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Neil deGrasse Tyson: Politicians Reject Science Because Voters Do

But he's got a plan to solve the problem.

by Geraldine Cremin
Apr 29 2015, 9:00am

​Image: ​NASA

Capitol Hill has been taking swipes at science for years. Support for science is hurting in the US and now, according to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, it's time to stop rolling with the punches.

In a move that commentators equated to a war on science, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the chairman of the House Science Committee, last year launched an aggressive review of grants handed out to agencies including NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation.

Since then, the Senate acknowledged climate change is real but denied the problem is caused by human activity, effectively tying its own hands when it comes to taking action on the issue. To emphasize the Senate's sentiment, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), the chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, basically proposed a snowball fight on the Senate floor to prove that global warming is a hoax.

It's easy to roll your eyes and point fingers at the powers that be for their stubborn and questionable views on science, but ultimately the people on the Hill are elected officials. And so, echoing the words of Captain Planet himself, Tyson says the power is yours.

Motherboard caught up with the Head of the Hayden Planetarium (and People Magazine's Sexiest Astrophysicist) to talk science, politics, and how the two have come into such fierce opposition.

Motherboard: There are politicians in the United States who still deny climate change...
Neil deGrasse Tyson: ... they deny science in general.

"Science is not a series of topics. Science is a way of looking at the world."

So what are your thoughts on that, these politicians who don't seem to accept science?
It's embarrassing actually, but we're a free democracy so my gripe is not with the politician. How did the politician get into office? People voted them in to office! So the challenge is not with the politician, it's with the electorate.

I'm an educator so I focus on the electorate, not on the politician.

You're a big advocate for scientific literacy and a better informed public. What are some of the important topics we should all have some understanding of, if we're to consider ourselves scientifically literate?
You're assuming in the question that there's a list of topics.

That's what I'm hoping for, a list of priorities or touchstone topics.
No, no. There's always a list of topics but that's not what I'm about, that's not what I do. I equip you with ways of thinking that empower you to tackle these topics all on your own.

Science is not a series of topics. Science is a way of looking at the world, a way of questioning the world, a way of exploring how you would get answers to questions. Then you go to the hot topics and say, "Oh my gosh, that person is bringing forth these data but that's not how you do that with data," or, "This person said this, but wait a minute, these seven other science results say something else, so he's full of shit! They missed this other study!" Because now you're thinking about what studies are, relative to one another. It's a way of thinking.

So I will not give you a list of topics. I will train your mind how to think. I'm not telling you what to think, I'm not telling you how to vote. I'm empowering you to interpret the world around you in ways that lead to objectively true analysis.

You are a loud advocate for increasing NASA's budget. [As a percentage of the federal budget, funding to NASA—where, according to Tyson, dreams are made—has been in decline since 1991.] What do you have to say about the current state of science funding in the United States?
I can tell you this: In the 21st century, innovations in science and technology will be the engines of tomorrow's economies. For you to say as a nation, "We cannot afford to invest in science and technology," then apparently you can afford to stay just as you are for evermore. You're going to keep the poverty, you're going to keep the absence of wealth.

When people think of investments, they think of return: "Will I have an invention in a quarter or in a year?" Science has a longer time horizon than that, so it requires foresight. You can't say, "Here, solve this problem with your science," that's not how it works.

"People will realize that if you deny science, you're interfering with your ability to create wealth."

In the Second World War, communication researchers were studying how to communicate with microwaves or radio waves, and realized that water absorbed microwaves. What happens if I make a cavity and beam microwaves into that cavity, and then put something that has water in it into that cavity—like food? You could heat the food like that! (Clicks fingers)

If you were an expert on ovens and I gave you a zillion dollars—that's not really a number, a zillion, it's a fake number, a fake big number—if I gave you a zillion dollars and said, "Make me a better oven," you might insulate it, you might have some temperature probes, improve the knobs. You will never invent a microwave oven because it comes from somewhere else.

Science is an exploration of all that is unknown, and afterwards you get technologists coming behind saying, "Hey I can use that, thanks."

You need this foresight. Without it, just give it up.

How do you think we can revive that foresight and the desire to explore and discover?
At the end, people will realize that if you deny science, you're interfering with your ability to create wealth, and in the United States at the end of the day people care about wealth, about money. Maybe we haven't sunk low enough yet to wake up and say, "Oh my gosh, what are we doing? Let's get back on the science and technology bandwagon."

The challenge remains steep ahead of us. I'm working hard. That's why there's the radio show and there's Cosmos and I have a Twitter stream and books. I mean, I don't know how much more I can do, but I'm trying.

Thanks for fitting us in, I'm glad you managed to find the time in between fighting the good fight.
There's no managed time. Everything is completely random. I feel like it's going to collapse at any point. I was in Atlanta this morning and my plane got cancelled. Normally I would go home with enough time and freshen up a bit but this is what I wore on the airplane this morning.​