Neil deGrasse Tyson - Communicating Science

February 28, 2011

Host: Chris Mooney

Our guest this week needs little introduction—he may be our most famous public communicator of science.

He's Neil DeGrasse Tyson, renowned American astrophysicist, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, and the host of PBS's NOVA ScienceNow, which just completed a new six part season.

Tyson is also the author of 9 books, most recently Death By Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries, which was a New York Times bestseller, and The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet

In this double length episode, Tyson discusses a wide range of topics: the just finished 2011 season of ScienceNow; how to restore a science "Zeitgeist" in our culture; Bill O'Reilly's recent foot-in-mouth comments about how the world works; this million-view YouTube clip of Tyson and Richard Dawkins; and much more. 

Books Mentioned in This Episode:


Comments from the CFI Forums

If you would like to leave a comment about this episode of Point of Inquiry please visit the related thread on the CFI discussion forums

Great interview!

As a dinosaur paleontologist for the State of Utah; I often justify being paid a salary by noting how Dinosaur Paleontology is the interest gateway to Natural History, just as the Manned Space Program is the interest gateway to Space Science and Technology.  Both endeavors are more than justified by this fact alone, everything else is gravy; wonderful delicious gravy.

I also, when lecturing in schools push the fact that a Dinosaur Paleontologist’s top activity is writing. Teachers love it. With me, its like pulling teeth as I’m pretty dyslexic, but I publish a lot as I’m pretty eclectic.

The older I get, the more I see the critical need to be unambiguous in discussing geological and biological observations, as no discussion can be fruitful without being on the same page (apples vs. oranges). To discuss science with scientifically illiterate or uneducated politicians and the general public is difficult and sometimes we have to resort to mutual self interest. It does work in the Red States.

I also have to agree atheism (like religion) is a matter of faith, not science.

Jim Kirkland

Posted on Feb 28, 2011 at 7:27pm by paleojim Comment #1

Great interview with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Chris. It was more off the cuff and relaxed than usual. As usual, he made a lot of excellent points.

Posted on Feb 28, 2011 at 9:05pm by asanta Comment #2

Tyson is wrong that the scientific atheists don’t criticize their own believing brethren; they certainly do.  People like Collins have received extensive criticism and so has Miller.  And the idea that the atheists must unconvert all the believing scientists before speaking to the public about their own beliefs is absurd, the equivalent to STFU.  As for Tyson’s criticism of Dawkins, I agree with Dawkins’ response.  ;-)  It is quite presumptuous for Tyson to tell Dawkins how to communicate; Tyson is unlikely to ever match Dawkins’ influence.  Different people will be receptive to different pedagogies, so every player on the team is valuable.  Personally, I find Dawkins far more entertaining than Tyson, because I really don’t need anyone to tell me how wonderful science is.

Posted on Feb 28, 2011 at 10:36pm by Taylor Comment #3

To echo points that Taylor makes, Dr Tyson is wrong in assuming skeptics avoid criticizing the irrational superstitions of their ‘brethren’: the Internet is replete with examples of such criticism. Entire websites exist for that purpose. More importantly, it is the irrational ideas themselves that are criticized, regardless of who is expounding them, be it a scientist or a layperson. Most often, in fact, whenever individuals are singled out prominently for criticism, they tend to be those with proportional influence or prestige in their respective areas (for example, Collins and Dembski, to name two prominent targets of such criticism). If Dr Tyson means to imply that criticism of ideas should be reserved for such a time as when ‘scientists’ reach a greater consensus in matters of superstition, then I must call baloney. A somewhat popular idea, with clearly social and biological underpinnings, when it clashes with reason, should be singled out as irrational; bad ideas should always face competition from good ideas, and as publicly as possible. Debate is good, and essential, and it does a service to the public - even the portion of the public which feels injury when a favorite notion is ridiculed. It’s the culture of extreme sensitivity to the criticism of ideas which really must be countered, otherwise we inure entire generations to feeling their ideas are privileged. It isn’t an either/or proposition: you can promote good science and expose faulty thinking both at the same time.

The other, but more minor, pickle I’d raise is with Dr Tyson’s (implied) characterization of what atheism entails. It’s true that labels, particularly labels with social/political significance, are very malleable and do change over time - so that, for example, ‘punk’ today means almost exactly opposite of what it meant in the late 1970s. But with certain labels, if we cherish consistency in language, it doesn’t have to be this way (even ‘punk’ might be rescued). It’s true that Thomas Huxley himself adopted the label ‘agnostic’ for almost the same purposes that Dr Tyson does: namely to somewhat distance himself from the social stigma of what was commonly perceived as the acerbic manner of atheists. Fair enough, if you’re satisfied with slogans. But how about semantics?

There’s a 2007 essay by the philosopher Richard Carrier, on his blog (google: Richard Carrier agnosticism), which poses this question in simple terms. If Dr Tyson is curious about the language aspects of the point he raised in the above interview, Dr Carrier’s argument should prove interesting, and ultimately convincing. In the modern age, if we value consistency and coherence in language, we will, as skeptics, discard the label ‘agnostic’, regardless of the social stigma associated with the other ‘A’ word. Every self-labelled ‘agnostic’ is positively atheistic (dismissive) with respect to some gods. And every atheist is necessarily agnostic (mere lack of belief) with respect to some gods. Overlap means they are not mutually exclusive.

It then boils down to how we decide our self-labels. Do we do it according to emotional reaction to a perceived stigma (which is intellectually dishonest), or according to a consistent and coherent description of terms (such as “atheism is lack of belief in gods”)?

Strictly speaking, we are already inherently agnostic if we are rational skeptics. It’s simply not worth mentioning it any more. There’s nowhere left to hide.

Note: it’s always a pleasure to hear Dr Tyson speak. And he’s almost never wrong. =]

Posted on Mar 01, 2011 at 12:32am by arugula Comment #4

It was hard to believe that the topic was “Communicating Science” when both Mooney and Tyson so studiously avoided talking about how it became possible for climate science denial to crystallize as a core belief of the Republican Party.  Senior figures in that party laugh at the possibility that there is anything credible coming from an entire discipline of science.  Some of their number are seeking even now for ways to legally persecute some of the best scientists in this field.  You tell me:  is this state of affairs an indicator of whether science communication has been successful that should have been completely avoided in this discussion?  I thought you had not mentioned this at all, until I listened a second time and noticed the few references. 

On another topic, i.e. Tyson’s proposal to restore a “science Zeitgeist” I found his arguments hard to follow.  We’re supposed to fund everything, because no one knows where the great science will come from exactly, which just avoids the question of what to fund.  Then he points to the very focussed burst of US government spending on space research after Russia launched Sputnik as something we should emulate now, i.e. don’t spend on everything but focus on some great big goal like that.  Then he tells us his favorite great big goals - lets go to Mars, lets search for alien life.  For God’s sake, let’s not mention that the home planet is going down the tubes.  NASA actually does climate research which could be beefed up.  A massive effort could be mounted to find ways for this size of a civilization to live within the limits set by the planetary system.  We could start by eliminating the massive perturbation to the carbon cycle now under way.  Perhaps Earth’s ability to support life might be conserved enough so our descendants would have somewhere to live other than Mars or wherever the alien life is found. 

The US spent on the Manhattan Project because it was feared that the Germans might suddenly come up with the Bomb themselves and the US would therefore have lost the war.  The US spent on the space program because Sputnik’s orbit went over parts of the US, and by then it was all too easy to imagine that Soviet nuclear weapons could be sent to the US that same way.  What great fear could we possibly have that might in any way be comparable now?  Earth might have its ability to support life seriously impaired by climate change?  Who cares?  No one would care about something piddly and inconsequential like that.  Tyson wants us to focus on going to Mars. 

Its unbelieveable.  In ancient Rome as the Huns closed in Tyson would be in the Senate arguing for a big new research program to build ships capable of finding the edge of the world, perhaps because it would be too politically controversial to mention the actual problem.

Posted on Mar 01, 2011 at 8:49am by David Lewis Comment #5

Chris Mooney is going out of his way to interview people who agree with his lame accomodation to religion crap. And if there is somone on the show who has the opposite opinion it takes a debate format with Mooney no longer being the host. It’s hard enough to listen to Mooney as it is without his obsession of trying to prove he’s right that atheists should STFU.

As for Neil deGrasse… Some of his comments were puzzling. I know people like him and Genie Scott seem to have a more narrow view of skepticism that only applies to what can be demonstrated to be true or false by science and ignore anything else. For example they will attack creationism but only when it comes to the science class room - ok fine, but there is STILL the much larger problem of creationism and bible literalism everywhere else. And don’t hate on atheists just because some us care about god being on the money, what would he say if they put on some astrology stuff instead? Being an atheist does not mean you’re an activist for atheism. If Neil’s reply to the question ‘Do you belive in a god?’ is ‘no’, then he’s an atheist. It’s simple. It seems he wants to call himself agnostic for cowardly reasons.

Posted on Mar 01, 2011 at 3:54pm by kennykjc Comment #6

I loved this interview.  The discussion of how the human mind works (it lies to us), it’s limitations and how it does not readily process inputs in a scientific manner was perfect for the many of us who have remained unaware of these facts regarding such limits to our perceptions.  Such considerations generally remain an unknown unknown for most people (perhaps it’s simply a matter of being in subconscious denial), which is why we should study ourselves and be aware of our limitations before even attempting to engage in the study of and any subsequent discussion of higher levels of practically any topic at all.  Actually it will take our educators themselves being aware enough of these facts to start such a ball rolling with the public and even many of those remain sorely lacking in this respect.

The Google tip on how using it can feed your own delusions was precious!  And yes, as Dr. Tyson suggests I write. 
“I write, therefore I think, therefore I write some more, therefore I think some more…”.

Tyson is smooth and quite digestible.  Do it again some time.

Posted on Mar 01, 2011 at 4:56pm by gray1 Comment #7

Chris Mooney is going out of his way to interview people who agree with his lame accomodation to religion crap. And if there is somone on the show who has the opposite opinion it takes a debate format with Mooney no longer being the host. It’s hard enough to listen to Mooney as it is without his obsession of trying to prove he’s right that atheists should STFU.

As for Neil deGrasse… Some of his comments were puzzling. I know people like him and Genie Scott seem to have a more narrow view of skepticism that only applies to what can be demonstrated to be true or false by science and ignore anything else. For example they will attack creationism but only when it comes to the science class room - ok fine, but there is STILL the much larger problem of creationism and bible literalism everywhere else. And don’t hate on atheists just because some us care about god being on the money, what would he say if they put on some astrology stuff instead? Being an atheist does not mean you’re an activist for atheism. If Neil’s reply to the question ‘Do you belive in a god?’ is ‘no’, then he’s an atheist. It’s simple. It seems he wants to call himself agnostic for cowardly reasons.

As Tyson says, it is just not part of his persona. I think by just staying out of the religion debate, he thinks he can remain the lovable, approachable non-threatening teddy bear of science education. I think he is probably right. I just leave it alone, as long as he fights creationism. I also think that it takes a multifaceted front to fight, the other fronts being the ‘strident’ atheists like Dawkins, Dennet etc. Much as their ‘soft’ accommodation view drives me crazy, who knows who will make someone start on the road to rational thinking—

Posted on Mar 01, 2011 at 6:21pm by asanta Comment #8

Since Dr. Tyson is an astrophysicist, I feel compelled to share this:

Astrophysicists are always wrong, but never in doubt. ... RP Kirshner
In that vein of thought, Robert P. Kirshner writes:

As Hubble said in The Realm of the Nebulae, “We measure shadows, and we search among ghostly errors of measurement for landmarks that are scarcely more substantial. The search will continue” . Hubble’s article had velocities from Trumpler without citation, distances wrong by a factor of seven, reference to de Sitter’s strange kinematic model, and was not enough to convince Hubble himself of the reality of cosmic expansion, but that article in PNAS pointed the way to understanding the history of the universe, and the continuing search among the “ghostly errors of measurement” has led to a deeply surprising synthesis of dark matter and dark energy.

Posted on Mar 01, 2011 at 8:03pm by gray1 Comment #9

Since Dr. Tyson is an astrophysicist, I feel compelled to share this:

Astrophysicists are always wrong, but never in doubt. ... RP Kirshner
In that vein of thought, Robert P. Kirshner writes:

As Hubble said in The Realm of the Nebulae, “We measure shadows, and we search among ghostly errors of measurement for landmarks that are scarcely more substantial. The search will continue” . Hubble’s article had velocities from Trumpler without citation, distances wrong by a factor of seven, reference to de Sitter’s strange kinematic model, and was not enough to convince Hubble himself of the reality of cosmic expansion, but that article in PNAS pointed the way to understanding the history of the universe, and the continuing search among the “ghostly errors of measurement” has led to a deeply surprising synthesis of dark matter and dark energy.

When did Hubble say that?

The quality of instrumentation changes over time as does the computing power to process the data.

The degree of uncertainty changes over time.  But due to semantics and egotism that uncertainty is rarely accurately communicated.

psik

Posted on Mar 03, 2011 at 7:25am by psikeyhackr Comment #10

When did Hubble say that?

The quality of instrumentation changes over time as does the computing power to process the data.

The degree of uncertainty changes over time.  But due to semantics and egotism that uncertainty is rarely accurately communicated.

psik


This is the concluding statement to Hubble’s book as referenced which was published in 1936.

http://www.archive.org/details/realmofthenebula029143mbp

“THUS the explorations of space end on a note of uncertainty. And necessarily so. We are, by definition, in the
very center of the observable region. We know our immediate neighborhood rather intimately. With increasing
distance, our knowledge fades, and fades rapidly. Eventually, we reach the dim boundary the utmost limits of
our telescopes. There, we measure shadows, and we search among ghostly errors of measurement for landmarks that
are scarcely more substantial.

The search will continue. Not until the empirical resources are exhausted, need we pass on to the dreamy
realms of speculation.”

And yet even with today’s photos such as “Hubble Deep”, while we see farther and more clearly than ever before, Hubble’s own words remain timeless.  The highest quality of instrumentation and powers of calculation continue to churn on into infinity while we still have a dim boundary and ghostly errors to consider even though we have categorized some of the ghostly errors as being attributed to something we call dark matter.  It’s something invisible to us through all detectable spectrums, we don’t actually know what it is that’s causing the effects being observed and the fact is we may never know.  Perhaps it is that we have actually reached the point at which our “empirical resources are exhausted”.  Dim boundary, shadows, ghostly… no poet could do this one any better.

“The degree of uncertainty changes over time”  Most certainly it does, but even half of infinity is still infinity and that is what we are dealing with in considering our ever expanding universe.

Posted on Mar 03, 2011 at 12:04pm by gray1 Comment #11

“The degree of uncertainty changes over time”  Most certainly it does, but even half of infinity is still infinity and that is what we are dealing with in considering our ever expanding universe.

Infinity is a mathematical concept.

So better instruments help us find more things we don’t know about.  I think that’s great.  It is just really stupid that we have all of these computers and so many people can’t get a grip on Newtonian physics.

This is the concluding statement to Hubble’s book as referenced which was published in 1936.

The neutron had been discovered only 4 years before that.  Knowledge of the neutron made the atomic bomb possible.  I don’t know when fusion was figured out.  Hubble’s stars run on fusion.  Plenty of certainties have been nailed down since 1936.  Using astrophysics or quantum physics to make a big deal out of newly discovered uncertainties is silly.

Too many attitudes about science come from obsolete Aristotelian and Platonic bullshit.  Physics does not care about Greek or Latin.  Too much philosophical junk from the humanities is allowed to muddy scientific waters.

The C.P. Snow “Two Cultures” problem has not been resolved.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/5273453/Fifty-years-on-CP-Snows-Two-Cultures-are-united-in-desperation.html

psik

Posted on Mar 03, 2011 at 7:30pm by psikeyhackr Comment #12

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standing_on_the_shoulders_of_giants

Posted on Mar 04, 2011 at 6:09am by gray1 Comment #13

I am impressed by the intensity with which many of you have engaged this thread.  To this I offer several clarifying comments, which I would not have thought necessary, but perhaps it’s evidence that my communications skills are waning.

From Taylor
“Tyson is wrong that the scientific atheists don’t criticize their own believing brethren”
1) No question that vocal/viisible religious scientists are criticized often and resoundingly.  My comments were not about these individuals but about the persistence of belief among scientists in general (40% in America) - a point that I hardly ever see addressed in public discourse by anyone.  And the related fact that members of the National Academy of Sciences are at 7%.  Active atheists cite and celebrate this small number, yet, to me, the most interesting fact worthy of further research is why that number is not identically zero.

“It is quite presumptuous for Tyson to tell Dawkins how to communicate” & “Tyson is unlikely to ever match Dawkins’ influence”
2) If you re-watch the clip, you will see that my criticism of Dawkins was offered **only** in the context of his formal Oxford title: Professor of the Public Understanding of Science.  Further, the comment wasn’t “If you change your ways you can be influential like me”  It was more like “If you change your ways, you can be more influential than you already are.”  Sorry if these two points were not clear in my interview or in the clip itself.

From David_Lewis
“It was hard to believe that ...both Mooney and Tyson so studiously avoided talking about ...climate science denial…of the Republican Party”
3) Nope.  Never came up.  Which, by the way, is not the same thing as “studiously avoided”.

“Tyson’s proposal to restore a “science Zeitgeist” I found his arguments hard to follow”
4) Like I said, my communication skills must be in ebb—sorry if I was not clear.  A nation should fund all science frontiers and cross-pollinate them because history reveals that the most innovative solutions to problems (and often the most enduring) arise from just this kind of activity, and not, as most would suspect, by the direct application of financial and intellectual capital.  And since the 1990s, NASA’s research and exploration portfolio includes a signifiant contributions from Biologists, Chemists, Physicists, and Geologists, added to the already represented fields of Astrophysics, Medicine, Food Science, and Aerospace Engineering.  Any mission to Mars will attract and cross-pollinate the best and brightest ideas in all these fields.  I know of no other enterprise with that much promise to transform culture and society.

From KennyKJC
“It seems he wants to call himself agnostic for cowardly reasons”
5) We need a word for Atheists who do not care what other people believe, and have hardly any energy or interest to engage the conversation.  That would be me.  Evidence that “disinterest” and “cowardice” are two different mental states.  FYI: In spite of what shows up on YouTube, less than 1% of my public messages (spoken or written) involve God or religion.

From Asanta
“I think by just staying out of the religion debate, he thinks he can remain the lovable, approachable non-threatening teddy bear of science education. “
6) My pedagogical goal is to get people to think straight in the first place, rather than to debate them later after it’s too late.  For this reason, you will hardly ever see me on a program with Moon Hoaxers, Conspiracy Theorists, UFOlogists, Creationists, or even Astrologers.  And, as is true in my reply to Kenny KJC, these subjects occupy less than 1% of my actual public discourse, in spite of what the viewing statistics of YouTube clips imply.  Note also that my TAM6 presentation, which is all about pseudoscience, was given under heavy persuasion from people such as James Randi, who I respect so deeply that I would not decline his invitation to speak: http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/component/content/article/44-amazing-meeting/1232-qbrain-droppingsq-from-neil-degrasse-tyson-at-tam6.html  So if the consequence of all this is that I am a “teddy-bear”, I happily accept the moniker, but my motives differ from what you assert.

From Gray1
I could not follow the relevance of your Hubble excursion to anything in my interview.  Note however that your Eddington quote is fundamentally that of his contemporary JBS Haldane: “It is my supposition that the Universe in not only queerer than we imagine, is queerer than we can imagine.” —a much more quotable person, by the way.

Thank you all for your interest in my interview and the candid comments it triggered within you.

-NDTyson

Posted on Mar 06, 2011 at 9:22am by neiltyson Comment #14

And thanks so much for coming here to discuss them!

Re. the percentages of theists among scientists and NAS members, it does deserve study, but as an example of what? Given the extensive evidence about how prone humans are to self-delusion and poor reasoning (cf. Kahnemann and Tversky, among others) I’d have thought it extraordinary if any large group of people of whatever sort were such as not to include theists or believers in ghosts, astrology, etc.

Perfect example of something that isn’t about theism per se but has to do with human fallibility among the brilliant: double-Nobel-winner Linus Pauling’s vocal support of high-dose Vitamin C. He wasn’t the only Nobel to have odd ideas, and it’s the same general theme.

Our prior probability of human irrationality is near one; lack of belief in theism is the surprise that needs explanation among scientists in general and NAS members in particular, it’s more surprising than the residual number who remain theists.

Cheers,

Posted on Mar 06, 2011 at 11:20am by dougsmith Comment #15

[16:34] The Apollo program created a zeitgeist in the country, where science was seen as the way to take us into the future.

[18:16] So I see it as three prong: the teachers, the actual agencies that fund curiosity driven research, and the vision statement.

I was impressed by Tyson’s call for a scientific zeitgeist.  One obstacle I see is that there are people who want NASA to pursue nothing but a distant human-occupied mission: despite the added danger, added cost, lower science for our tax dollar value, this during an economic crisis.  How can we get more people inspired by the great and fantastic achievements of today’s NASA.  I find the images from the Mars rovers, the images from Hubble, the discoveries of Kepler, and much of what NASA does to be wonderful and inspiring.  Doesn’t anyone else?

“Voyager 1 is escaping the solar system at a speed of about 3.6 AU per year, 35 degrees out of the ecliptic plane to the north, in the general direction of the Solar Apex (the direction of the Sun’s motion relative to nearby stars).”  Let’s see a human do that!  :)


Tyson & Dawkins clip


[38:11] If you look at the conduct of atheists in modern times, that conduct does not represent my conduct, pure and simple.  I just don’t behave that way, I don’t cross off the word God from every dollar bill that comes through my possession, the In God We Trust part.


I think that it’s refreshing to hear people take a stand for agnosticism, rather than the defacto acceptance of the word atheist that is so often in the air.  :)  I much prefer a word coined by one of us, such as Huxley, rather than a word with dubious origins probably from a religious person who could hardly imagine someone without religion, and so based their word on the word theist.  Good goin’ Dr. Tyson.  :)  I don’t understand the ire and hostility against someone who chooses not to use atheist, I see it so often.  Is it so hard to accept that there are better, more meaningful words than atheist?

Though agnostic is more meaningful than atheist, humanist is even more meaningful, and so I prefer the word humanist.  Humanist is a good word rich with monism, empiricism, naturalism, euproxaphy, and more!  :-)

[44:33] However there is that little matter of a third of Western scientists claim a personal God, to whom they pray.”  “And until that number becomes zero… I don’t see how they can justify beating the public over the head saying they are stupid because they’re religious, when a third of the scientists among their professional ranks feel the same way.


Excellent point.  The agnostic community should make friends with the majority of the public and all the scientists and engineers.

Posted on Mar 06, 2011 at 5:24pm by jump_in_the_pit Comment #16

Colbert did good  :)

Posted on Mar 06, 2011 at 8:19pm by jump_in_the_pit Comment #17

I want to thank Dr Tyson for coming onto the forums and giving such an extensive response. I’ve also chimed in on a few points here

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2011/03/07/tyson-responds-atheism-vs-agnosticism/

Posted on Mar 07, 2011 at 7:36am by CMooney Comment #18

Excellent, thanks Chris.

Posted on Mar 07, 2011 at 7:56am by dougsmith Comment #19

Thank you Dr. Tyson, for the clarifications.  :-)
Now…when are you coming back to San Francisco?

Posted on Mar 07, 2011 at 1:54pm by asanta Comment #20

5) We need a word for Atheists who do not care what other people believe, and have hardly any energy or interest to engage the conversation.  That would be me.

Dispassionate atheist, perhaps. The term “atheist” really only serves to distinguish us from god-believers. We shouldn’t be legitimizing the stereotype of a particularly strident kind of atheism as representing everyone. Plus, as Carrier shows, to be rigorous about it, we have to accept there’s only one consistent definition for “atheism”, and all rational “agnostics” are atheists, and vice-versa… rendering the label “agnostic” epistemologically useless.

Posted on Mar 07, 2011 at 7:35pm by arugula Comment #21

Is it so hard to accept that there are better, more meaningful words than atheist?

In the particular instance of ‘agnostic’, yes (as Dr Tyson stealthily acknowledges in his post). The term ‘agnostic’ to mean uncertainty on the issue of god, or even “unknowability” (whatever that may mean) doesn’t rescue you from atheism; for starters, every rational agnostic is positively-atheistic with respect to some gods, once s/he’s thought about it long enough. Every rational atheist, likewise, is ‘agnostic’ (passively atheistic, or fence-sitting) with respect to some gods. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, and their common ground is lack of god-belief. Therefore, lack of god-belief seems the sensible definition of ‘atheist’; and ‘agnostic’, however well intentioned, is - or ought to be - a social relic.

See Carrier.

Though agnostic is more meaningful than atheist…

Strictly speaking, it’s almost meaningless. Or for practical purposes, almost useless. See Carrier, above.

...humanist is even more meaningful, and so I prefer the word humanist.

Humanist is more meaningful, precisely because ‘atheist’ means one narrow thing, which is lack of god-belief. Ideally, ‘atheist’ ought to become obsolete… but as long as god-belief is such a big deal, and lack of god-belief consequently a big deal, then ‘atheist’ has social relevance.

[44:33] However there is that little matter of a third of Western scientists claim a personal God, to whom they pray.”  “And until that number becomes zero… I don’t see how they can justify beating the public over the head saying they are stupid because they’re religious, when a third of the scientists among their professional ranks feel the same way.

 
Excellent point.  The agnostic community should make friends with the majority of the public and all the scientists and engineers.

That was by far Dr Tyson’s weakest point, I think. The number of scientists who believe in god, though interesting, should have no bearing on whether or not any of them (or any other intellectuals concerned with various aspects of knowledge) should criticize religious belief (or any other belief). It is telling that scientists generally express non-belief at higher rates than non-scientists. Dr Tyson swings the pendulum too far in one direction, however, by suggesting all or most scientists should express non-belief before it is safe to publicly criticize belief. For one thing, “scientist” does not automatically render someone a good thinker, let alone a good thinker with knowledge of the issues surrounding this particular topic (god belief).

Posted on Mar 07, 2011 at 9:24pm by arugula Comment #22

5) We need a word for Atheists who do not care what other people believe, and have hardly any energy or interest to engage the conversation.  That would be me.

Dispassionate atheist, perhaps. The term “atheist” really only serves to distinguish us from god-believers. We shouldn’t be legitimizing the stereotype of a particularly strident kind of atheism as representing everyone. Plus, as Carrier shows, to be rigorous about it, we have to accept there’s only one consistent definition for “atheism”, and all rational “agnostics” are atheists, and vice-versa… rendering the label “agnostic” epistemologically useless.

That would be an apatheist.

Posted on Mar 07, 2011 at 9:25pm by asanta Comment #23

5) We need a word for Atheists who do not care what other people believe, and have hardly any energy or interest to engage the conversation.  That would be me.

Dispassionate atheist, perhaps. The term “atheist” really only serves to distinguish us from god-believers. We shouldn’t be legitimizing the stereotype of a particularly strident kind of atheism as representing everyone. Plus, as Carrier shows, to be rigorous about it, we have to accept there’s only one consistent definition for “atheism”, and all rational “agnostics” are atheists, and vice-versa… rendering the label “agnostic” epistemologically useless.

That would be an apatheist.

Might be appropriate for his purposes, but it’s still a kind of deliberate fogging of one’s belief stance. Apatheists could be theists, is that correct?

On the general issue, I think we should all be matter-of-factly about our belief stances, if only because it reduces the taint of social bias.

Posted on Mar 07, 2011 at 9:51pm by arugula Comment #24

Might be appropriate for his purposes, but it’s still a kind of deliberate fogging of one’s belief stance. Apatheists could be theists, is that correct?

true

On the general issue, I think we should all be matter-of-factly about our belief stances, if only because it reduces the taint of social bias.

Not if it affects your ability to be employed. I think it will be a little while before we get there.

Posted on Mar 07, 2011 at 11:40pm by asanta Comment #25

The term ‘agnostic’ to mean uncertainty on the issue of god, or even “unknowability”
(whatever that may mean) doesn’t rescue you from atheism;

If there is no god, then what can be known about him?  Nothing.  This is such simple logic that the agnostics, although their opinions about god vary, use.

for starters, every rational agnostic is positively-atheistic with respect to some gods, once s/he’s thought about it long enough. Every rational atheist, likewise, is ‘agnostic’ (passively atheistic, or fence-sitting) with respect to some gods.

Agnostics are rational, thinking, active, and committed, why must I continually have to defend agnostics against the accusations and ire from atheists?  Why can’t some people just accept that others are agnostic, and here to stay.  It is not an in-between step, it is a final conviction.  :roll:

For me, the word atheist has no attractive qualities.  I’m sure that some will continue to try to rescue it from its negative connotations despite its negative construction (the ‘a’ means “not”).  I, and many others, prefer other words instead, with other good words why bother with atheist?

Posted on Mar 08, 2011 at 1:48pm by jump_in_the_pit Comment #26

Network error - delete this duplicate, please.

Posted on Mar 08, 2011 at 1:57pm by jump_in_the_pit Comment #27

[If there is no god, then what can be known about him?  Nothing.  This is such simple logic that the agnostics, although their opinions about god vary, use.

Maybe we can’t start with that assumption. Some gods are beyond rational denial: an FSM-like god who actively obfuscates all evidence of his own existence, for example, cannot be reasonably denied. Conversely, the existence of an all-powerful god who does everything within his power to make himself known in the clearest possible ways to all rational observers… can be reasonably denied. In both cases, we are in fact potentially inducing qualities of a god. So long as one of its properties is interaction with the knowable, real world, then a thinking mind has some access to it, even if indirectly and incompletely.

More reasons why ‘lack of god belief’ is sufficient, and is rigorous enough.

Agnostics are rational, thinking, active, and committed, why must I continually have to defend agnostics against the accusations and ire from atheists?  Why can’t some people just accept that others are agnostic, and here to stay.  It is not an in-between step, it is a final conviction.  :roll:

There’s no ire, really, just some logical oversight in the arguments (usually) - or at least a semantic inconsistency (usually not). As often as not, ‘agnostics’, like ‘atheists’ or ‘theists’, rational as they may be, overlook or mistaken some essential piece of information that might make their personal stance more rigorous.

As a rule of thumb, in any case, one should always be suspicious of a tendency to dismiss a topic because it is “unknowable” or “unreachable”. Or at least, one should follow through and defend the stance against reasonable criticism (as above).

For me, the word atheist has no attractive qualities.  I’m sure that some will continue to try to rescue it from its negative connotations despite its negative construction (the ‘a’ means “not”).  I, and many others, prefer other words instead, with other good words why bother with atheist?

‘A’ more literally means ‘without’, or ‘absent of’ in the Greek. For example, apnea breaks down to mean “without breath”. If Theism means “belief in god(s)”, atheism literally means “without belief in god(s)” or “absent (of) belief in god(s)”.

This aside, and acknowledging that connotations change with the natural flow of language, the real issue should be consistency. If all rational agnostics must positively deny the existence of some gods (see top of post), and all rational atheists must be merely ‘agnostic’ re: the existence of other gods (see top), then we should try to make linguistic sense of it all: what’s the common ground?

The common ground is lack of god-belief. What’s the literal definition of atheism? Lack of god-belief.

Theists: believe in one or more gods.
Atheists: lack belief in god(s).

That pretty much covers everyone. Then the strict agnostic stance becomes a stance about knowledge in general: ie, it is impossible to really know anything. Looking closely, this seems too broad too be useful, since it covers all rational persons on all topics of knowledge.

Posted on Mar 08, 2011 at 4:57pm by arugula Comment #28

Thank you Dr. Tyson, for the clarifications.  :-)
Now…when are you coming back to San Francisco?


Scratch that, could you come to Florida?

Posted on Mar 10, 2011 at 10:20am by ShadowSot Comment #29

for starters, every rational agnostic is positively-atheistic with respect to some gods, once s/he’s thought about it long enough. Every rational atheist, likewise, is ‘agnostic’ (passively atheistic, or fence-sitting) with respect to some gods.

Agnostics are rational, thinking, active, and committed, why must I continually have to defend agnostics against the accusations and ire from atheists?  Why can’t some people just accept that others are agnostic, and here to stay.  It is not an in-between step, it is a final conviction.  :roll:

For me, the word atheist has no attractive qualities.  I’m sure that some will continue to try to rescue it from its negative connotations despite its negative construction (the ‘a’ means “not”).  I, and many others, prefer other words instead, with other good words why bother with atheist?

Atheists are just delusional about being logical.  Just accept it as a cross you have to bear like a good Christian.  :lol:

psik

Posted on Mar 10, 2011 at 4:31pm by psikeyhackr Comment #30

.......
1) No question that vocal/viisible religious scientists are criticized often and resoundingly.  My comments were not about these individuals but about the persistence of belief among scientists in general (40% in America) - a point that I hardly ever see addressed in public discourse by anyone.  And the related fact that members of the National Academy of Sciences are at 7%.  Active atheists cite and celebrate this small number, yet, to me, the most interesting fact worthy of further research is why that number is not identically zero.
......
-NDTyson

Finally got to this! it is great having someting like this to look forward to…—very much enjoyed it. Chris did a good job with the interview and I like his style - start with a question like “what did you learn from…”  (Chris’ interview style does not presume that he knows everything the interviewee knows—he takes a surrogate audience position and asks quesions we might ask. Robert Price in contrast has more of a discussion format and doesn’t ask audience-focused questions).

The comment I highlighted above also struck me and I think it’s excellent advice.  As a scienitist/mathematician I wonder why I was religious for too many years.  Although Dr. Tyson is probably on the money that this should be a fruitful and logical place to carry the discussion, I also felt (like another commenter) that saying that it’s inappropriate to criticize nonscientists until 0% of scientistis are religious doesn’t follow at all.  Dr. Tyson knows it would never be 0%.  In addition, there is a some broad category of liberal/cultural/metaphorical Christianity where people behave AS IF appropriate parts were true, but not really believing they are literally true. 

I hadn’t heard of that great Colbert episode with Bill O-Reilly—thanks for that anecdote and thanks CC for the link…

I also agree with Asanta that Dr. Tyson’s style of explaining is really great, he is able to conjure up related science topics which help to illustrate his point in what seems like an effortless display of virtuosity. 

I also agree with other commenters - in addition to space,  paleontology is an attractor for some kids, as well as natural history (I still have an old Marlin Perkins Zoo Parade book, as well as a Show-me-the-world-of-Space-Travel book from the 50’s).  And I also agree that ‘weather’ can be a springboard for an interest in science in general, and perhaps get more folks working on solutions to the climate challenges.

Posted on Mar 23, 2011 at 3:26am by Jackson Comment #31

Tyson’s approach is obviously working.  Kudos to him.  Great interview.

Agnostic means A - not Gnostic - knowing.  You don’t know that there is a God in the usual application.
Atheist meas A - not Theist - believing in a God.

You can be both.  You don’t know that there is a God and you don’t believe that there is one.  Most atheists are also agnostics.

I suspect most agnostics don’t believe there is a god… certainly they typically don’t believe in a personal, christian god.  They may or not believe in some impersonal perhaps intelligent first cause of the universe.

There’s no particular reason to put down one or the other of these beliefs.  Both are a lot better than being in a religious cult.

Posted on May 25, 2011 at 9:34am by ullrich Comment #32

http://i.imgur.com/lnLEE.gif

http://imgur.com/lnLEE

:lol:

psik

Posted on Dec 21, 2011 at 10:22pm by psikeyhackr Comment #33