Neil deGrasse Tyson on journalism and science

Researcher brings the house down at a function to honor his work promoting science

P. Rajendran

Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, with astronomer and science enthusiast Neil deGrasse Tyson

Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, with astronomer and science enthusiast Neil deGrasse Tyson at the Knight Innovation Awards function at the CUNY Journalism School. Photo courtesy CUNY

Neil deGrasse Tyson, always hot stuff, was on fire at the CUNY Journalism School, where he was given the Knight Innovation Award Wednesday. It was in return for all that he has done make science accessible and to inform people about why science is central to their understanding of everything around them.

Generally non-confrontational, except on issues of science, Tyson pulled no punches, though, when talking about journalists with Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism.

Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space, and, among other things, the host of the second version of Cosmos and the late night talk show Star Talk.

He is also notorious for arguing for Pluto being demoted from the exalted position of a planet. When the issue came up, he silently looked over the audience – and callously said, “Get over it.” The audience loved it.

He came on after a discussion on podcasting by Gimlet Media’s Alex Blumberg, BuzzFeed’s Heben Nigatu, WNYC’s Manoush Zomorodi and Bowery Boys host Greg Young.

Tyson later named science communicator and podcaster Cara Santa Maria for the $25,000 that made up the Knight Foundation’s Give It Forward award.

When Jarvis began his conversation with Tyson, he asked why, over time, Tyson had “thrice denied being a journalist.”

“Really?” Tyson responded, seeming mildly surprised, before going on to describe the many times journalists had misquoted him, selectively picked material to highlight, and not made the effort to explain science either in context or in ways it actually worked.

“One scientific paper does not make a scientific truth,” he said, and spoke about the process that followed, in which the conclusion would either be bolstered or exposed as an anomaly or a fraud by other researchers in the same area.

“A beautiful day is when no one calls me to be on media,” he said. “If you see me on the media, it is because I was called. The universe flinched and they want a comment.”

Jarvis stepped in saying that it was not all bad and that he could, after all, debunk stupidity.

“I don’t start my day saying, ‘How do I debunk stupidity today,’” Tyson said. And the audience roared. “That is not how I begin my day. It may be how my day ends because I’m called to do so.”

He later described how the networks called him over because he was “just up the street.”

He gave an example of how some of them might call him and ask him about the discovery of the Higgs boson [at CERN, in 2012] and how he would say he would comment only on why the breakthrough mattered, and that they should speak about the actual work with the researchers who had found the elusive particle.

Tyson spoke of the years physicists spend on getting the result and added: “I don’t want to be the one to be seen by their grandmother [on TV] when they worked so hard to get that result.”

He also spoke, among other things, of his StarTalk interviews with Edward Snowden, the privacy activist in exile, and with Hope Solo, the soccer goalkeeper who posed nude for ESPN. had a history of domestic violence that the media dwelt on.

“I didn’t ask [Solo] any of that – because I don’t care! You all care about that,” he told the audience, which had plenty of journalists. “So you ask her about that. Turns out she’s a geek, and so we talked geek things. Like she’s a fan of Star Wars, and I told her there’s no physics in Star Wars. And I talked about the precision of kicks and blocking [to clarify, in soccer] and if can she reach the upper corner [of the goal]. And we talked about timing and reflex and all the rest of the things other people don’t have a conversation about.”

Tyson said that with StarTalk, a community of people had come to learn they can have a different kind of conversation than they would get from a journalist who would feel duty bound, as in Solo’s case, to talk about when she posed nude for ESPN.

On a lighter note, Tyson spoke of how, for a short time during the week before, he had more followers than leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. The audience cheered appreciatively.

“I don’t get big-headed about that. I’m…” – he picked his words here – “I’m delightfully shocked that science can have that level of following that rivals important politicians. What a statement that is about the world. I think there’s hope for science literacy going forward.”

He spoke of his Tweets that were the byproducts of the way he thought. Which was why, at a stop light, he could wonder – and later Tweet that  “If human blood were based on copper instead of iron, turning the blood green, I wonder what color the stop light would be?” Or that the Cincinnati Bengals beat the Seattle Seahawks because the Coriolis effect – a result of the Earth’s rotation – manifested itself when the ball, sent forth by Mike Nugent’s foot, hit a third of inch on the inside of the upright, making it bounce into the goal instead of back out. Without the Earth’s assistance.

Today’s @Bengals winning OT field goal was likely enabled by a 1/3-in deflection to the right, caused by Earth’s Rotation, @neiltyson tweeted. Perhaps that might get some football strategists interested in learning physics. Just as fans got interested in the physics after watching soccer player David Beckham get a ball to curve in late into the goal.

Jarvis asked Tyson if he felt he ought to tell the world how wrong it was that a legislator threw a snowball in Congress as an argument against global warming.

“No. Because what I’d rather do is teach the world how and what science is, how and why it works, and educate them so that they can interpret what they just saw,” he said. “They can be curious about what they just saw. Education at its best is not telling you you’re wrong… It’s teaching you how to be curious so you know how to find an answer.”

He said that it was intellectually lazy to respond with either extreme enthusiasm or derision to some unlikely claim, such as by someone claiming that rubbing two crystals together could heal you.

“What takes more work is questioning: Where do they come from? What are they made of? What is the chemical composition? Where did you find them? By the time you’ve asked that, the person’s gone. They are not going to sell it to you because you asked questions. The point is that there are people who are being handed their opinions. They’re being handed their points of view by people who they do not know how to question. Those are not the seeds of an informed democracy. In fact, that’s the beginning of the unraveling of an informed democracy.”

So, no, Tyson didn’t fight scientifically unverifiable viewpoints.

“I just teach people how to think about information,” he said.

Leading in to a question about humor on Tyson’s show, Jarvis said he was honored to be on the show and that he was being honest about it because Tyson was already at the event and so Jarvis didn’t have to suck up to him.

“That means that everything else you said up till now is not,” Tyson responded. And the crowd laughed.”

Talking about how he felt about comedians or other artists using science in their performances, he said, “I don’t invest emotion in what artists do. What I do is applaud the fact that there are artists of all kinds – musicians, actors, comedians – that have found the moving frontier of science as legitimate sources of their inspirational muse. That, I think is something to celebrate.”

Asserting that he is not given to bandying his opinions about, Tyson described how Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson described evolution as a fairy tale.

“So this is a not particularly particularly literate scientific posture,” he said. “So do I get angry with him? He is representing voters in a free society. People can vote for whoever they want. [If] they vote for someone who thinks evolution is a fairy tale, that is their right and it is their privilege.

“As an educator, I will alert the electorate that if you want to think that evolution is a fairy tale, that has consequences to the economic health of the nation in which you live – because innovations in science and technology are the engines of tomorrow’s economy. If you want to accept it as your religion, that’s fine. But you swap it into your science class and you’re undermining the role that science plays in the … security, health and wealth of the nation.”

Tyson said all he did was give information in an if-then format: “If you do this, this will happen. It’s not do this because I say so. Don’t do anything because I say so. That’s cult-building!”

Asked about a prevalent view among Republicans that climate change was not happening, Tyson said people had been taught science as a subject and not for what it was – a way of questioning nature.

“There needs to be classes on what science is, and how and why it works. Then you are inoculated against throwing a snowball in Congress if that’s how you were trained to think about the natural world,” he said.

Tyson pointed out that unscientific views were not a Republican preserve. He described how many people who railed against vaccinations, went for untested alternative therapies and rejected modern medicine and objected to genetically modified food were left-leaning.

“When I hear left [leaning] people speaking of Republicans being anti-science and I go down the list of things that are squarely in the portfolio of left-leaning people, I’m not choosing sides with you,” he said.

Tyson spoke of the disquiet caused in the left-leaning people – a group that usually tended to support him – when he pronounced that “everything in the grocery store’s been genetically modified. If you’re worried about genetically modified food, do not shop in any grocery store anywhere. There are no fields of seedless watermelons growing anywhere. There are no herds of milk cows wandering {around in the wild] These are genetically engineered organisms. And we’ve been doing it since the dawn of civilization.”

He spoke of the reaction and then suddenly collected himself saying, “I’m screaming at everybody here. I’m sorry.” He took a few deep breaths and the audience laughed.

The final question was about whether aliens may have come over to Earth.

Tyson described how it was possibly unlikely for two species that achieved interstellar communication to come to similar maturity at the same time. He pointed out how unequal things were intellectually between chimps and humans, who had less than a two per cent difference in DNA.

“If aliens came and they had only that much more intelligence than us … they could enslave the entire earth all and we wouldn’t even know it.” Tyson nodded significantly as the people before him laughed, some a trifle nervously. “Maybe that’s already happened…” – and the audience broke out into loud laughter – “and we’re living our lives as though we’re expressing the free will of the human species, yet we’re nothing more than an ant farm on their shelf.”

This article is open to correction. Do write in to tc@trulycurious with your comments.

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