Television

Neil deGrasse Tyson On Literacy, Curiosity, Education, And Being 'In Your Face'

Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks at the Television Critics Association press tour in January 2010.

Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke about The Pluto Files at the Television Critics Association press tour in January. Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is the director of New York's Hayden Planetarium, the host of PBS's NOVA ScienceNow, and in 2000, he was named People's Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive. He's a frequent guest on The Colbert Report and The Daily Show, and he withstood a firestorm of controversy over having allegedly demoted Pluto to non-planetary status nearly ten years ago. (Allegedly! We will get back to this.)

The Pluto affair is the subject of the upcoming NOVA special The Pluto Files, based on Tyson's book of the same name, which he talked about on All Things Considered last year. The special — which is funny, lighthearted, and educational — premieres on PBS on Tuesday, and I had an opportunity to catch up with Tyson at the TCA press tour last month. I did talk to him about Pluto, and I'll post that part of our discussion next week, but after we finished with that, I seized the opportunity to ask him about some other things. It turned out that he had so much to say about them that it only seems fair to give you the whole thing.

Linda Holmes: So as you sort of get this role of pop-culture science guy, being on The Daily Show and things like that, what are your thoughts about where we are as far as public interest in, and public perception of, and popular understanding of, science in this country? I know that's kind of a big question.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: It's not kind of a big question.

LH: I know, it's a massively huge question.

NdT: It is a big question. So ... I think we're at an interesting paradox. Access to science is greater than ever before. PBS is not the only science-producing network on television. There are others. Some are collaborators with PBS, others are direct competitors. But the fact is, there are more vehicles out there that grant the public access to science. Not to mention the Internet.

Yet. You have people who believe they are scientifically literate but, in fact, are not. And I don't mind if you're not scientifically literate, but just admit that to yourself, so that you'll know, and perhaps you can take a first step to try to eradicate that. We're an elective democracy where science and technology will define where the economically strong countries in the world will be. And science and technological literacy is important for security, as well. You can't have people making decisions about the future of the world who are scientifically illiterate. That's a recipe for disaster. And I don't mean just whether a politician is scientifically literate, but people who vote politicians into office. If you're not scientifically literate, what kind of society are we living in?

LH: When you talk about people believing that they're scientifically literate when they're not, what sorts of things are you talking about? What kind of information are you talking about people taking in and absorbing that isn't valid?

NdT: That a culture from 500 years ago has a calendar that doesn't go beyond 2012, so they think the world is going to end. Where does that come from, if not a profound absence of not only an understanding of how science works, but an absence of the kind of wiring a brain would have to have in order to judge the likelihood of that being true?

LH: So as opposed to just wanting people to have better information ...

NdT: It's not about information.

LH: Right, that's what I'm saying.

NdT: Most people you ask, "What is science literacy?" They'll say, "Well, you gotta learn about DNA, and learn about how microwave ovens work, and learn about nuclear power." Yeah, that's an aspect of science literacy.

LH: What do you mean by science literacy?

NdT: The center line of science literacy — which not many people tell you, but I feel this strongly, and I will go to my grave making this point — is how you think. If someone comes up to you and says, "I have these crystals. If you rub them together, it will heal your ailments." I don't want you to say, "Oh, that's bunk." No. Because extreme skepticism, such as that, and extreme gullibility are two equal ways of not having to think at all. And I don't think I'm the first to say that.

Why kids should be allowed to break stuff, the "measure of what it is to be educated," and more, after the jump.

So the thought is — what's your next thought when someone approaches you with the crystals? It should be, "How does that work? How do you know it works? By what mechanism does it work? How much does it cost? Where did you get the crystals? What evidence do you have that it would work on me?" Start asking questions. And people who are just charlatans out there, or are self-deluded, you'll reach a point where they don't have answers to those questions, because if they did, they wouldn't be trying to sell you crystals.

LH: And those aren't incredibly complex questions.

NdT: No, they're not. It's just a matter of curiosity expressed in everyday life, as you encounter things that you've never seen before.

LH: Do you think that's the fundamental problem, is lack of curiosity?

NdT: Yes. Something we all have as kids and is beaten out of us as adults. Parents come up to me, "How do I get my kids interested in science?" They're already interested in science. Just stop beating it out of them.

LH: How do you think it gets beaten out of them?

NdT: Because we tell them to shut up and sit down after spending a year telling them how to walk and talk. We teach them how to walk and talk, and they start touching things — "Oh, don't touch that, Junior. Sit down. Stop making noise. Stop banging on the pots and pans." Every one of those is an experiment. It's an experiment in acoustics. But you don't want your pots dirty, so you tell them to stop.

You're afraid your dish might break, so you tell them to stop playing with the china. Well, what's the cost of replacing your dish? A few dollars. If it's expensive, maybe twenty dollars. Why is it that you don't spend that, but you'll easily write a check to send your kid to some fancy school for thirty or forty thousand dollars a year? "Oh, because at the end, they'll have the degree from this school." It ain't about the degree. It's about: How do you think? That doesn't have to come from an institution, it comes from your trajectory through life and whether your appetite for learning, whether your urge to query the unfolding of nature around you is nurtured or quelled. That's the difference. "Squashed." "Quelled" is too calm. "Squashed."

What happens, the kid goes and plays in the mud. "Don't play in the mud; you'll get your clothes ..." There's bugs in the mud. That's kinda cool. They turn over a rock. "You'll get dirt on your clothes." There's millipedes under the rock. Let the kid find the millipedes. Plucks the — off the rose — "Don't break the rose like that; that's a rose." No, they want to see what's inside the rose; it's kinda interesting. The middle is not the same as the outside. Let the experiment run its course.

LH: So the people who are incurious adults had their natural curiosity, according to this theory ...

NdT: They don't know that they're not curious. They're just trying to protect their home. They don't want it to get messy. They don't want it to be noisy.

Who is it that we say are the best kids in the class? The ones that shut up and pay attention to the teacher, not the ones who are jumping up and down and breaking things. Kids should be allowed to break stuff more often. That's a consequence of exploration. Exploration is what you do when you don't know what you're doing. That's what scientists do every day. If a scientist already knew what they were doing, they wouldn't be discovering anything, because they already knew what they were doing.

This is a fundamental disconnect between what's going on in the educational system and what it takes to be a scientist. So the system does not promote interest in science. People who are scientists today are scientists in spite of the system, typically, not because of it.

LH: So there's a lack of support in the educational system for science, but not necessarily in the ways people would think about.

NdT: That's correct. There's a lack of support for scientific curiosity. There's a curriculum, there's a book ...

LH: And increasingly, standardized testing.

NdT: You learn, and they test you, and you need a high score on the test, and the teacher only likes the kids who get the high score and the kids who are quiet while they're teaching, because they're the well-behaved ones. What are we promoting in society? Well-behaved automatons that spew back what they learned in a book. That's not science. You can get a parrot to do that. Give me somebody who sees — now this could get dangerous, right? Somebody who sees a wall outlet and wants to stick a wire into it to find out what happens. So you don't want kids dying from their experiments, so yes, there's a certain oversight as a parent you have to exercise. But any sensible parent would know what those limits are. I would claim that those limits are much higher than what are normally granted the behavior of chidren.

LH: It's interesting, because I think there is a popular perception that kids aren't learning science, and it's interesting to hear the perspective that that has little to do with learning specific scientific information, because I think a lot of times, you'll hear, "They need to be in school more hours, more months of the year..."

NdT: And I don't have a criticism of that. My problem is not that you're learning things rather than thoughts — how to think. That's not the problem. It's that we believe that that's the measure of what it is to be educated. That's the problem. It's an aspect of what it is to be educated; it's not the measure of things.

LH: The quantity of information that you have.

NdT: And that's what the school system tends to cherish, not only in the curriculum, but in who learns it. That's why you have kids with their straight-A averages embossed on their jackets, and you're supposed to be impressed that they got A's. And no one seems to ask, "Well, tell us your insights about world affairs. Tell us your deepest thoughts about the nature of mathematics." "Oh, we didn't learn that in school." That's the reply.

LH: "They told me it wasn't going to be on the test."

NdT: "They told me it wasn't going to be on the test." "Oh, I should know that — I got straight A's." See, the measure of what they should know comes to them from their grade, not from the act of gaining insight itself. So I don't ... I'm going to ... it's not time for me to do it yet. I'm saving up for it.

LH: Saving up for what?

NdT: Saving up my energies to make that case. I mean, it's in this interview now, but I'm not ready to make that why I show up on television. There's still some universe things I want to get off the table.

LH: But ultimately, that's your bigger agenda.

NdT: I'm going to be in your face.

LH: You're going to be the pro-curiosity guy.

NdT: I'm going to be back in your face. That's right.

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