In the wake of the success of the "Cosmos" television series, which picked up four Emmy Awards earlier this week, Neil deGrasse Tyson discussed politics, religion and science in a recent interview with AlterNet.
When I asked if the success of "Cosmos" had surprised him, Tyson said he had not anticipated the kind of coverage the show would get by entertainment sites and blogs. Because of the show's major network backing and primetime slot, he said, it was covered like any other television show. He said this forced many entertainment writers to write about all sorts of science topics not often covered in these publications, exposing the show to a new and possibly unintended audience.
Tyson was not as shocked by the backlash the show garnered from certain religious and political groups, mainly creationists who took issue with Tyson’s insistence on discussing evolution, the Big Bang theory and the history of scientific discovery. Their criticism of the show did not bother Tyson at all. “You have to ask yourself, what are the numbers behind the people making these claims? Someone like Ken Ham [owner of the Creation Museum] has beliefs that are even crazy to many Christians.”
Ken Ham’s criticisms came in the form of a weekly review on his website Answers in Genesis, a creationist organization. Ham's comments gained some attention from the media and were often answered by science writers all over the Internet.
But Tyson wondered how Ham was even able to get anyone’s attention. He speculated it had something to do with Ham's debate with Bill Nye, the Science Guy.
"Everyone knew Bill Nye, but almost no one had heard of Ken Ham," Tyson said. "But after the debate [Ham] realized he had some media attention. You have to wonder—if that debate never happened if he would have even bothered covering the show at all?”
Tyson said he has no interest in addressing the claims AIG made against him or the show.
“What I say is not an opinion,” Tyson said. “Life is too short to debate people's opinions. There is an old saying, if a debate lasts more than five minutes, both sides lost.”
This is the reason Tyson says he doesn’t debate. “My publicist wanted to set up a series of debates with me about Pluto, but I don’t care that much—call Pluto a planet, call it a planetoid, it doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “Just make sure that whatever you call it, you are doing so informed.”
Tyson said as an educator, his goal is not to tell people what to think, but to teach them how to think and provide them with scientific facts. It's up to them to decide what to do with this knowledge. “I am not a totalitarian, I don’t want to tell you what to believe. I want to provide you with the tools and evidence to arrive at your position on your own, and if you disagree with me, that’s fine, as long as your disagreement does not harm others.”
Tyson was seemingly verging on a more political discussion, though he has stayed guarded on his political leanings. “I have opinions and I lean one way over another, but I am not here to share my opinion or tell someone how they should vote,” said the scientist. He also had a fear that his fans could adopt his opinions simply because Tyson had stated them and not because they arrived at the same conclusions on their own.
Tyson has a long history of not openly endorsing any political party. He believes that science is apolitical, and politicians should come to scientists for information when it is in regards to public policy. “One thing that brings me great sadness is when a scientific discovery that should be apolitical is politicized, and suddenly people are choosing sides on their own and not consulting with scientists.”
He reminded me that the National Academy of Sciences was formed for this very purpose. If politicians needed to gather scientific information in order to write public policy, they would reach out to NAS, but today they choose sides that only seem to serve them personally.
“When you cherry-pick information to serve a need, there is a problem,” he said, referring to politicians who ignore evidence that does not support their political position or religious beliefs.
While Tyson says he does not like to tell people what to believe, he has spoken out against many types of science denial, especially on episodes of "Cosmos" in which he addressed issues like climate change and discussed that you can really take it to climate deniers by hitting them where it hurts most, their wallets.
Tyson insisted he was providing the overwhelming evidence in support of the anthropogenic global warming theory, not simply by telling people it was true, but by showing them how we know it’s true and the significance of its impact. Tyson's mission is to educate as many people as he can to think critically and to arrive at their conclusions and beliefs informed. He knows he cannot make everyone agree, but believes that if people are making informed decisions about science, we have a chance of making fewer bad decisions with the knowledge we have.