Neil deGrasse Tyson on reviving public interest in science (and other stuff)

April 19, 2021 • 12:45 pm

The New York Times has a long interview with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson about many things, but the main topic is how to revive what’s seen as waning public interest in science as well as distrust of science. Click on the screenshot to read it:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that this is the NYT, a lot of the interview is about two claims of sexual misconduct made against Tyson a few years ago. As the article notes, these claims were investigated by three bodies: the American Museum of Natural History, where Tyson works, and National Geographic and Fox News (the latter two air his shows); and there was no finding of misconduct. Yet the NYT brings it up in the first paragraph, and then later on asks him several questions that have nothing to do with science, questions that Tyson deftly deflects. Before we get to the science, here are the questions (note that the link doesn’t seem to work)

  • A lot of what we’ve talked about really goes to questions of authority. Do you feel as if your own authority was affected by the claims of sexual misconduct made against you a couple of years ago? 
  • What about from a perspective of curiosity? Did you learn anything about gender dynamics or power imbalances as a result of those accusations? 
  • But I was trying to ask what younot the culture, had learned. Did that experience open any self-reflection or new understanding about either your own behaviors or thinking regarding gender dynamics? I’m trying to get some introspection. 

Tyson answers them (or rather circumvents them), but what do they have to do with the topic of the interview? Given that he was exculpated, it’s time to leave the guy alone about this stuff.

There are other questions about the search for extraterrestrial life, the connection between relativity and quantum mechanics, and the way to popularize science—the main point of the interview.

So is the public really mistrustful of science or scientists? A Pew Poll from last year says “no, not really”, for public confidence in the ability of scientists to act in the public interest rose in the four years between 2016 and 2019 and it’s high. In fact, the only group that inspires more confidence are K-12 school principals (politicians are especially low!):

Now this was before the pandemic hit, so the data may differ now. And we’re surely aware that the public is suspicious of vaccines, which I suppose reflects a lack of confidence not in medical scientists, but in public health officials. Further, most people are taking their shots, which shows a pretty remarkable confidence in science given that the vaccines were developed over a couple of weeks before they were tested.

I don’t perceive a public distrust of science so much as a public lack of interest in science. No matter how many Tysons, Sagans, and Dawkinses you throw at the public, some people will just never get turned on. And there’s no way to force them to be. People’s interests differ. Nevertheless, the three names I’ve just mentioned show that although we can’t get everyone on board with science, there is a latent interest out there that can be switched on.

How should we do that? There are a number of ways (my view is that each scientists should do outreach the best way they know how), but Tyson has a more definitive answer, which he imparts in this exchange (interviewers statement is in bold, Tyson’s response in regular type):

. . . Once you’ve come up knowing the science and how and why it works and understanding what the bleeding edge of science does, you’re in a position to pass judgment on science-related news. Now, on top of that, if there’s anything we would call a scientific authority, it is the National Academy of Sciences. Most people don’t even know that the frickin’ thing exists. Why is that? We need better marketing.

What would be the mechanism for that? I’ll go pie in the sky: a mission to Mars with humans. That would do it. Why do I know that? Because in the 1960s, while we’re going to the moon, you didn’t need special programs to get people interested in science and engineering. It was writ large in the daily headlines because every mission was more ambitious than the previous mission. This went higher, this orbited longer, now we’re docking, now we’re going to launch the craft that’s going to the moon, now we go to the moon. And you knew it was fluency in science and technology that was empowering that journey. So a mission to Mars with humans, I could script this: We’re going to do this in the year 2035. It’s 14 years from now, and we want the crew to be in their upper 20s in age, which means that right now that crew is in middle school. Let us do another Mercury 7 except we’re going to find the middle-schoolers who we are going to track, and Teen Beat is going to say, “How were your grades? Are you doing all the right things? Are you studying?” They become models for society without having to take out an ad. They go to Mars! By the way, for this you also need biologists, medical doctors, engineers, astrophysicists, chemists, geologists. You tickle all the STEM fields, and everybody is going to want to be a part of that, and science would reign supreme once again.

Yes, that is pie in the sky! First of all, a mission to Mars with humans, though it will undoubtedly pique public interest, will be not only expensive, but also dangerous.  And it will take seven months each way. The possibility of a disaster seems to me quite high. What we see here is what would get Tyson turned on, but not necessarily people like me.

But will a Mars mission really inspire interest in science—even over the long 14 years that Tyson says it would take to launch the mission? I don’t think so. Moreover, will it inspire the kind of interest in science that I would like to see: interest in the wonders of life and of evolution? (We each have our own fiefdom.) I don’t see how, even if Tyson says “you need biologists, chemists, and so on” to be part of a mission to Mars.

The fact that interest in evolution has been dialed up so high by Richard Dawkins, for instance, shows that you don’t need missions to Mars to get people excited about science. You just need a communicator with the knowledge, the eloquence, and the charisma to show people what excites us scientists without being condescending towards the public. In the past, those people have been largely physicists: people like Tyson, Sagan, or Feynman. But they needn’t be. The only prescription I’ll issue for exciting public interest in science is for scientists to stop considering outreach as an inferior activity. After all, it’s the public who funds our research, and why shouldn’t those of us who can help pay them back by telling them where their bucks went, and why?

Your turn. What turned you on to science? Are there things we should be doing to awaken interest in the field, but are not doing? Weigh in below.

32 thoughts on “Neil deGrasse Tyson on reviving public interest in science (and other stuff)

  1. I think you have to sell it to the kids. The older people, especially those knuckle dragers in that one party are a lost cause. Maybe the people in this country are too stupid for science. When we have congressmen in hearings degrading our scientist who are there to testify I am not sure you can do anything to fix it. The people in America are simply too stupid. If they will do nothing to stop killing each other what chance has science got.

  2. I think it is more important to get people interested in nature than in the physical sciences. The physical universe will be here forever (almost) and can be studied any time. Undisturbed nature is already almost gone.and we are probably among the last few generations that will be able to document (and perhaps save) the ecosystems of this planet.

    I think a trip to Mars would highlight the specialness of our planet even more forcefully than the famous “blue dot” photos from the moon. What a lifeless boring place Mars will be compared to Earth! I would rather explore any unknown mountain range on Earth than explore Mars .

    1. Agreed that the natural world is the best “gateway drug” to science.

      I prescribe a course of Planet Earth followed by Blue Planet and finishing with Life On Earth.

      1. What I find fascinating about computer science (and what drew me and many others into the field) is the ability to _transcend_ the laws of nature and define virtual worlds with their own rules and to then explore the consequences. In my experience this offers many kids a nice playground for unleashing their own creativity.

  3. A manned mission to Mars would be mainly an engineering achievement, not a scientific enterprise. One can do more science much more cheaply with unmanned probes.

    And I’d be dubious about seeing things like the National Academy of Sciences as an authority, since it’s the easiest sort of institution for the Woke to capture, and we already have too many “authoritative” declarations along the lines that “science says that sex is a continuum, not a binary”.

  4. The four groups about which the public is polled are the military, scientists, medical scientists and K-12 principals. Are those the only ones? What’s The Public’s opinion of Business and Journalism? (I’m reminded of the media’s predilection for informing the public of education majors’ alleged inferior academic performance vis-a-vis that of STEM majors, with no comparison made with business and journalism majors’ performance.)

    I suspect it likely that The Public will get (very) temporarily enthralled by a manned Martian mission, but it will go the way of the Apollo moon missions (the Public yawning after Apollo 12, the Apollo 13 video transmission just prior to the service module explosion not carried by the networks). Especially so since, compared to the moon, Mars is “out of sight, out of mind.”

    Perhaps the Kardashians and other “influencers” should comprise the crew so as to maintain the interest and attention of the Bread and Circuses (nowadays social media) Public, so quick as it is to label STEM types “nerds” and “geeks” as the latter’s reward for doing the intellectual heavy lifting resulting in great benefit to The Public. It will be a glorious day if and when those pejorative terms are no longer employed.

    1. I suspect it likely that The Public will get (very) temporarily enthralled by a manned Martian mission, but it will go the way of the Apollo moon missions

      Indeed. The likely duration of the first Earth-Mars-Earth mission is going to be about 9 months each way, plus the time at Mars. And if the time at Mars is a significant time, then you’re probably going to need to wait 2 years for the next return window. You can buy some flexibility with more fuel expenditure, but for a particular launch system, that is going to come out of your food mass.

  5. My interest in biomedical science, which led to a long research career in molecular biology, began with books I read in childhood and youth: Paul De Kruif’s classic “Microbe Hunters”, in particular, and a little later Sinclair Lewis’ “Arrowsmith”, for which De Kruif was a consultant. As a result, I can testify to the powerful influence of scientists who are also writers, among whom Carl Sagan, Neil De Grasse Tyson, and our host are fine examples.

    To this, however, let me add a note of caution. University bureaucratization has led to the creation of vaguely defined “outreach” sinecures in some science departments. These functionaries sometimes develop educational relationships with local school systems and science museums, but sometimes they also develop vapid, time-filling things to do which are completely irrelevant to educating the public about science. This makes me suspicious of the very word “outreach”. Authoritative, well-written expositions of science, such as those mentioned above, are in another category altogether; they are due to creative individuals within the scientific profession, rather than to career outreachocrats invented as a matter of administrative policy.

    1. For me it was also mostly books, especially Thor Heyerdahl, but later I sort of got obsessed with Cousteau, both in print and on TV.
      Most of what drew me in was adventure instead of science, but it pulled me in the right direction anyway. I corresponded with both when I was a kid, and they both wrote me encouraging letters in return.
      Many years later, I was a TA for a class on pop science, and we hosted a talk by Heyerdahl. Later still, I got to work very briefly with the Fondation Cousteau, and got to meet and dine with the man himself.
      I continued to gravitate more towards adventure than science, but I did get to spend some time at the point where they intersect, and that has permanently shaped my thinking processes.

  6. As a member of the public, with no scientific training whatsoever, what turned me on to science was childhood curiosity. I read books for kids about science and scientists and tried, way too young, to read Hawking. As I grew, my mathematical/scientific ability didn’t, alas, but luckily I was interested in other things just as much, which I now study and write about. But my interest in science never waned. And I’m kept going in that interest with the works of science communicators, but rigorous ones- chief among them, Dawkins, of course. As long as there are people who can communicate without condescending, who can marry science and prose with exquisite elegance, then those of us non-scientists who love science will always be there to learn! That marriage, I think, is key- for me, at least. The pleasure to be taken in beautiful writing turns me on, and when the writing is about something as interesting as science, the pleasure is doubled. In fact, I think Dawkins is one of the great prose stylists of the past half century or so, not just in science but in the literary world generally. Not everyone can possess that facility with words, of course, but scientists who can communicate elegantly as well as rigorously are one of the last, great hopes of the species.

    1. I have to admit my first attraction to Dawkins was not so much the science but his stand on religion. This was well before his book the God Delusion but he showed up here and there and talked with such confidence about being an atheist and all the things about religion that were wrong. As a life long atheist he had me before I knew what a scientist he was. He just seemed like one of the smartest people there was. He had that attitude that all atheist should have – like the commercial with Ron Reagan “A life long atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.”

  7. “But, really, tell us what you learned from that fantastic opportunity for personal growth that is being accused of sexual misconduct, what mistakes of yours led to those false accusations? Shouldn’t you feel sorry for making someone make those claims, and thankful that they opened your eyes on our responsibility?”

  8. this is anecdotal, from personal experience, and obviously not a scientific sample. Grew up an active member of my mother’s religion. In Junior High I went to a private , religious institution for 3 years. Critical thinking and certain textbooks were, in retrospect, not part of the curriculum. In a public high school, surrounded by a fairly progressive staff , I found I was way behind in certain areas. I was introduced to critical thinking, what constitutes good evidence, the difference between theory, fact, hypotheses etc. My religious upbringing had shrouded much of the tools that I later found absolutely necessary for parsing data. I continued my education into college and independently reading Sagan, Dawkins, Sam Harris and other authors we are all pretty familiar with. Even now, a retired grandfather of 6, I see among good, educated and trusted friends, a bedrock of cognitive dissonance, in areas such as religion, patriotism, law enforcement, nutrition etc.
    IMHO religion, consumerism, capitalism. nationalism seems to proactively separate the population from science, facts, critical thinking.
    At home we tend to follow Buddhist practices and Unitarian Universalist values. Our kids are well read, scientifically literate and so far our grandchildren seem to be headed in that direction. A multi generational solution to my parents and their peers lack of scientific literacy and critical thinking ability.
    My family is 3rd gen American, fairly liberal and mostly all born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. Educated, well employed and still hold on to superstitions and ideas that are directly contradictory to each other. Take that to the more religious states and how would you counteract the impact of family pressure and cultural insulation?
    My extended family born in other states, counts straight up racists, anti-semites, homophobes and religious zealots, creationists etc, etc among them. They are also failry well educated, well employed yada yada. ?? My wife and I find it very curious. thanks for reading

    1. I enjoy Brian Cox’s writing. Plus, he let himself get run over by Stephen Hawking for a Monty Python video.

  9. I’d say the way to get people interested in science is to get it across in young years. What turned me on to science was a great science teacher. I had this guy for two years at the age 14/15, and he was so interested in and enthusiastic about science that it affected the whole class. It goes without saying that he was also a great teacher. Afterwards I had terrible science teachers, but I kept at it anyway due to the interest he instilled in me.

    Yes, I was open for that because my parents taught me to be curious and investigative and ask questions, no matter what the subject, but this guy managed to grab people who would normally not have cared. Of course there were those who still didn’t give a damn about it, but with good education you at least heighten the chances that those who have the bent for it will develop interest.

    I don’t work as a scientist, but my job is pretty technical at times, and I’ve always loved solving logical problems. And I basically love science, because it is so damn’ cool! I think those traits wouldn’t be as well developed if I’d never had that teacher. He made science interesting for a 14-year-old kid, not easy, to be sure, but that is the way to go. Pack the problem by the roots. Talk about communicating science without condescending: make science interesting for kids.

    Those kids won’t forget it. They’ll grow up to be scientists or at least proponents and supporters of science and scientific methods.

  10. I have seen a trend in scientific outreach from independent researchers and natural history museums increasing on social media, especially on Instagram. However, most of these have been imbued with virtue-signaling identity political clichés such as land acknowledgements, buzzwords like equity, accessible spaces, toxic masculinity etc., and personal narratives on how “white male academia are bad and invalidate their experiences.”

    The application of science is supposed to be used to reduce ALL biases even those on the left spectrum even though most opposition to science is coming from the right-wing thinktank such as creationism and the anti-vaccine movement. It seems that people who flash #trustscience like an infallible block of facts have literally no idea what the fuck the scientific method actually is if you asked them to define it.

    I am happy more people from diverse backgrounds are getting into scientific careers and we as a species are good for it in the long run. However, I feel like carrying those useless smug political tropes is going to end up shooting scientific outreach in the foot in the long run in this country and make people more reluctant to even join researching in academia, especially white and Asian people who might be asked to “check their privilege” and their “whiteness.”

  11. My scientific interests have always focused on animals and natural environments– I never wanted to be an astronomer like Tyson. But that said, I had a very good later-elementary and high school science education, and the very best teacher I had, for several courses from 6th through 12th grades (he transferred to the high school), was a specialist in physical sciences, and we did an astronomy segment in 6th grade that was especially memorable. The Gemini and Apollo programs were going on at the time, and to be interested in science, of any sort, was culturally acceptable and laudable, especially among adults who worked with children (parents and teachers). I would not discount the effect of the space program in effecting this cultural milieu, and thus, though like Lou Jost I myself would rather explore a “lost world” on Earth than search for fossils of Martian microbes, I think a reinvigorated space program could have a salutary effect on science, science acceptance, and science education.


    1. The reinvigorated space program also had great effect on the fields of aerospace engineering and even aircraft engineering. Those programs saw great reduction in interest as the programs drew down. I saw this take place at Parks College, St. Louis University where they specialized in this area.

    2. This is such an interesting area, and I have to admit that I have no idea what got me interested in science. I was always from a young age enthralled by science and was particularly obsessed with astronomy in my early teenage years. At that age, I didn’t feel the sense of wonder regarding biology and evolution that I do now. I loved nature and I adored going fishing with my dad and grandad, but as a junior naturalist it wasn’t the science of nature that hooked me at first, it was the beauty of it.

      I’ve long thought that kids often like physical science before biology because the wonders of physics are easier to grasp. It’s really easy to be amazed at the number of atoms in a glass of water, or the size of the universe. And although the principles of evolution are pretty straightforward, being able to appreciate how it leads to cells and organelles, or basil, or nematodes and pigeons, takes a lot of thought and imagination.

      This reminds me of the observation that medicine/physiology Nobel Laureates were typically much older than physics laureates. That was the case when physics was mostly about pure principles and biology was about principles combined with extensive, in-depth knowledge. Now physics advances are more about huge, complicated experiments, and the age gap has changed. Principles are relatively easy to understand, but when principles must be combined with intricate, in-depth knowledge, the science is much harder to grasp.

      I love all science now, especially maths (yes I’m English) and computer science as that’s what I chose for a career. But even though I loved physics and maths at high school, I chose biochemistry as an undergraduate degree. I did this almost entirely because of my high school biology teacher: Mr. Armstrong. He was brilliant, the best teacher I ever had, and bizarrely, he was a young-earth creationist. Mr. Armstrong opted out of all lessons involving evolution, but he awakened my love of biology and biochemistry. He introduced the class to ‘The Double Helix’ by James D Watson, and we all read and discussed it together. He awakened me to the intricacy and wonder of biochemistry and cell biology, and never once mentioned his religious views to us (we learned them from other teachers).

      I say this not to claim that religionists are best placed to awaken our scientific interests. I say it to help illustrate that these things are ridiculously hard to predict and explain. I would usually scoff at the idea of a young earth creationist biology teacher, but he opened my eyes to biology and was the best teacher I ever had.

  12. I think he’s right that a mission to Mars would inspire interest in science and technology.

    “Moreover, will it inspire the kind of interest in science that I would like to see: interest in the wonders of life and of evolution?”

    Yes, but not because a Mars mission needs biologists, etc. Kids would be initially inspired to take math and science classes perhaps with the idea of becoming astronauts or rocket scientists but once they get older and learn more, they will undoubtedly be attracted by other fields entirely. I suspect most scientists and engineers are not working in fields related to what got them excited as kids. I used to really be into astronomy but went into an completely different field (computer software) once I had learned a bit more.

  13. More science history should be taught from very early in a students life.
    The life of Marie Curie for one…

    Google search.
    “She realized that the electromagnetic radiation of X-rays could help doctors see the bullets and shrapnel embedded in the soldiers’ bodies and remove them, as well as locate broken bones.”

    Facts don’t yank the emotions hard enough, we all know this, so IMO paint a relatable picture of struggle and determination with an ending young students can see as worthy of such great effort and will.
    Embed science in the young for casual interest at the very least, let them discover and discuss the huge impact of science hidden in our everyday lives let alone as a vocation.
    Make science “human” to the young without getting factually scary is as close to an answer I can muster.

  14. “What turned you on to science?” Jacques Yves Cousteau’s TV shows and books. I wanted to be JYC, and so I became a professional marine biologist. I never developed the outrageous French accent, but otherwise succeeded.

  15. I cannot say what turned me on to science. From what I gleaned from family is that I was always excited about animals, I always wanted to be inside, but I had severe allergies that limited those interactions. I loved Ranger Rick and later National Geographic. I also had mediocre teachers, was early on exposed to neat science toys by my parents, but also mocked for thinking I was smart, never encouraged but frequently discouraged from trying things out, and somewhere developed a feeling from adults that great things happened elsewhere to other people, meaning that I live in the Midwest, it’s not a neat place, and just be average and take a government job if you can. All I can say is don’t get in a kid’s way when it’s clear they love something. Don’t fill a kid’s head with your own failures, of reality or imagination. Be supportive, or find someone who can be. I do think that neat, cutting edge science like a Mars trip can inspire a generation, maybe not every science kid, but many. That’s where microscopes, chemistry sets, rock collections, electronics sets, and trips to museums come in. Although telling every girl that science is sexist or every minority that it’s racist is a sure way to reduce their interest. I realize most of my comment is on a micro rather than macro scale but it’s my personal perspective.

    1. “and somewhere developed a feeling from adults that great things happened elsewhere to other people”

      That strikes a chord with me. I’m sure I missed opportunities when younger because of it. Nowadays, all a kid needs is an internet connection and a computer in order to indulge whatever curiosity they have though perhaps there are still obstacles to going beyond what one can learn by googling and reading.

  16. At the risk of double-dipping, let me recall two more cultural elements of how my own engagement with science developed. Museums! As a NYC kid, I was familiar with the Museum of Natural History, and especially with the adjacent Hayden Planetarium. [In fact, I think I joined some kind of junior astronomer program there, the details of which I have long since forgotten.] Although I ended up doing research on bacteria rather than planets, I suppose the Museum and the Planetarium had much to do with eliciting my sense of wonder of the natural world, and also my admiration for the empirical, quantitative, disciplined approach to it which science represents. Therefore, I agree that interest in exploration of Mars will help public attitudes toward science in general, and not just space science.

    A second influence, in my teenage years (after I was no longer a junior astronomer or whatever it
    was at the Hayden Planetarium), was wide reading of science fiction. Interest in science certainly
    owes a great deal to writers like De Kruif, Sagan, Feynman, Tyson, Dawkins, Coyne, and so on. But
    I suspect that it also owes at least a little to writers like Asimov, Heinlein, Sturgeon, Pohl, and so on.

  17. hahaha. Cousteau is a big one for me also.

    But all the stories above – many mirroring my own experience suggest smart people will be sucked into the study of science (even if it is not our profession/s) anyway – because it is damn fascinating. And people like PCC(E) and Dawkins have actually “converted” many people to atheism and science.

    What the question really asks is “How can we do this at scale?”
    “How can we convince people vaccines aren’t harmful?” to use a pertinent example.

    I doubt Mars missions will do it. Possibly better science teaching in schools will – more funding, emphasis.

  18. Why do we need to get people interested in science? Like everything else, some will get interested in it on their own, and some won’t. Do we try to get people interested in archeology or tennis or gardening? And even if we do really need to do so, how much of our societal resources should we be devoting to this end? I ask because trying to get women and BIPOC interested in science never seems to budge their representation in the field.

  19. As your readers may recall from last July, I presented science shows to Gr. 6 – 9 levels, sometimes with my grandkids. I still am delighted with a dramatic colour change, a pop and a flame, an unexpected outcome…. and students would respond accordingly. It always warmed me when after a show, we answered questions from students.
    Where can I get magnesium or liquid nitrogen?….. You cant.
    How did you first get interested in science… well, lets talk….
    As my daughter is a biology grad who accompanied me on occasion, I always tried to encourage the girls to study science.
    Show kids it is fun, interesting, challenging, rewarding, and you are a lot less likely to be unemployed!

  20. Like several others here, nothing in particular got me into science, I just always was. The whole environment of the early 60s was promoting science education (Sputnik! Gotta beat the Russians) and I drank it up. Science and engineering toys, scientific TV shows and science classes starting in elementary school all contributed.

    I have to add, I ended up getting a degree in biology because of my very good high school biology teacher. We even did genetic experiments with Drosophila.

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