from lottery tickets go to education. You have gambling because it offers such revenue benefits. And most educational curricula don’t have a single class in probability and statistics.” In other words, would people be less likely to buy lottery tickets or gamble if they knew the true odds of winning, which ain’t good? It’s probably not a great idea have your long term financial plans depend on your winning the lottery. But these days people can bank there hopes and dreams on a lot of stuff that’s unlikely to occur due to inabilities to think statistically. It was an interesting conspiracy theory from Tyson but who knows the chances of it being true?

Regardless, Tyson urged, “We need to revamp the educational system so that science is taught as a way of querying nature, determining what is objectively true versus objectively false, so that we can discard that what’s objectively false.”
Tyson also talked about how he communicates about science and how it’s important to understand the audience and communication platform. He explained, “I figured what works on social media by working with people one third my age.” He added, “Try to make the medium fit your message. Before I go on a talk show, I study the host and the host’s approach to the subject.”

For example, Tyson, who has appeared on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast, indicated that “Joe Rogan will have almost anyone as a guest, no matter how fringe the guest may be. He never said that his show is balanced and often won’t say that he leans one way or another.” By contrast, prior to his appearance on Ben Shapiro’s show, he “knew that Shaipro’s audience would be highly conservative. It was a platform to attack the liberal left.”

Although he may tailor his approach to the particular platform and audience, Tyson does keep some things the same: “I make sure that my facts are lined up. I make sure tone is calm. My father used to say it is not good enough to be right, you have to also be effective.”

And it can be difficult to be effective at science communications with all the heavy politicization of what should be scientific issues such as climate change, vaccines, and the pandemic. There’s also a bevy of political and business leaders who seemingly want to pick fights all the time and foment conflict. Many scientists who are interested in just talking about what’s objectively true can quickly find themselves inadvertently placed in MMA-like ring where they are subject to attacks, false accusations and even death threats. These days, it seems like science communications is not for the faint of heart. Nevertheless, as Tyson indicated, “I don’t hesitate going on shows. I don’t have anything to fight about. In my day, when you disagreed with someone, it was here’s my view then we go out and have a beer.”

The planets aren’t exactly aligning for science these days in the U.S., which is bad news for our country in general. Not using enough real science to make decisions effectively means not using reality. And you can only get away with doing that for so long. As Tyson emphasized, a lot has to change, beginning with how science is taught in this country. When people don’t understand basic scientific concepts such as statistics and probability, there’s a high probability of them not making the right decisions.
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Credit: Forbes

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