(AP/Dennis Van Tine)

Neil deGrasse Tyson lets the science deniers have it: "The beginning of the end of an informed democracy"

In a Salon exclusive, the renowned astrophysicist discusses his show "StarTalk" and the state of science in America


Sean Illing
October 20, 2015 10:35PM (UTC)

If Americans agree about one thing, it’s that their favorite astrophysicist is Neil deGrasse Tyson. A ubiquitous presence on TV, radio and a host of other mediums, Tyson has become one of our greatest popularizers of science, this generation’s Carl Sagan (whose famous show “Cosmos” Tyson helped relaunch last year). Tyson is also an author and the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City.

In 2009, Tyson launched “StarTalk,” one of the first commercial radio programs devoted to science and all things space. The show has a unique format, featuring comic co-hosts and celebrity guests from the worlds of politics, science and entertainment. Earlier this year, Tyson’s podcast was developed into a late-night talk show by National Geographic Channel. The show was well-received, leading the network to pick up season two before the first episode of the first season aired.

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Recently, Salon spoke with Dr. Tyson about the second season of “StarTalk,” which premieres Sunday, October 25 at 11pm ET on National Geographic Channel. We asked Neil both about the show and about what he thinks of the role of science in popular culture and political discourse today. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

So why move from radio to TV? Why do we need a late-night talk show grounded in science?

I think I may give a rather unorthodox answer there. I would have been perfectly happy just staying as a radio show podcast, but I got to know people from National Geographic because I went around the world with them, because “Cosmos” got its world distribution by the National Geographic Channel…I did press junkets with them and I got to know the people and they got to know me and they started thinking, “Well, why don’t we do more television” and I said, “I don’t wanna do more television. I’m an academic.” Eventually I said I wouldn’t mind if "StarTalk" landed on television but I want to keep the soul of the show….They agreed to that.

Now, why do we think it should have any presence in the late night universe? I can’t know for sure whether we need another talk show. But I do know that the first season, the 10 episodes that were used for the television show, they drew quite a bit of attention, and we got an Emmy nomination for Best Informational Series. We didn’t win but for me it was an affirmation that people were noticing. We were trying to do something different. And yeah, we’d have celebrities like anybody else, the difference is the celebrity can celebrate his or her inner geek in conversation with me, in a way that would not otherwise manifest in conversation with a traditional entertainment journalist.

The guest list this season is full of entertainers and politicians and only a few scientists – is that by design? Is the idea to show people that you don’t have to be a scientist to understand and appreciate science?

Something that you might not have noticed is that the only "StarTalk" podcasts that featured scientists are the podcasts that we recorded live on stage. Those are anchored on a scientific subject. In studio, hardly ever is there a scientist. Hardly ever. And that is the soul of StarTalk –we’ve inverted the conversational model. So consider "Science Friday" for example, venerated and with a huge following – that’s a journalist interviewing a scientist every week. And you will tune in whether or not you know who the scientist is going to be because you know it’s going to be a good interview about science. And the people who tune into that are the people who know science.

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For the genesis of "StarTalk" we ask instead: Who are the people who don’t know they like science? The people who don’t know they like science, we’re serving them. It occurred to me that the only way to get them interested is to invert the model and have a host be the scientist - that would be me in this case, obviously – and have the guest not be a scientist. And then, that following will follow that guest and our talk, and they will then listen to their hero – whoever that is on the guest list – they will listen to their favorite person have a conversation about science and explore all the ways science has influenced their life.

So the goal here is to leave people with the impression, the correct impression, that science is ubiquitous in our society, in our culture.

Do you think that programs like StarTalk and Cosmos are how we make science more prominent in pop culture?

Yeah, I don’t want to say that they are our best hope. I want to say that the approach to the subject and the approach to the pedagogy, if you will, we have found them to be quite fertile but not uniquely fertile. The website I Fucking Love Science has about 40 or 50 million followers now – something like that. It’s a crazy high number. It’s way more than the number of actual geeks out there, I’m sure of it. So what it means is, that people who are not traditionally geeks are finding their inner geek. Because people are thinking about ways to share this moving frontier of science. “Cosmos” did it in its way and we are doing it in our way for StarTalk and others have their own way. So I think the ensemble is serving this role. Add to that, the number one show on television is the Big Bang Theory. And that is the number one show, in any genre, it’s a half hour sitcom. It makes $330,000 every 30 seconds, in ad time. It’s a stunning fact. And though they may be caricatures, the Big Bang Theory is nonetheless a window. It’s an anthropological window into the culture of geeks, science geeks in particular.

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One thing I love about the show is how you’re able to banter with non-scientists. It makes science less intimidating, particularly for the uninitiated. Is that intentional?

Well, thanks for noticing that. I was approached with the idea that I could have this kind of conversation with non-scientists because I’m tapping my own cultural awareness. I’m drawing from my own awareness of pop culture for those conversations. If I didn’t have it, there’d be no place for me to meet them to have that confrontation. The fact that I know a little bit about baseball and basketball, I know a little bit about who Beyoncé and Jay-Z and the Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo. This exposure is normally skewed in academic circles. Oh, pop culture? I’m an academic. I train my mind.

There is an attitude, for sure, against pop culture because it is not always pro-intellectual. But, I think those who have thought this way have missed a remarkable opportunity because pop culture is probably the greatest binding force of a society that exists. And if it is a binding force, and everyone has their own fluency, I can take science and plug it into that pop culture landscape. And you will receive it as breeze through a fence. It will come through to you because you already know the pop culture.

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Let’s pivot to politics if you don’t mind. Carl Sagan once said that a society that depends on science and technology needs a citizenry that understands science and technology, and it’s very dangerous if we don’t. He was clearly worried that Americans weren’t scientifically literate. Are you worried, too?

He said that long before he died and so a lot of that came out of a Cold War mentality – that you better understand what a nuclear weapon is, how it works and why, because we are voting on whether we have many of these or few of them and it is affecting policy and geopolitics. So, if you continue that posture, after the Cold War just before he died, we have other problems facing us where the solutions require a scientifically literate analysis and policy formation in order to have any connection to reality at all. I’d say we’re no more or less literate than we were when Carl uttered those words.

A lot of people tend to think of science and politics as separate, but they’re not. Questions about policy are often reducible to questions about facts, about cause and effect – isn’t that the domain of science?

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I would say you’re right, but I would say it differently. It’s not a question of policy reducing to facts, it’s that enlightened policies are based on facts, but learned in whatever way the actual politics demands of it at the time. That’s what politics is or should be. It is the learning of how you legislate, how you establish the laws and rules of your country in the face of objectively verified information.

For example, we live in a time now where many on the conservative right continue to be in denial of anthropogenic climate change. The problem that I see is that if you remain in denial, then you are not at the table discussing reactions to anthropogenic climate change. So, we’re losing time here, which is to say we’re causing climate change. Now, let’s go back in the room and debate what we do about it. Because whether you have carbon credits or solar panels or you have a new trade relationship with the Far East, all of these factors matter.

What do you make of that anti-science demagoguery in our political discourse right now? Is that just ideological biases triumphing over good thinking?

The moment you start bringing your personal belief system into governance, then that’s the end of pluralistic democracy. We have words for governance like that and they’re called dictatorships. You have a belief system, you have a philosophy, and that philosophy has some adherence and others have their own philosophies. Those are your personal truths. One of them is, "Jesus is your Savior." I’m not going to say that Jesus is not your savior. That is your personal truth. But, in a country where we have different religions, if the person who said: “Jesus is your Savior” is going to govern a pluralist country, then their legislations must be based on objective truths, not personal truths.

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And personal truths are not only religious. You can have political personal truths. You keep those to yourself or your political group. But, to impose them on others is to do away with the freedom that a free democracy gives you. Now, getting back to your point, we have people in Congress whose job is to pass laws. If they pass laws based on things that are not objectively true, that’s the beginning of the end of an informed democracy.

Last question: People quietly assume that science will save us from ourselves, whether it is climate change or resource depletion or systemic poverty or any number of other problems. The hope is that we’ll always innovate our way out of crises. Do you think science and technology will solve all these problems for us?

Yes, but it requires enlightened governance for that opportunity to arise. Science doesn’t happen in the abstract. It pays to have science done. Frontier science, historically and in modern times, is generally paid by government-based sources – the NIH, the National Science Foundation, the research arms of the Department of Energy, even the science arms of the Department of Defense. Someone is paying for research. You can’t just say, “Well, the science will save us.” No, enlightened governance enabling the science will save us. Scientific solutions to society’s challenges, historically, have been the most potent ways to solve problems.

You remember Thomas Malthus saying that the population growing exponentially will outstrip the food supply that is only growing linearly. This became a philosophy of governance for so long until people realized that they can apply scientific principles to farming and have the food supply go up exponentially just as the population is, and they won’t have a food problem. That’s exactly what happened. There is no shortage of food in the world. There are places where people are starving because the distribution channels are corrupt or inefficient. But, we are producing more food than ever before in the history of our species. So, science solved that problem. Now, enlightened governance has to move the food to where it needs to go. That’s another layering on top of this. The scientist can’t be the one who says, “I’ve invented this way to triple the output on the land. Now, I’ve got to figure out how to get it to where people are starving.” That’s what politicians are supposed to do. That’s what enlightened geopolitics does. But I still have huge confidence in the power and potency in innovations of science and technology to solve all these problems.

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Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at silling@salon.com.

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