Neil deGrasse Tyson: Take 2

February 21, 2012 • 5:41 am

I haven’t listened a lot to Neil deGrasse Tyson, but only for lack of time and opportunity. By all accounts he’s a superb communicator of science. I wasn’t as enthused as many about his Beyond Belief talk that I posted yesterday (the delivery was a bit uneven), but his Natural History article mirroring it was very good.

As you’ll recall, that talk came down pretty hard on faith, not only for being used as an excuse for not doing science, but also for being something that’s naturally abandoned by scientists—especially good ones.  In the talk he says this:

It’s a deeper challenge than simply educating the public; it’s deeper.  As you know, by the books written by our scientific colleagues, that do take these deeply resonant and charitable positions towards their religious beliefs, maybe the real question here— let me back up for a moment. You know, we’ve all seen the data: 40%. . . there’s 90% of the American public believes in a personal god that responds to their prayers, and then you ask: what is that percentage for scientists? Averaged over all disciplines, it’s about 40%. And then you say: how about the elite scientists—members of the National Academy of Sciences?

An article on those data, recently in Nature, it said: 85% of the National Academy reject a personal god. And then they compare it to 90% of the public. You know, that’s not the story there.  They missed the story! What that article should have said is: “How come this number isn’t zero?” That‘s the story!

So my esteemed colleague here. . .. .[appears to forget Krauss’s name]. . Professor Krauss here, says that all we have to do is make a scientifically literate public. Well when you do, how can they do better than the scientists themselves in their percentages of who’s religious and who isn’t? That’s kind of unrealistic, I think. So there’s something else going on that nobody seems to be talking about: that as you become more scientific, yes, the religiosity drops off, but it asymptotes.  It asymptotes not at zero, it asymptotes at some other level; so they should be the subject of everybody’s investigation—not the public.

Now this isn’t completely clear, but I think the message is that it’s almost incomprehensible that a brilliant scientist should accept a personal God, and we need to find out why 15% of them do (I think that figure is really about 2%). There’s also the suggestion that “making a scientifically literate public” won’t work in dispelling religion.  I also think, given the tenor of deGrasse’s talk (about how religion has been used historically to “stop science” by positing gods of the gaps), that he sees faith as an impediment in public acceptance of science.  But I may be projecting here.

Two readers have since mentioned other, more accommodationist talks that deGrasse has given since this one.  They appear to give a different take on the religion/science issue.

In the talk below, originally posted at Big Think, Tyson posits that religion doesn’t have an issue with science because most American’s “fully embrace science.” He says there’s been a “happy coexistence [between science and religion] for centuries.” He rightly decries the incursion of fundamentalist science into schools, and now says that the 40% of American scientists who are religious shows that there is no necessary connection between being a scientist and being an atheist.  Curiously, he doesn’t mention the 85% of National Academy members who are nonbelievers. Tyson asserts that the disparity in religiosity between scientists and the American public misleadingly paints their differences as a “built-in conflict.”

First, of all, I don’t agree that most Americans “fully embrace science.”  That’s certainly not true as far as my own field, evolution, is concerned.  Only 16% of Americans embrace the scientific view of evolution as a mindless, materialistic process, one that takes place without divine guidance. 40% of Americans (not a “tiny minority,” as implied in the talk) accept a fully Biblical view of creationism ex nihilo by God, and 38% believe in a God-guided process of theistic evolution. Americans are scientifically illiterate in many other ways, with that scientific illiteracy highly correlated with religious belief. And don’t forget the global-warming deniers and the antiscience Republicans.

Second: the message of the talk above. I realize that deGrasse tailors his message to his audience, as several readers pointed out yesterday,  but this one above, compared with the talk I posted yesterday, seems more than just a difference in emphasis: it’s a difference in what conclusions you draw from the data. That means that it’s Ecklundish, and a bit too flip-floppy for my taste. In the first talk he sees faith as an impediment to science; in the second he sees the two as either partners or, at the least, not in conflict.

Now you may excuse Tyson by saying he’s changed his mind and become less militant, and perhaps that’s the case. But others may say that he simply tells different audiences different things.  And that’s okay, too: when I talk about the evidence for evolution, and my book, I don’t tend to drag in religion, for that’s a separate issue (although, I think, it’s the root cause of creationism). But consider this.  Tyson’s talk that I posted yesterday could easily have been given by Richard Dawkins, at least in terms of the message about religion. If Dawkins gave the talk shown above, though, wouldn’t we be concerned about his change of message? And if we would be, why is it okay for DeGrasse to flip-flop and Dawkins not?

Here’s another video in which Tyson talks about religion and science:

“I personally don’t care what people want to believe—this country was founded on religious freedoms. . . I don’t have any issue what you do in the church, but I’m gonna be up in your face if you’re gonna knock on my science classroom and tell me that they gotta teach what you teach in your Sunday school, because that’s when we’re gonna fight.”

Bravo about fighting creationism! But where Tyson and I differ here is that I do care what people want to believe. I do care what they “do in the church”: I care if those churches treat women as second-class citizens, or tell the faithful that homosexuality is a sin, or teach lies to children.  I do care about the pernicious and divisive doctrines of Islam.

And most of all I care what people do in the church because it spills over not just into the science classroom, but into society as a whole.  Just read Sean Faircloth’s book, The Attack of the Theocrats, and you’ll see the many insidious ways that faith has insinuated itself into our government, and the special exemptions it enjoys not just from criticism, but from taxation.  If you think that the biggest problem of religion in America is creationism in the school classroom, think again. Read about how religious day-care centers are exempt from many of the regulations that secular centers have: they don’t even have to be inspected in many states! Read about the policies that many states have about not prosecuting parents who harm their children by withholding medical care on religious grounds only.  How does one weigh creationism in schools against the death of even a single child?

Of course I agree that we can’t force Americans (or anyone else) what to believe, and we should never prevent them from worshipping or professing their faith.  But the dangers of religion run far deeper than simply its incursion into the science classroom.  It always bothers me when folks like Tyson, or organizations like the National Center for Science Education, argue that if people profess belief in evolution, then everything becomes all right.  It’s not all right, because religion is far more pernicious than simple creationism. First, it’s the cause of creationism, and creationism won’t disappear until religion does.  Second, how do you weigh children learning creationism against children being terrorized for life by what they’re taught in a Catholic church?  Which one is worse? And there are all the other dangers of faith recounted in Faircloth’s book and those of the Four Horsemen.

The elephant in the room is religion, and Biblical views in science classrooms are its droppings. You won’t eliminate the droppings until you get rid of the elephant.

Finally, Tyson claims that our attack on religiously-based “bad science” in public schools should rest not on its religious roots, but simply on the fact that it’s bad science.  He says “it’s not an issue of separation of church and state.”  To a point I agree: we can dismiss creationism solely because it’s bad science, and it shouldn’t be taught on that basis alone. But we can’t legislate creationism out of science classrooms without citing the First Amendment, and, in fact, that’s how creationism has always been expelled from public schools in the Federal courts.  if we’re going to expunge creationism from schools, going after it as cases of teachers pushing “bad science” would involve a painful, step-by-step review of each teacher’s behavior, and then the onerous process of correcting or firing that teacher.  But going after creationism as an incursion of religion into the public sphere—a perfectly proper and justified thing to do—eliminates the problem in one swipe.  No creationism can be taught, anywhere.

By “problem”, I mean, of course, the legality of teaching creationist views (including intelligent design) in schools.  The bigger problem remains: religion, the source of creationism.  So even if you don’t care about the other inimical (and more serious) side effects of religion, ignoring it as the source of creationism is a blinkered view.  I aver that there’s precious little evidence for the accommodationist claim that one can bring religious people to science by telling them that their religious beliefs are compatible with science.

While I applaud Tyson for getting people to learn about science, and to become excited about it, I disagree with his strategy—at least the strategy suggested in the two videos above.  But to each his own.

106 thoughts on “Neil deGrasse Tyson: Take 2

  1. These different talks are not merely tailored to their audience, they are pandering to their audiences, in a distasteful politician-like way. If this were Romney, we’d see wonderful attack ads by his opponents with the talks intercut, his head flipping around….

    1. I suspect the pandering is necessary. I do not know how the Planetarium’s funding breaks down, but they do note prominently that NASA provides some of the funding. If that funding is significant, he might be a fool, job wise, not to pander. Lots of publicly-funded researchers can toil away out of the spotlight and not have to worry about public reception of their views. Tyson’s job is to engage the public. It might be a bad career move for him to seem too hostile to the views that public holds dear. At the least, one doesn’t become as known and recognizable as Tyson without having some political skills.

      1. Why does Tyson have to say ANYTHING about religion? If he just talked about the science, he wouldn’t get any flak. As I always said about the NCSE, they shouldn’t say anything about whether faith and science are compatible. Just teach the science. The rest is theology.

        1. This seems like a curious question. One might ask why Jerry Coyne has to say anything about science? This is some strange form of the civility argument: “If you can’t say anything I want to hear, don’t say anything at all”.

  2. First, of all, I don’t agree that most Americans “fully embrace science.”

    I honestly think it depends completely on what you mean by “fully embrace science”.

    On the one hand – you have people who when polled by pollsters say things like they don’t believe in evolution. This is a rejection of science.

    On the other hand – the majority of Americans, if they fall ill, will not be making a pilgrimage to a shrine to pray for healing. They’ll got a doctor, have him look at them, and get medication if they need it. Even if those drugs are developed based on ideas that come from evolutionary theory.

    You can point at all sorts of things like this. Americans say one thing and do another. So if you’re going by “beliefs” then yes, Americans reject science. If you’re going by “actions”, Americans have rejected religion as being capable of giving them a better life and have fully embraced science.

    Honestly I think some sizable chunk of the conflict between religion and science comes down to people knowing that their entire modern world depends on science instead of God and feeling guilty about that fact.

    1. People are very particular about what science they choose to believe. It’s always struck me how willing people are to accept cosmological theory, for example. The Catholic Church officially accepted “Big Bang” theory decades before they did the same with evolution. There is nothing in evolutionary theory that is necessarily more difficult to believe, in terms of plausibility, than there is in cosmology.

      So why is their relatively little pushback against cosmology? Because cosmological theory (leaving aside the atheism of scientists like Krauss and Hawking) doesn’t directly threaten religious beliefs, that’s why. The universe started with a bang a long time ago, and it’s bigger and grander than you can possibly imagine. That dovetails nicely with theistic beliefs, so people are mostly quite happy to accept whatever cosmologists say.

  3. There’s a deeper origin lurking beneath the surface of science and religion. It’s the sacred appeal of CERTAINTY. That’s what gives rise to religion, and yea, even to “scientific” beliefs. The grease on the skids is egocentrism.

    Science should be about uncertainty, and we should simply acknowledge that religion is about certainty.

    Yes, the issue is more complex than this, but if there is yet another turtle upon which this one stands, I would like to see it revealed.

    1. Certainty? Maybe the religious think so, but if there’s any certainty with religion it’s that either the prayers of the religious come to pass or they don’t. If they do, Praise God. If they don’t, it’s God’s will. Muslims acknowledge that by punctuating their sentences with “God willing”.

      1. So let me get this right. If my faith in science lets me down and the aircraft crashes, it’s physics’ will?

      2. I’m confused here, you’re saying that whichever way it goes for the religious, it’s just an expression of god’s will and they need to accept that? So if the plane I’m flying on drops out of the sky I just accept that it’s Physics’ will?? Hmmm.

        1. No, everything for them is God’s will, whether good or bad. Just listen to Santorum. So how religion affords Certainty eludes me, unless it’s that whatever happens, it’s God’s will. Unless WT meant something different by sacred certainty giving rise to religion.

    2. Yes, beneath the desire for certainty among the religious lies FEAR!

      Fear of death!
      Fear of insignificance!
      Fear of the unknown! Ergo the lurch to any answer rather than no answer.


      1. More than that, it’s fear of loss. That’s what the priestly classes trade, the fear that if you turn down their offer you’ll only have yourself to blame if the afterlife turns out to be too hot and sulpherous for your liking.

        1. True or false that would only be applicable to christians of which, if your statement is true, the great and vast majority of christians lack faith. However, and interestingly, people that lack fear are generally destructive, as ultimately is christianity.

          Controlled fear is very valuable to almost all animals including humans, as would be expected of evolutionary processes.

    3. Science should be about uncertainty, and we should simply acknowledge that religion is about certainty.

      Its true in too simply a context, it completely reverses the actual outcome of the different methodologies. Scientists are uncertain as a virtue, sometimes to the point where it is unwarranted because that is still proven to be the best method to arrive at understanding and knowledge. Contrasting very abruptly with the christian method of certainty without even the slightest possibility of applicable fact in reality except the uses of deception and dishonesty by the christian perpetrator.

  4. I think what we’re seeing comes down to basically a change in NdGT’s focus. I think he was a little more outspoken about his atheism before, but now he’s far more about being an ambassador for science than anything else. I saw him at a talk a couple months back, and the first question from the audience was about his religious beliefs. His answer was basically that he’s an athiest because he’s seen no reason to believe, but that his efforts are focused on promoting science instead of atheism. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but that was the gist of it.

    That is why, I think, you’ll see him doing the new version of Cosmos, but you’d never see the same sort of thing, in this country at least, from Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens (were he still alive, of course), or any of the other prominent new atheists. I think it’s the same sort of thing Brian Cox does… He’ll talk about his atheism, but he talks about science way, way more, and so that’s what he’s known for instead, and it allows him to do things like the Wonders series.

    1. I find it a little sad, because Carl Sagan managed to do both brilliantly, and I think a lot of people directly owe their atheism to his willingness to speak out on such things (in books at the very least) without fear. You don’t have to choose one path or the other.

      1. Yes, and I do recall it was THE SCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY that originally vilified Sagan because he made science accessible to non-scientific folk like me.

        1. Gould touches on a touchy subject. Pseudoscientific and pseudointellectual snobbery, is a phenomenon all too common among what might be called “also rans” who perhaps have credentials and resumes but limited understanding of subjects and issues in which they profess certain knowledge, regrettable burdens of a culture more concerned with salesmanship and image than substance. This is perhaps largely responsible for the lack of progress in the advancement of science in general and evolution in particular.

          On the bright side, however, the trend in many cultures seems to be inching away from blind faith in nostrums of many stripes. Despite the clinging of institutions and their apologists to a guild mentality, modern phenomena like the Internet are breaking down the old walls, and the unwashed multitudes are breaching the cloistered priesthoods of academia. Ironically, “ordinary” people are becoming more and more truly educated while the merely certified or sanctified are flipping burgers. The phony parts of academia are bubbles that may be burst by a kind of “Academic Spring.” A touchy subject, indeed, and one that unfairly but understandably tars the actually accomplished along with the fakers and exaggerators.

    2. At least Brian Cox is very willing to dismiss other kinds of woo, like astrology. “It’s bollocks!” is almost a catchphrase.

      In one episode of Wonders of the Solar System, Brian Cox made an offhand remark that “astrology is a load of rubbish”. After the show received complaints, he made a statement which sadly was not chosen as the BBC’s official response on the issue:

      “I apologise to the astrology community for not making myself clear. I should have said that this new age drivel is undermining the very fabric of our civilisation.”

      (From TV Tropes, without an original citation, although I recall reading it elsewhere.)



  5. I love listening to Tyson. And I really loved the 2006 video you posted yesterday because that’s the guy I want him to be. I am always disappointed with his not uncommon accomodationist talks.

    Tyson’s coming to Chapel Hill, NC for the NC Science Festival in April. I’m debating going–I’d be disappointed if it ends up an accomodationist talk, but thrilled if it didn’t. The trouble is, to go, I’ll have to miss a great entomology class* I’ve been taking (it only meets once a week–so I’d miss a lot). Plus that’s getting close to finals…

    Any opinions here, should I skip class for Tyson?

    1. Class. Unless you’re prepared to speak up if you find Tyson’s accommodationist comments, should he choose to take that path, unacceptable and explain why.

      1. I might be prepared to do that. If it seems appropriate. However, I might have to splurge on the expensive seats to do that well.

        1. Well, all I can say Lynn is that if you think there’s more to be gained from splurging on the good seats to listen to a talk you think is worth missing your class for then I say go for it.

          If you’re going for the fight then maybe not. Unless, of course, you’re certain you’ll get the fight. In fact take the videos you disagree with and put him on the spot!!!

          Sorry, got carried away there. Just go with the first paragraph, ignore the rest.

          1. You are right, I got distracted. I won’t be there for a fight. But I’d love to get to ask an educated question based on his talk.

            Class is winning.

    2. Hopefully, you’ll have more chances in the future to see NdGT speak in public, and more time to prepare, without final exams looming. Will his talk be taped, so you can compensate yourself, later?

      1. Yeah, I need to find out about taping. I’m not the type that needs to see the celebrity in person to live a fulfilled life. I’ll try to find out more about his topic and taping.

  6. While I appreciate this is a website especially promoting evolution and science, the argument is not confined to science and religion but applies more so to religion and politics.

    The reason why religion is attacking science is because religion is so politically organized and politicians who ought to uphold constitutional freedoms and therefore secularism, are pandering to the religious for votes.

    If this continues, our basic freedoms will soon disappear, thus we need to take a political stance and not just a scientific stance.

    That is why scientists of the new atheist variety or of the accommodationist variety have to become politically wise, and no longer assume this is about education, or the classroom or the laboratory.

    Without basic freedoms, we will no longer be free to learn the truth and think for ourselves.

    1. Egbert, We are no longer free. The patriot act and many other laws have eroded our freedoms to such an extent that we can not truly say that we are free despite our harping on freedom. I’ll go so far as to say that we have made a mockery of the last line to our anthem … “land of the free and the home of the brave”… These sentiments now ring hollow. The government preys upon our fears. They sell threats as justification for war mongering. That’s not being brace. That’s being chicken shits.

      Sorry to have to say it, but that’s how I see it.


      1. John,

        I can’t help but sympathize with your feelings on the erosion of liberty. Here in the UK, we don’t even have a constitution protecting us.

        That is why I’m pushing for us to be far more political, especially liberal, in our thinking.

    2. And here I am sitting on the other side of the Atlantic thinking “Freedoms? What freedoms?”

      Your constitution separated state from religion from the very beginning and yet it’s universally accepted that a declaration of atheism would exclude any candidate from the presidential contest. Atheists are, as I understand it, regularly excluded from jobs, in fact the main reason Americans poll 90% christian is because they’re afraid of what might happen to them if they “come out”

      Then again, who would have believed even 10 years ago that there could be a black American president. Who knows, one day you might even vote a woman into a position of responsibility. Too extreme? Maybe.

    3. That so many politicians pander to the religious is because there just are so many religious people. There are so many religious people because solid education is lacking.

      I don’t disagree with your point that atheism, or any movement, needs to consider the political angle, but you’ve put the cart before the horse: the quality of a person’s education is more likely to inform their political views, not the other way around.

  7. I try to export a simple safety rubric of my own acronymic design entitled PEW-MV: Keep it out of Politics, Education, Workforce, Medicine, and don’t impose it by threat of Violence.

    When relegated to a cultural leisure activity, the dung tends to lose most of its stink.

  8. On the 15% issue, I see two possibilities.

    Possibility 1) Theism is like sexuality. There are some Kinsey 6’s and some Kinsey 0’s, with most people somewhere in the middle of the scale, obeying the dictates of their culture. This means that society, however atheistic (and the upper echelons of science are very atheistic), will always have a small number of people who are absolutely convinced that there is a personal God, and damn the evidence. These “Theist 6’s” shade gradually into legitimate mental illness, as they experience a constant sense of a “numinous presence” and might be wired a bit differently from most people.

    Possibility 2) A lot of people are attached to their core culture-beliefs and are capable of believing two contradictory things at the same time because they are lazy. In the West, that core culture-belief is Jehova. In East Asia, it might be traditional medicine; in India, Vedic astrology. If you include East Asians, how many elite scientists believe in traditional Chinese medicine? I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s about 15%, just like the numbers for God-belief.

    If the “15% believer” figure is the result of #2, society can gradually chip away at it. If it’s partly the result of #1, though, we might not be able to get rid of it–there might always be a subset of the population that will always believe in magic and miracles, even among the very educated.

    1. I think a more detailed survey is needed, kind of like the one Dawkins got conducted in the UK. Do those 15% go to church a lot, or do they just go rarely? Do they have religious spouses and family? Do they believe in miracles, bodily resurrection, transubstantiation, and souls? I bet you could take that 15% (and the 40% of scientists) and get another chunk of people whom most religious people would consider as ‘atheists’, namely people of a more ‘spiritual’ or deist persuasion. But it also wouldn’t surprise me if there are a lot of people out there who just deliberately or unconsciously never challenge or think about their religious beliefs.

      1. Absolutely, more straightforward data is vital. But I think even surveys are tricky because–and I hate to say this, because it makes me sound Ever So Wise, Not Like Normal People At All–many people do not value truth very highly. I suspect what many people “believe” really changes from moment to moment, because they value seeming smart or educated or moral or socially acceptable above thinking clearly.

        If a scientific-looking survey person asks many people if they believe in bodily resurrection, well, of course not! That’s silly superstition, and people want to look Smart for the surveyor. But send a little old lady who looks like she goes to church twice a week around to ask the question, and the same person will answer in the affirmative, because saying no–even believing “no”–seems rude and immoral.

        And people see no contradiction here, and might not even realize what they’re doing. That’s my fear, at least–that for the average person, truth is relative in a way that would make postmodernist philosophers blush with the audacity of it all.

        1. And religion goes to great pains to deliberately confuse what it means to be Christian. Just today, Franklin Graham was saying that he didn’t think Obama was a Christian, yet he happy to give Mittens much more of a pass, even though he’s Mormon, because he considers ‘Christian’ to equal conservative. Likewise the religious people are forever dividing themselves up into hierarchies and pecking orders of who’s in, who’s out, like the Muslims who are saying that the Muslims who commit acts of terrorism aren’t really Muslims.

          That’s why I was suggesting looking at church going (and contribution) habits, since those might give a better estimation. Because while someone can clearly misunderstand or ignore various components of his/her religion, the actual participation in the organization of religion may be a more interesting statistic. Cause if they’re not in church, they’re at least making up their own minds, rather than having it set by a pastor/priest/imam.

  9. I used to like Neil DeGrasse Tyson talks but I’m getting a bit tired of the way he exposes his ideas. He is a good communicator and seems to be really interested in increasing the science literacy of the public as a whole, but his excessive gesticulation and in my opinion his eagerness to play the prominent role in any interview or conference where he is not supposed to be the protagonist is really annoying. I mean, even when he is just the moderator of a panel of great scientists in a debate he tries to play the leading role rephrasing questions from the public that are perfectly clear and well expressed, leading to interminable little speeches. I am really interested in science in general, astrophysics in particular, and recently on evolution and biology, from an amateur point of view (I’ve got an electrical and computer engineering background) and I’ve seen hundreds of conferences and talks on these matters(Thanks so much youtube !!) and as it happens with reporters; they should never try to be the protagonists of their news, a good science communicator should not view himself or herself as the center of attention. And that in my opiniton is what Neil DeGrasse Tyson too often does. May be it’s too much saying he should be a little more humble when exposing his ideas,I don’t mean to be rude and I don’t really think he is an arrogant person but a little more tact or discretion in his talks would be welcomed.

    1. Funny I happen to like Tyson and his delivery but absolutely cannot stand to listen to Richard Dawkins and his condescending and sneering tone. I got knocked on here for saying that Dawkins rubs me the wrong way. But you are not going to sell someone on something with that attitude. Just my opinion of course and since we are all supposed to be so open minded to everything on here I think I’m entitled to it.

      1. I don’t really think Dawkins tone is condescending and even less sneering just because he refuses to position himself on some kind of respectful middle ground and states very firmly what their ideas are on controversial and sensitive topics like religion. Anyway, probably Neil DeGrasse and Richard Dawkins share most of their core values and attitude towards science and religion. It’s simply the way of expressing his ideas that bothers me in the case of Neil DeGrasse Tyson. PEACE !! 🙂

      2. Sorry Muse, I have never seen Dawkins as sneering or condescending. It may come from me being a lifelong non-supernaturalist in my early 50s.

      3. Having seen Dawkins when he came to speak at Duke, he was a perfectly pleasant speaker, and very generous with the couple of religious questioners he got. I’d suggest that there is a big difference between Dawkins’s manner when he is giving a speech about evolution, and his manner when dealing with particularly difficult people, like Imam he had to brow beat for minutes to admit what the Koran’s penalty for apostasy was, or the woman who just refused to accept that there was plenty of evidence for evolution right there in museums for her to look at.

    2. Agreed.

      I recall a video of a panel he moderated (different specialists talking about chemistry & life on early earth and other planets). He was overbearing to the panelists, he constantly pranced about on the stage, and he infantilized the audience with rephrasing as you say.

      I felt he needed the old pitcher of water over the head treatment (which EO Wilson once got undeservedly).

    3. I feel the same way, though I hadn’t actually figured out exactly what it was about him that I didn’t care for, he just was never my favorite presenter. Perhaps it was more that I’ve mostly seen him doing Nova ScienceNow, and that show has some issues with lurching towards a odd jokey tone that I don’t feel always suits the subjects it covers.

      Or maybe it is just that he’s another in a long line of astronomers constantly encouraging humanity to reach for the stars when its clear that we have a lot of very pressing concerns on Earth, and the technology needed to explore the rest of the solar system, and other stars is going to need decades and centuries of work, and no amount of cheerleading will change that.

  10. The fact is on the chart, with science as arbiter of reality , atheism is one point down.
    Zero = no net gain.
    Take a look at the scores.

    Atheism Theism

    matter 0 0

    energy 0 0

    information 0 1

    Evolution is information.

    See Professor Freeman Dyson at :

    “For the purposes of this discussion, life is defined as a material system that can acquire, store, process, and use information to organize its activities. In this broad view, the essence of life is information, but information is not synonymous with life. To be alive, a system must not only hold information but process and use it. It is the active use of information, and not the passive storage, that constitutes life”.

  11. Dr Coyne I would like to say that your position is laudable but for many of us it’s unrealistic. While you have the power and prestige to fill a room and this web page with with a rapt audience for some of us it’s incredably difficult to get an audience with just the science teacher.
    I would like to tell her should not teach evolution as an unfortunate subject that she is forced to inflict on her students. I would like to tell that she is giving her students the impression that evolution is a subject that only weir University of Chicago Professors can get into. It would be a hurculian task just trying to suggest to her that she might concider a changing her methods of teaching. Now while I am voicing these concerns I don’t think it would be smart of me to also bring up my concerns over her institutions stubborn adherance to outdated savage superstitions.

    1. You are right. It very well may be unrealistic to expect evolution to be taught properly in public schools in the U.S., and would be better if left until college. Perhaps it could be moved to Civics (do they still teach that?), or debate class, and be treated as the political issue it has become. Or is that too defeatist? Is it better to have teachers grudgingly present a bastardized “guided evolution” than none at all? I don’t think so, but at least we could be clear that that is what is going on.

      1. As a future science teacher in secondary school, I fully intend to include evolution in every part of a biology class. Every logical chance I get to mention evolution, will result in a mention. There is no reason to do otherwise.

        My eight year old understands many concepts of evolution (at least as well as I can explain them!). Mechanisms of natural selection, fossil and genetic evidence are all topics we discuss.

        Just talking about evolution in a matter-of-fact way is easy to do.

    2. To us Europeans, this sounds like something from a third world country. Are your public schools really so mired in the dark ages????

      1. It varies across the country since there isn’t a national standard for education other than the “No Child Left Behind” program of standards introduced from the Bush2 administration.

      2. There also is a huge urban vs rural schism that exists, perpetrated by the way public schools are funded (property taxes). When I was in a teachers’ Ed program (in the late 1980s in a Colorado public University), there was a considerable push to get the religiously impaired certified as teachers and insinuated into school boards. My graduating class of around 100 prospective teachers were split on evolution vs creationism 50:50. (none of us 4 science teachers were in the crazy camp, I’m glad to say)

    3. Like sexual education, it is imperative for evolution to be part of the earliest teachings of our children. How can they possibly be expected to develop and mature appropriately if not treated as sentient beings? Small children are not puppy dogs, to be limited mentally to the leash and kennel. Remove blinders and let children seen the world through the eyes of science, and evolution in particular.

  12. I’m glad that it bothers someone besides me when Tyson, or NCSE, suggest that “belief in,” or even just teaching (some kind of) evolution in public schools is the goal. That does not “make it all right,” not just because religion is far more pernicious than simple creationism, but because evolution, when taught as NCSE likes to put it, as compatible with an invigilating intelligence, is (imho) not really evolution.

    There’s a lot of that kind of accommodation going around. I really made Greg Laden mad about a month ago, when he posted on the NCSE “Climate Initiative,” and I asked if that meant that AGW will now be taught as being compatible with the will of God (“the fire next time.”) Greg saw no harm in Eugenie Scott promoting the idea that evolution could be a supervised process.

    1. I try to never imply I have a “belief in” science. I also try to explain the problems with “belief in” when talking to others who use the term in reference to facts.
      (I once even mentioned it when Barbara Forrest used “belief in”–am I too cheeky?)

      1. The expression is common, but discipline in the use of language is vital, especially for scientists. The distinction between belief and provisional acceptance is crucial. Perhaps it is only a careless use of a common expression, but it is a habit I work hard to avoid. Others may, and do, what they please, but I develop a profound tick when I hear “believe in” with respect to evolution.

        Context is everything, however, and when one is being ironic for rhetorical effect and the true meaning is clear, I see nothing wrong with such use.

    2. Really, this is incredible. Is the US a technologically advanced society or a third world backwater of six fingered banjo players who consider science to be some kind of unacceptable religion?

      Oh great and might god of science, I sacrifice to thee my first born that you might smile upon me and allow my iPad to function for one more day and my SUV to function in the way your supreme priests of design by intelligence have ordained in their wisdom that it should so long as it pleases your graceful eminence. Oh, and I have a transatlantic flight booked for tomorrow, so if you could see your way to keeping the laws of aerodynamics in force for a little while longer, I’d be might grateful. Amen.

      1. You’ve perhaps inadvertently hit upon an aspect of the way science is “believed in” here. Not only are you free to “believe in” anything you like, many of the new age stripe will think (when this suits them) that you define your own reality by your beliefs (the HuffPo Chopra school of thought) — others will maintain their false notions of science being a collection of “Laws” (which require a Lawgiver, e.g. gravity), “Facts” (like Apples are fruit, rocks tend to be hard), and “Theories” (the idle speculations of scientists, e.g. evolution). We have our work cut out for us.

    3. +

      Also, when accomodationists try to make evolution more palatable to believers by insisting that it poses no threat to their religious beliefs, what they seem to be implicitly saying is that if evolution DID pose such a threat, then that would indeed be a valid reason to reject it. Furthermore, their arguments are often blatantly inconsistent, as when Mooney and Kirshenbaum insist that there is no conflict between religion and science and then go on to argue that “…if forced to choose between faith and science, vast numbers of Americans will select the former”.

      The conflict couldn’t be put much clearer than this. If religious believers are prepared to accept the findings of science ONLY ON THE CONDITION that it doesn’t contradict beliefs held for bad reasons, they haven’t really accepted science even if they do manage to find a way to reconcile it with their beliefs. Putting such conditions on your acceptance in the first place is the very antithesis of an open-ended search for truth which is the very essence of science. The real conflict between science and religions isn’t about different conclusions at all but between different and irreconcilable WAYS OF ARRIVING AT conclusions.

      In The end, the only way to make science compatible with faith (while being consistent) is to drain science of everything that made it worth promoting in the first place. The day when having good reasons for one’s beliefs became optional in science, the day when science no longer made anyone any less inclined to engage in motivated reasoning and self-deception, the day when science no longer made it any more difficult to believe in bullshit was the day that science died.

  13. “I realize that deGrasse tailors his message to his audience, as several readers pointed out yesterday”

    Tailoring a message for an audience is OK and generally necessary, but it can become a bit disingenuous if you’re doing more than just changing the depth and focus of your message and you transition to accommodating the views of your audience in order to get your message across.

    It’s one thing to avoid mentioning the emperor is nude, but it’s a different thing to say you don’t have a problem with what the emperor’s is wearing today.

    When I hear and read conflicting or mutually exclusive statements made by the same person, I have to stop and figure out what’s going on. Did this person change there views between statements? Were they quoted out of context? Were they pandering to their audience, and if so, which audience were they pandering to? Were they pandering to both audiences? How can I determine what their actual views are?

  14. Nicely done.

    The problem is that when it becomes ok to accept stuff without evidence (or even CONTRARY to evidence), then it becomes easier to accept other nonsense.

  15. Okay, I watched the videos and I have to ask the question, who is this guy? He’s uninspiring, incoherent in parts and frankly if this is the best spokesman science can come up with, we’re all fucked.

      1. My friends are not as scientifically literate as the folk here, but they do know about and like Tyson. Maybe you’re not the one he’s appealing to.

  16. Quibble: the 40% of Americans who accept a Biblical view of creationism ex nihilo by God are likely more precisely can be broken down further, including both the 25% of the US population that takes a Young-Earth view and the 15% that takes a (less “fully” biblical) Old-Earth view.

  17. I never bought into all this talk about not caring what people believe either, mainly for two reasons.

    First of all, if you look at much of what is actually written in sacred texts like the Bible or the Quran (doctrines like martyrdom and jihad, divine laws demanding the death penalty for victimless crimes, the demonization of infidels and heretics, the apocalypse, hell, the inferior status of women etc.), REALLY believing it can make even the most appalling behavior seem like the only right thing to do. Thus my first problem with religious faith is that it allows otherwise intelligent people to think and act AS IF such doctrines were true even if they are not. Religious “extremism” is simply what follows – quite naturally – from this. You cannot expect people to REALLY believe something, hold it to be a matter of escaping eternal torment or gaining eternal happiness, and still act as if adapting to secular society during the few decades they spend on earth was more important (As Sam Harris puts it, there is no possible future in which aspiring martyrs are going to make good neighbors).

    Of course this doesn’t apply equally to all religious beliefs (As Sam Harris has also pointed out, the crazier you get as a jain, the LESS we have to worry about you), but this brings us to the second, and in my opinion more basic, problem with religion in general. The main error that all religious believers are guilty of, as I see it, is to believe for the WRONG REASONS (as you HAVE TO DO in order to believe in God, since no other reasons are available). The same kind of wrong reasons that gave us the jains also gave us the jihadists. The fact that the CONTENTS of jain beliefs are harmless while the beliefs of jihadists are harmful, is irrelevant with respect to the deeper problem which is simply leaving the most important questions in life up to blind faith in the first place. Where you go from there is basically an ACCIDENT, since it’s not based on any informed decision.

    1. ie, religious extremists are the ones who take it all literally, the rest are just namby liberals who should be put on the fires with the rest of the infidel unbelievers. Or something like that.

      1. That would certainly be the view of the extremists. Personally I am inclined to see this whole dichotomy between “fundamentalists” (defined as somebody who takes the whole Bible literally) and “moderates” as too simplistic. For example the otherwise brilliant Susan Jacoby has argued that religion can’t be the root cause of opposition to evolution in America. How does she know this? Because the percentage of Americans who reject evolution is higher than the percentage who take the Bible literally. The unstated premise seems to be that if it’s not “FUNDAMENTALIST” religion, it’s not RELIGION period.

        But in my experience believers are not split into those who take everything in the Bible literally and those who have no problem with evolution. There are certainly Christians who don’t who don’t believe creation literally happened as described in the book of Genesis, who are none the less deeply uncomfortable with any theory that says there didn’t have to be a creator at all.

        Even “moderates” take parts of the Bible literally and even “fundamentalists” don’t take everything literally. In fact, some even interpret parts of the Bible metaphorically to make them MORE extreme than in their literal interpretation, for example by re-interpreting perfectly innocent passages about reaping the harvest (etc.) as coded end time prophecies.

        The key difference between extremists and moderates, as I see it, is not just the degree of biblical literalism, but the degree of FAITH. Extremists are the ones who think and act as if what they profess to believe were really true. Moderates, by and large, don’t base their lives on religion (very good), but at the same time they keep alive this notion that basing one’s life on religion is the ideal, thereby giving legitimacy to the ones who actually do so (not good at all).

  18. well from my discussions with many laypersons, they think science is technological advancement (i.e. the cool stuff that people come up with). so in that sense, they are all for science. so they think that science is like this thing you use to get stuff and make better stuff. they don’t really have the appreciation for the scientific method and the principles that science is founded on which is doubt.

    feynman’s book “the meaning of it all: thoughts of a citizen scientist” should be mandatory reading for highschool students everywhere.

    1. To underscore your point, here’s a few Youtube comments… the kind that make Youtube commenters famous in the civilized world (i.e. not the US).

      After years and years of research there is still NO proof for evolution, no transitional forms, or evidence in the earth for it. But do we reject science? No we as believers do not reject science. We just reject the foolish notion that life as we know it, with all of it’s complexity (not only in the earth but in the universe) did not occur by chance randomly on it’s own. God created the heavens and the earth and all that is in it. And I still love science. spicecrop 5 minutes ago

      Your head still not hurting enough? OK, here’s another:

      Proud atheists, like their counterparts, religious fundamentalists, are bigoted and narrow minded. Was the Earth flat before we went into space and proved it to be round? jonathan1alexander 6 hours ago

  19. WOW! I’m not sure I’ve read every post, but can someone give me (and perhaps others) a solid hint or an example of what NDGT has said or written, a quote or two that exemplifies the generalities set forth here? Pro and con.

  20. I have been an atheist since I was a freshman in high school, 1950s. I fought the debate battles through college and ever since, over 50 years, but I am always mindful that most religious folks are our friends and family, good people with wrong ideas. Sometime outright frontal attacks are not the best way to make a point and change someone’s mind. I like Tyson’s approach. He is a popular figure, well respected and listened to. We need more popular atheists like him. While neither Tyson or Dawkins have my sparkling personality and success in defending evolution and attacking radical religion, they do OK for young guys. Maybe they will improve their personalities if we keep criticizing them.

    1. Ha Ha!

      I think you’re saying it takes a variety of approaches–and I agree. Not to mention that “everyone’s a critic…”

  21. The talks do not seem that inconsistent to me.

    Tyson states that he does not give a damn about religious sentiments, as long as they are kept out of the science classroom.

    In the first talk (posted here), he talked about the religious sentiments of ingenious scientists and that really wound him up, because that’s “in the science classroom”. He thinks tha Newton and the many others he mentioned could have done better (thought they did already very well), if they’d left their religious sentiments out of scientific inquiry.

    In the second talk, he is outside of the science classroom and, again, we get the: “I don’t give a fuck on what you do at Sundays, as long as you don’t do it at weekdays in science classes” statement.

    I think that’s the difference between aggressive (first strike) atheists and defensive (counter strike) atheists?

  22. NOTE BY JERRY: I’ve also put this comment as a separate post,

    . If you wish to address Dr. Tyson’s response, please go there so we can keep all discussion in one place. Thanks.


    I’m impressed by the energy invested in this thread. Thanks for everyone’s interest in my few comments on God and spirituality. I’d like to offer some observations on them:

    1) My total output on God and spirituality sums to less than 1% of all that I have delivered in speeches and written in books. Although you would not know this given how heavily that 1% has been lifted to YouTube and viewed by the interested public.

    2) My Beyond Belief talk, which birthed this thread, was derived from a previously written article in Natural History magazine. So the article should be what’s used as the formal reference to that content:

    3) I mis-spoke in that talk: The percent of religious members of the National Academy of Sciences is half that which I cited, but the error does not change the overall point being made.

    4) Odd that I would be credited with declaring that more educated people are less religious — as some kind of militant posture — when I’m just citing the data.

    5) I can only conclude that my overall message during the Beyond Belief talk was not 100% clear since Prof Coyne as well as a NYTimes reporter present at the talk were left with identical (yet unintended) reactions to my comments. Are they both not as intrigued as I am that religiosity drops with education, especially with science education, but does not drop to zero, not even for members of the National Academy? I think that’s an amazing statistic, which tells us something about the human mind that is not yet understood. (FYI: The workshop was held at the Salk Institute and the audience was rich in neuroscientists.) And I referenced that fact as an argument to try to get my strident Atheist colleagues to lighten up on the public since up to 40% of our scientific brethren pray to a personal God. And as long as religiosity is not zero for scientists, to assume that science education of the masses would somehow rid the world of religious thinking is a false expectation.

    This heavily viewed clip was from the same workshop, by the way:
    “Tyson rebukes Dawkins”

    As was this, where I comment that my deepest thoughts on the universe just may trigger neuro-synaptic firings in my head that resemble those of a religious zealot.

    6) When I say I don’t care if people are religious, but that I care that religious philosophies stay out of the science classroom, I’m alerting the listener of how I choose to invest my time and energy. To fight for the rights of women within religions, for example, does not require the community of scientists to participate in the same way that fighting to preserve the science curriculum does. I’ve simply chosen my battles there. And even then, it’s less than 1% of my energy and time.

    7) Most of the (American) public does indeed embrace science as a way of knowing. Science is more than evolution, of course. It’s engineering, it’s medicine, it’s chemistry, it’s physics. It’s the R&D for every tech company. The percent of total funded science that ruffles the feathers of non-fundamentalist religious people is small. And for the moment, religious fundamentalists still represent a small (but of course vocal) minority.

    8) For the record, here is everything I have ever written on the subject of God and spirituality. Anything I have ever said publicly on the subject derives almost entirely from these several essays:
    “Holy Wars”

    “The Perimeter of Ignorance”

    “The Cosmic Perspective”

    “Does the Universe Have a Purpose”

    Letter to the Editor of the NYTimes

    So as best as I can judge,in spite of my failure to communicate my intended sentiment in the posted Beyond Belie talk, I think my thoughts have been quite consistent on the matter. And, if you look carefully, almost all views I offer are not opinions but shared observations.

    Again, thanks for the collective interest in my work. And sorry of the stupid length of this post. I now return to trying to get NASA back on track:

    Neil deGrasse Tyson
    New York City

    1. FWIW, I got your message. I didn’t have any response to it, yet, outside of simple acknowleedgement, so I set it aside to continue working on, somewhere in the back of my mind.
      I tutor, since becoming disabled, and a teen with some sort of cngential brain abnormality asked my thoughts, yesterday, on the death penalty. I suppose those thoughts overlap with thoughts on extremely well educated, scientifically minded folks who continue to believe in a personal god: Keep them around to research their brains, so we can understand what went (IMHO) wrong during their development and try to prevent it in future generations.
      BTW, good luck with NASA.

    2. NDGT (If I may be so presumptuous/lazy as to abbrev. your wonderful name), your post was full of solid stuff, but now you will have to adjust your figure up to 2% from 1%.

      Continuing with my presumptuousness, I will levy the charge that the quality which endears me most to you, your impish sense of humor, gets past most people, thus the confusion of literalists and reductionists.

      I look forward to hearing your Beyond Belie talk–from the nosebleed seats, of course.

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