Neil deGrasse Tyson - Communicating Science to the Public

November 16, 2007

Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of America’s leading spokespersons for science. The research areas he focuses on are star formation, exploding stars, dwarf galaxies, and the structure of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. In addition to many scholarly publications, Dr Tyson is one of America’s most respected science writers, and he writes a monthly column for Natural History magazine simply titled the “Universe.” Among his eight books is his memoir The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist; and also Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution, co-written with Donald Goldsmith. His most recent book is Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries. He is the on-camera host of PBS-NOVA’s program ScienceNow, which explore the frontiers of all the science that shapes our understanding of our place in the universe. He is the first occupant of the Frederick P. Rose Directorship of the Hayden Planetarium in Manhattan, where he also teaches.
 
In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Neil deGrasse Tyson examines various approaches to informal science education, his experiences teaching science through pop-culture media outlets, and controversies regarding science popularization. He explains his views on the implications of science for religious belief, questioning the strategy of science educators who seem to equate science and atheism. He also recounts the direct influence of Carl Sagan on his professional development.

Books Mentioned in This Episode:


Related Episodes

David Triggle - Science and the Public
June 1, 2007

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

Tyson has an admirably clear way of expressing himself. However, several times he mentioned the problem that scientists speak in jargon.
While this could be a problem I believe the problem starts on a much more basic level when trying to communicate science:
The public lacks basic concepts, paradigms, and procedural knowledge that are prerequisites to understanding reports on science.
Or one could say: Nobody’s done their homework. The reason discussions about politics are often more inclusive (meaning that more people can participate in them reasonably well) is because there is a decent level of understanding. Not so in science.
Perhaps the best way to change this, as Tyson mentions, is in fact reading a book written by a scientist (watching good TV may help, too). Reading ‘long form’ gives the author space to delve into concepts, talk about the everyday work and procedures, including the frustrations, lack of progress, and human factors.
But let’s face it: science ain’t easy, and people ain’t terribly smart. By that I mean: on average, people’s ability to understand science are just average. If scientific literacy for the masses is indeed our goal much will depend on both a more efficient teaching of science in school and smarter packaging and delivery of science contents to adults.

Side note: I smell a business opportunity here for someone who likes to think big: go and instigate building science museums in Asia. DJ mentioned they have almost none (like 7!) but they’d definitively have the audience for it.

Posted on Nov 17, 2007 at 7:33am by moreover Comment #1

...  smarter packaging and delivery of science contents to adults.

I’ve said it before here, but I highly recommend the courses from The Teaching Company, which includes quite an extensive list of science courses. There’s even one taught by Neil Tyson himself!

(I haven’t seen it, but I’m sure it’s great).

Look forward to listening to the interview in the next few days. Tyson is one of my favorites.

Posted on Nov 17, 2007 at 7:53am by dougsmith Comment #2

I agree—fabulous program this week!

There are several brilliant themes Neil Tyson touched on.  One is that cultural science literacy is not a good correlate to the culture’s scientific contributions.  I think that the educational assumption that it is a good correlate is thinly supported.  Massimo Pigliucci has expressed concerns about how science is taught as well, objecting to the move to turn science education into something of a flashcard cram of modern science facts.  It’s worth asking ourselves if that isn’t exactly why other countries show better on general knowledge tests but not at the high end of the spectrum, and give ourselves a pat on the back that we can cultivate good scientists despite all the crappy science curriculums turning students off of science left and right.  The science I had in high school was as boring as it comes—because of the textbooks probably.

Another concept raised is how science needs to step up to the plate and communicate better with the general public.  In any other field, I expect professionals to be able to explain things without the jargon—if they can’t explain it without the jargon, I’m suspicious they don’t fundamentally understand how it relates in the so-called “real world” themselves.  And if it’s not translatable to the “real world”, science is left trying to sell its message as a dogma—which is of course anathema to the fundamental idea of science.

Though I really do wish we could stop pumping the ratchet with alarmisms like “Secularism and Its Enemies”.  It’s uncomfortably close kin to buzzwords like “Axis of Evil” and such.  Secularism is in a more comfortable position now than at any time in memory, so instead of being on the defensive it resonates more as bullying.

Posted on Nov 17, 2007 at 9:57am by Aesopo Comment #3

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Posted on Nov 17, 2007 at 11:50am by zarcus Comment #4

For the most part Tyson is right on the mark. But, as quite often occurs in interviews by DJ Grothe, there are gratuitous swipes at Dawkins, et al. I know DJ is into the framing issue and all that, and I realize that Tyson’s bailiwick is the communication of science especially. But the science classroom is not the only place that religion and fundamentalism keep trying to invade. It has successfully invaded the political realm, the military (e.g., the christian embassy in the Pentagon), and is aggressive on other fronts as well. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett and others aim their attacks on this wider front, and only in response to the aggression exercised by the religionists. Sure, pick your battles, but be ready to fight on more fronts than just the scientific front.
Hal Tritz

Posted on Nov 17, 2007 at 2:08pm by Hal Comment #5

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Posted on Nov 17, 2007 at 3:45pm by zarcus Comment #6

Zarcus-Point well taken. A second listen-to confirms your take on it. I think I may have been extrapolating from what DJ said this time to what I expected he would say based on some prior interviews, for example (if my memory serves we), in the interview with Carol Tavris, as well as a few others. I don’t, however, consider DJ playing devil’s advocate in this case, because he didn’t present the counterpoint to Tyson’s known viewpoint as perhaps a better argument.

Posted on Nov 17, 2007 at 6:09pm by Hal Comment #7

I just want to chime in quickly to clarify: personally, I am completely persuaded by Dawkins’ position and uncompromising stance, and share his agenda to raise consciousness for atheist issues, and to diminish religion’s hold on people. Even so, I think that other voices as regards how to best advance science education merit attention, knowing full well that this is sometimes a completely different agenda than advancing atheism and working to reduce the influence of religion in society and public life.

Posted on Nov 17, 2007 at 6:29pm by DJ Grothe Comment #8

DJ-Ah! Most interesting. I would not have gathered that from listening to dozens of your interviews. Perhaps that bespeaks a skilled interviewer!

Posted on Nov 17, 2007 at 6:39pm by Hal Comment #9

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Posted on Nov 17, 2007 at 10:27pm by zarcus Comment #10

I just want to chime in quickly to clarify: personally, I am completely persuaded by Dawkins’ position and uncompromising stance, and share his agenda to raise consciousness for atheist issues, and to diminish religion’s hold on people. Even so, I think that other voices as regards how to best advance science education merit attention, knowing full well that this is sometimes a completely different agenda than advancing atheism and working to reduce the influence of religion in society and public life.

That’s encouraging. However, don’t you think “raising consciousness for atheist issues” is a bit confusing. The only atheist issue I am aware of is that there are some folks who believe in a deity and some who don’t. Things like church-state separation, science education, even the criticism of some of the claims made by religions and the negative influences religions sometimes have on the minds of individuals and the conduct of groups aren’t really atheist issues at all.

On one issue I do take some exception to your guests comments. When Neil deGrasse Tyson says he has never been an “ism,” I think he is right. However, I do call myself an “atheist” in certain contexts and on certain occassions. That’s not because I think I’m an “ism” or that I am defined by atheism. It’s because the word is an economical description of my attitude toward god-belief. I don’t have any. Folks who criticize the use of the word “atheism” because they “don’t want to be defined by a negative” are missing the point. Each of us wears many labels in life. No one of those labels defines us. I am no more defined by the word “atheist” than I am defined by the word “reader.”

Tyson called himself an “agnostic.” Does he thinks that word defines him?

However, once again, this was an excellent interview. Now I’ve added a few more titles to the list of books I need to read.

George

Posted on Nov 18, 2007 at 9:08am by garicker Comment #11

If you really want to get science to the masses, you should look to the what has been successful on the internet. What gets donwloaded the most and draws in the attention of those watching it.

Basically, if you could get small chunks of science into online porn movies, the science literacy rates would increase dramatically.

Ski.

Posted on Nov 19, 2007 at 3:56am by SkiCarver Comment #12

Basically, if you could get small chunks of science into online porn movies, the science literacy rates would increase dramatically.

:lol:

... a lot of human anatomy and biology, I suppose ...

Posted on Nov 19, 2007 at 5:08am by dougsmith Comment #13

Basically, if you could get small chunks of science into online porn movies, the science literacy rates would increase dramatically.

:lol:

... a lot of human anatomy and biology, I suppose ...

The internet generation of OBGYNs!

Ski.

Posted on Nov 19, 2007 at 5:12am by SkiCarver Comment #14

Tyson calls it a mystery of the universe when DJ asked him why he thinks the US achieved great scientific achievements in the 20th century.

The US was irrelevant to the rest of the world before the WWI. All this began to change when in the 20’s the European intellectuals started to immigrate to America. It had nothing to do with the education or anything else of that sort. The same thing happened with Renaissance in Italy in the 14 century and the 17th-century Enlightenment in Holland.

Posted on Nov 19, 2007 at 9:06am by George Comment #15

Science education encounters several challenges.
One is that many of the basics cannot be learned on the fly, they have to be hammered in through rigorous repetition. Most of the people who are now professors only really internalized what they know because they were at some point TAs (teaching assistants) and were forced to cram hard before reiterating a subject over and over again to regular students. Only after that often grueling experience did they become firm on a subject and able to take off from there and leap into research, further discovery and insight.

As should be obvious, little of that required repetition is offered to or asked of students up through high school, and where it is asked of them it may squelch initial curiosity and breed disdain instead.

That’s the real question: how do you lay the foundations (painful discipline required) without dousing the flames of curiosity?

As a psychology student (in the mid 1980s) I once came across an approach for science education for college (developed by a scholar by the name of Epstein) which encouraged students to reinvent major scientific discoveries. He reported that rediscovery was much more motivating than regurgitation, and that it brought out great potential in students that did not look like potential high achievers at first. I don’t know what ever became of the approach.
But I do remember how it bugged me that most of our time at the university seemed to be taken up by the need to regurgitate theories that had already proven of limited worth, and that there was no space for creatively thinking for ourselves.

Posted on Nov 20, 2007 at 10:40am by moreover Comment #16

A more direct answer to why although we have more access to science but fewer scientifically literate people is that a lot of science is really difficult.  To understand physics without calculus is a joke (Degrasse can explain it but his listener can’t apply it without the math) . 

Over my education I needed several years to understand the significance of what are now basic concepts to me.  Stuff I could not do when I first learned ultimately became easy several years later.  I see many many self sure, smug, people who think that reading about science makes them knowledgable.  I also see graduates from top schools and programs making errors that are now glaringly obvious to me.  I can usually show the error but and the unfortunate source is usually thunderstruck that the issue I raised really applies.

The reason exposure to basic science still leaves people making sillly arguments, often on both sides of many current issues is that a pre-requisite is numancy and that learning science takes time and a lot of effort. Few confuse a concert season ticket holder with a musician. The Far East and similar places have a still functioning tradition of making students work hard. 

Toyota found that Japanese high school graduates were more familiar with statistics needed to understand quality than were most US Master’s degree holders. To understand a lot of this stuff, most of us have to work hard for a long time,and often suffer low grades.  Good science only looks easy after a lot of work.  Hard science is hard and most people spouting off about it have not done the work and had it ruthless critiqued by masters.  Most people don’t undestand it because hard science is hard.

One other thing.  China and other countries graduate more technical people because they treat them better.  I have now heard that my skills are in short supply for over 40 years.  I have had to pull up stakes and move my family about a half dozen times and none of my children would even consider a technical career.  I have had to endure down turn after down turn.  A technical career, like the education, is hard.  We reward Lawyers and their education is easier.  That’s why we have more of them

Posted on Nov 20, 2007 at 2:31pm by Dr. JLW Comment #17

There’s one part I found odd in Tyson’s deliberations: He pondered that even among top notch scientists there’s still a sizable remnant of god believers, and that we can’t blame regular folks for sticking with belief if those supereducated profs can’t shed it.
I’ve never found this hard to explain, and I’ve just run into a first person account by a deconverted Mormon who answered Richard Dawkins’s call to tell his story.
Here’s a quote, and the key words are compartmentalization and childhood indoctrination:

I was raised a Mormon and remained a faithful one until I was 35. Although I was taught to believe that my holy books were infallible and not to be questioned, I was also taught to have great respect for science and education. My father was a professor of Astronomy, and I even earned my undergraduate degree in Physics. Its difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it the type of compartmentalization you develop that allows you to hold both of these world views at once, but obviously strong indoctrination as a child is a big part of it.

(...) An Atheist from Utah (the 4th entry on that page, for those who’d like to read the full account:
http://richarddawkins.net/convertsCorner

Or let’s move the scene to another continent or era: All the scientists, with the exception of a few prescient outliers, tend(ed) to be more or less in line with the religion of that society. That’s what humans do, they’re social sheep.
Or forget about religion and look at other communal systems of custom, superstition or behavior. Does Justus von Liebig (born 1803 in Germany) look like a feminist?
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/f/fd/JustusLiebig.jpg Chances are, for all his phenomenal achievements he was just “ein Kind seiner Zeit”, a child of his times.

I do not think the question of the remaining 7% or so of believing scientists is enigmatic at all. It’s simply the eternal case of smart people believing stupid things - what else is new?

Posted on Nov 21, 2007 at 12:04am by moreover Comment #18

There’s one part I found odd in Tyson’s deliberations: He pondered that even among top notch scientists there’s still a sizable remnant of god believers, and that we can’t blame regular folks for sticking with belief if those supereducated profs can’t shed it.

Yes, I also found that a weak part of his discussion, although I can understand why he said it. There is some tendency in the skeptical community to think that one has to be literally stupid or scientifically illiterate to believe in God. Looking at that 7%, one cannot accuse those people of stupidity, neither can one accuse them of not knowing the science. So to one degree Tyson’s point is a good one: a person need not be stupid or scientifically illiterate to believe in God.

But of course, if we’re dealing with generalizations, one should not begin by trying to explain the outliers. Any explanation for human belief and behavior has to cover a lot of very complex issues. So his conclusion that one has to explain the beliefs of a vanishingly small percentage of the population, a single percentage of an extremely elite organization, or cease attempting to deal with the other 99.99% of believers, strikes me as forced. The fact is that that 7% are, to any statistical degree, anomalous. Their existence certainly demonstrates that religion will always be with us, and that the asymptotic limit of religious nonbelief probably lies somewhere around 93%. But that’s about all it demonstrates.

Posted on Nov 21, 2007 at 7:58am by dougsmith Comment #19

I do not think the question of the remaining 7% or so of believing scientists is enigmatic at all.

As Doug pointed out we are talking about an “extremely elite organization”, that is The National Academy of Sciences - “The Academy membership is composed of approximately 2,100 members and 380 foreign associates, of whom nearly 200 have won Nobel Prizes.”

The 7% number came from a survey published in Nature, by Larson. The published survey included 517 members of the Academy that were questioned , with 72% reporting disbelief, and 20% expressing doubt. (don’t know the response stat on this one, I’ve read anywhere from 50-65%)

Edit: Add - Larson on the returns:

Leuba obtained a return rate of about 70% in 1914 and more than 75% in 1933 whereas our returns stood at about 60% for the 1996 survey and slightly over 50% from NAS members

Arm chairing this I get for the NAS survey: Total - 259 returns: 18 answering “personal belief”: 51 answering “doubt or agnosticism”: 186 answering “personal disbelief”

Larson also published his findings in Nature of the general scientific community. Working off the Leabu survey of 1916. In 1916, 40% of respondents reported a belief in God. In the Larson survey, with a 60% response of those questioned - 40% responded to having a belief in God. 45% of the Larson survey responded to having no belief in God.

These surveys, both reported by Larson, have gotten a spin in many ways, including through American Atheist.

Here’s an example:

http://www.atheists.org/flash.line/atheism1.htm

It would be difficult to interpret the figures reported in “Nature,” though, as suggesting that belief within the scientific community is gaining popularity, or even holding its own. The “belief in a person god” category suggests a precipitous drop, from about 40% in Larson’s survey to 7% in the “Nature” study.

That is a manipulation that borders on knowingly lying. Larson’s surveys were published in ‘97 and ‘98 with the general scientific community survey published first, then the follow up. The, AANEWS for July 24, 1998 (American Atheist News) was picked up widely. Also, the AA piece does not tell you that it was Larson in both surveys, they give an impression he was not in the “Nature” survey. B.S.

Posted on Nov 21, 2007 at 3:27pm by zarcus Comment #20

To put my mild objection to Tyson in a different way, certainly part of the public’s acceptance of the pseudoscience of intelligent design is due to scientific illiteracy. The fact that some vanishingly small percentage of biologists may accept ID is really neither here nor there. It would be decidedly odd to claim that we should go about explaining why a handful of benighted biologists accept ID before tackling the larger issue of the acceptance of ID in the larger population.

Posted on Nov 21, 2007 at 4:09pm by dougsmith Comment #21

Scientists are still keeping the faith

Edward J. Larson, Larry Witham

SUMMARY: Although the suggestion eighty years ago that four in ten scientists did not believe in God or an afterlife was astounding to contemporaries, the fact that so many scientists believe in God today

Nature 386, 435 - 436 (03 Apr 1997) Commentary

..........

Leading scientists still reject God

Edward J. Larson, Larry Witham

Nature 394, 313 - 313 (23 Jul 1998) Correspondence

<edit - link failed - do - http://www.nature.com/nature/index.html - search - Edward Larson>

Posted on Nov 21, 2007 at 4:12pm by zarcus Comment #22

Actually, Doug…

Here is what Tyson said:

That if among scientist, a third of western scientist, American scientist, claim a personal God, well that fraction gets a little lower when you get to those in the National Academy of Sciences, the elite scientist that fraction is even lower, but it’s not zero. [DJ - It’s far lower but it’s not zero]. Well, what does far lower mean, it’s a third or half, but it’s not 1/100 th, it’s not zero, what is it - 7%, [doing percentages]. So, I wonder, for those that are particularly adamant about riding society of religion and its ailments that it brings [DJ - we’re talking about people like Richard Dawkins, and others]. Yeah, and Christopher Hitchens,  these are the people very vocal in these sentiments and they somehow you would be left thinking that the public is, they just need to learn and they’ll figure out that their deluded. You can’t say that if a 1/3 of our own professional science community feels just that way.  I want to see that explained first. Before you want to take on the general public. Some of the most highly educated scientist .... some of them claim a personal God. If you don’t have an explanation of that for me, I don’t see what right you have to run out in the street and tell the masses that those who are religious, have something wrong with them. There might be something fascinating to learn about how it is that among your most highly trained scientist, the 7%, praise to a God to intervene in their lives. Maybe that 7% is the limit of how far you can get in convincing someone that there is no such thing as a God and a religion. If that’s the case, then lets study those people.

He said something very, very similar to this at the Beyond Belief conference.

Arm chairing the NAS survey results [see above], I get that from Tyson that we should study 18 scientist.

Posted on Nov 21, 2007 at 4:41pm by zarcus Comment #23

Right, I know. That’s what I was reacting to—in particular the “I want to see that explained first.”

Posted on Nov 21, 2007 at 7:06pm by dougsmith Comment #24

Ah, then I concur.

The question of why people believe in God was approached in Michael Shermer’s book, How We Believe.

In a section called, Scientists’ Belief in God, as part of the chapter, Why People Believe in God, he discusses these surveys in brief.

Michael’s response to Tyson’s suggestion at the Beyond Belief conference I think sums it up..“its irrelevant”.

In the surveys done by Shermer and Holloway on why skeptics believe they found very similar reasons as you find in the general population, almost down to the number on the list. From what I’ve seen there is little reason to think these do not apply to scientist as well.

First on each list of reasons for belief in God is a good design, beauty/perfection/complexity of the world and/or universe.

Personal experience was listed second in the general, but in the skeptics the second reason comforting, relieving, consoling etc., which is third on the general survey.

And so on… It is not until you get to number 8 on the skeptics (3%) and number 6 on the general (7%), that you find - Raised to believe in God.

An interesting inclusion in the surveys presented is the question of why you think others believe in God.

The answer - Raised to believe - jumps to number 2 on the general and 4 on the skeptics. Both show that the reason people most often given for why others believe is the - comfort, consoling, gives meaning.

The consistency in these and other surveys heavily suggest you will find a reasonable correlation to scientist, including the “elite”.

As a side note I notice in the recent issue of Free Inquiry [Dec. 07/Jan. 08] has articles on the Scientific Examination of Religion. Van A. Harvey covers some ground that looks rather familar.

As an example Harvey states:

~“When we understand that religious interpreters’ beliefs are quite specific, we can also understand why a certain type of religious believer is not only hostile toward biblical criticism but makes critical historical reasoning impossible. This is quite clear in the case of the fundamentalist but also, as we shall see, in the case of the more sophisticated belier who takes certain narratives to be true on faith.” [pg. 26]~

In Michael’s book mentioned above he states:

~“I attribute this paradoxical dearth to the hands-off nature of religion in general - religion is something to be followed, God is someone to be worshiped. To focus the narrow and intense beam of scientific light into this often dark and murky corner of the human condition can be blinding at first. As I have discovered in conducting this empirical study, to most folks there is something mildly unsettling about being asked personal and penetrating questions about their most deeply held and cherished religious beliefs. Still, if you want to understand the human condition the study of religious belief cannot be neglected, and since science is the best method yet devised for uncovering cause-and-effect relationships, we must apply that method whenever and wherever possible.”[pg. 242]~

Right on Michael!

Posted on Nov 21, 2007 at 7:52pm by zarcus Comment #25

There’s one part I found odd in Tyson’s deliberations: He pondered that even among top notch scientists there’s still a sizable remnant of god believers, and that we can’t blame regular folks for sticking with belief if those supereducated profs can’t shed it.

The fact is that that 7% are, to any statistical degree, anomalous. Their existence certainly demonstrates that religion will always be with us, and that the asymptotic limit of religious nonbelief probably lies somewhere around 93%. But that’s about all it demonstrates.


There are subtleties to surveys—how the question is asked, how the question is understood, etc.  Does this 7% include both fundamentalists and Deists?

Posted on Nov 21, 2007 at 8:28pm by Jackson Comment #26

Jackson,

The Larson survey that purports the 7% is a correspondence to Nature.

The entire finding is reported - HERE

Posted on Nov 21, 2007 at 8:30pm by zarcus Comment #27

This is a great talk if you haven’t seen it; reveals much about the denunciation of intellect and science: Neil At Beyond Belief 2006

Posted on Nov 22, 2007 at 1:50am by scooternyc Comment #28

There are subtleties to surveys—how the question is asked, how the question is understood, etc.  Does this 7% include both fundamentalists and Deists?

Quite so—important question to ask. From Zarcus’s URL it seems that the question asked if the scientists believed in a “personal God” and “personal immortality” (interestingly, 7.9%, which means perhaps that 0.9% of the scientists believe in immortality and no personal God).

And yes, scooternyc, Tyson’s Beyond Belief talk was great.

Posted on Nov 22, 2007 at 7:43am by dougsmith Comment #29

This is a great talk if you haven’t seen it; reveals much about the denunciation of intellect and science: Neil At Beyond Belief 2006


I agree with Doug—I also recommend this link from scooternyc as a route to a variety of related “postings” to youtube on the topic of religion & secularism.

Posted on Nov 22, 2007 at 8:46am by Jackson Comment #30

Dr. Neil is a great man, I watch NOVA regularly and probably many of the forum participants watched the 2 hour documentary on the Dover trial.

I am under the impression that Dr. Neil is one of the consultants for NOVA programing. This week’s episode (ants, termites and African Shamans) was truly different. It was not the usual scientific presentation, it was beautiful but far from the scientific method!  My personal impression is that Dr. Neil gave us a brief glimpse to what could happen if we stray from our present approaches of natural causes. I think that he masterfully presented a scenario that avoided a direct confrontation with American religious fundamentalists.

If you missed the episode, it should be available soon at the NOVA website.

Posted on Nov 23, 2007 at 4:08pm by OhioDoc Comment #31

Regarding NOVA - this being a little off topic - I just started watching the Dover case episode via internet but realized this is not my medium. So little information conveyed in so much time! That said, the fact that I have not turned on my TV in years except to watch DVDs (LOTR, Casino Royal, and Dawkin’s BBC series) may explain my lack of patience…

Posted on Nov 23, 2007 at 6:15pm by moreover Comment #32

I like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and admire his work to advance science education. I think he’s an excellent spokesman for science, very articulate and likeable.

But I was disappointed by two aspects of the interview.

First, NGT’s aversion to “isms,” since they shut down conversation. He wants everyone to treat everyone else as individuals and nothing else. This is staggeringly naive. In the first place, social psychologists long ago demonstrated that people negotiate their social environment by categorizing people into groups. Group processes are fundamental to the way we as a species function. Classifying people into ingroups and outgroups is as basic as human outlook as it gets. That is, nobody is capable of treating absolutely everybody we meet purely as unique individuals. We always, without fail, automatically categorize people into some group or other. We can’t help ourselves. That is to say, you can’t escape groupishness in human thinking.

More importantly, it is not always the case that categorization leads to prejudice and stereotypical thinking. But it is certainly the case that, with certain “isms” you can instantly draw some conclusions about a person’s beliefs. If I meet a self-confessed Marxist, I automatically know some positions that person holds in order to be a Marxist. The same with a biblical fundamentalist or with a humanist. This does not mean I refuse to talk to them, just that there are some baseline issues I can take for granted in talking to them. Why would NGT find this somehow inhibiting and balk at it?

Second, the suggestion that vocal atheists like Dawkins or Hitchens should not address the public until we’ve all figured out why 7% of scientists are believers in religion is frankly preposterous. Indeed, its raw ridiculousness was demonstrated by the very story NGT told of his question to Francis Collins, geneticist and Christian. Collins’ refusal to say that he would rethink his beliefs should religion turn out to be a demonstrably neurophysical phenomenon is *precisely* illustrative of the faith-based mindset Dawkins and Hitchens and Harris rail against.

The faithful habitually accept things in their belief systems that are founded on simpering subjugation to some authority (God, the Bible, priests, mullahs, whatever),  fly in the face of evidence and—here’s the crux—are immune to revision when presented with new evidence. Why would NGT expect Collins to revise his religious beliefs in the face of hard evidence? The faithful don’t do that. And that is precisely the habit of mind that Dawkins et al. rightly criticize. Insisting that they cease doing so until some new scientific discovery is in—a discovery the faithful will reject out of hand—is more evidence of an astonishing naivety, especially in a time and place where the failings of faith-based thinking in public policy are so glaringly on display.

And for NGT, I have this question: if you are an agnostic because, as you say, one day intercessory prayer might work or prayers might bring Jesus down from the clouds, what would it take for you to rethink your agnosticism? Christians have been praying and waiting for Jesus to return in every generation for two thousand years and counting. Doesn’t that make it rather unlikely his descent from the clouds is going to happen any time soon? If you think not, should we be still conducting alchemy experiments, on the chance that, any day now, one might actually work? Or astrology? Or phlogiston theory?  Why aren’t intercessory prayers made on behalf of amputees, to get their limbs back? Because, I’d suggest, everyone really knows prayers don’t heal. Again—NGT shows what I think is an amazing naivety about these issues.

Perhaps he adppts such a soft approach to allay a public he wants to connect with. Fair enough. I’d rather he just says that than make intellectually incoherent pseudo-arguments.

Posted on Nov 28, 2007 at 11:22am by Trajan117 Comment #33

I may not agree with NGT on the subjects you raise, Trajan, but I wouldn’t agree either with characterizing them as “intellectually incoherent pseudo-arguments.”

People do naturally lump others into groups based on “index” criteria or labels, and while this has some practical utility, I also think it’s a lot more problematic than you suggest. Your very assumption that one cannot justify the label agnostic in the face of the improbability of the Christian myths being true demonstrates this. NGT clearly thinks it very unlikely this mythology, or any other, is true. That is evident from the interview. You assume this means he should therefore be an atheist because of how you define atheism and agnosticism. However, he is not willing to say that the mythologies of religion are certainly or absolutely untrue, only very unlikely. To him that’s agnosticism, to the faithful that’s atheism, to you that’s naive. So you’ve just demonstrated how picking a label and interpreting it to mean what you want it to mean doesn’t actually tell you that much about the nuances of what someone believes. The word “atheist” currently carries the baggage of Hitchens, Dawkins, and other very aggressively anti-religious public figures, and it is perfectly rational to wish to avoid the label and that baggage if one has a less hostile, more nuanced approach to teaching science and confronting superstition.

As for the issue of explaining religious belief in productive, exceptionally bright scientists, I think you missed his point. He’s saying that it is unreasonable to expect that simply teaching the scientific outlook or explaining why the notion of god is farfetched will convert the general public away from religion when an excellent familiarity with science and unusual individual inteligence is not enough to do so for a substantial percentage of elite scientists. He is asking the very important question, what is it in the brains of people who cling so tenaciously to irrational belief in the face of contradictory evidence that makes them do so, and how is this different from what happens in the brains of people who are not so inclined. Now, I agree this is an interesting and important question, though I disagree with NGT in that I don’t think it is likely to lead to any more effective techniques or arguments for reducing the prevalence of religious belief than what we currently have. Still, I think he’s right that it is unreasonable to say, as many “new atheists” do, that the argument against god is so blindingly clear and obvious that you must be stupid, brainwashed, delusional, etc to still believe it. NGT has pointed out that that logic fails for 7% of the NAS, which suggests the logic is unsound.

Posted on Nov 28, 2007 at 11:40am by mckenzievmd Comment #34

you must be stupid, brainwashed, delusional, etc to still believe it

From what I’ve seen personally and read, being brainwashed is

a) a common occurrance, albeit often named with nicer sounding terms like “upbringing”, “socialization” or “cultural heritage”, and it is

b) very very effective.

In other words: Where is the mystery here about religious scientists? As I said above, in earlier centuries or in other cultures today ALL scientists were/are religious. Nobody lives in a vacuum, and all of us play different roles and are masters of compartmentalization.

Posted on Nov 28, 2007 at 11:53am by moreover Comment #35

This is a great talk if you haven’t seen it; reveals much about the denunciation of intellect and science: Neil At Beyond Belief 2006

Excellent link Scooter.  Beyond Belief covered many of the issues we talk about on this forum.  I understand this is an annual event.  Does anyone have information regarding the next symposium?  Has a date / location been set?  Who will be attending?  Is it open to the public?  I hope Neil returns.

Posted on Nov 28, 2007 at 12:20pm by retrospy Comment #36

Here.

Posted on Nov 28, 2007 at 12:27pm by George Comment #37

Excellent link Scooter.  Beyond Belief covered many of the issues we talk about on this forum.  I understand this is an annual event.  Does anyone have information regarding the next symposium?  Has a date / location been set?  Who will be attending?  Is it open to the public?  I hope Neil returns.

Yes, as George notes, it has already happened. I’m looking forward to seeing the videos.

Posted on Nov 28, 2007 at 12:32pm by dougsmith Comment #38

Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

First, of course labeling people facilitates stereotypical thinking, but it does not immediately lead to it, nor does it shut down a conversation, as NGT seemed to assume it did. But there are degrees of labeling that come with degrees of stereotyping—invoking racial pejoratives is not same as, say, using labels for philosophical camps of thought. That is why the sort of blanket aversion to “isms” which NGT clearly expressed is a little naive and, to my mind, elides two quite distinct processes. Saying you are humanist does imply certain things about the content of your philosophy. It would be perfectly reasonable for an interlocutor to assume aspects of that content. If someone, however, assumed you were amoral because you were humanist, the problem would not lie with the label per se (the “ism”) but with that person’s ignorance of humanism and his/her instant recourse to stereotypical thinking.

Second, I did not assume anything about agnosticism from the mere label, but from what NGT himself actually said: he was agnostic because intercessory prayer might yet be proven effective, and Jesus might descend from the clouds. That he thought these outcomes as unlikely is secondary to invoking them as examples of what makes him agnostic rather than outright atheistic. On that model, all atheists are agnostic, because in the face of either scenario we’d surely have to rethink our atheism. That is to say, NGT’s agnosticism, on his own criteria, appeared to me both naive and misguided.

Third, NGT clearly said that Dawkins et al. should not address the public until this issue of the 7% of NAS believers was sorted out (and then told the story about Collins which showed it could never be sorted out!). As you put it:

“It is unreasonable to expect that simply teaching the scientific outlook or explaining why the notion of god is farfetched will convert the general public away from religion when an excellent familiarity with science and unusual individual inteligence is not enough to do so for a substantial percentage of elite scientists.”

I agree that these 7% is worth studying, but I do not agree that their mere existence somehow invalidates Dawkins et al.‘s agenda. It seems to work rather well for 93% of NAS cases, no? Why abandon that project? Wouldn’t the world look a lot different if 93% of humanity abandoned religion and superstition and embraced rational analysis founded in evidence?  I’d take that result, thank you very much. I see nothing at all “unreasonable” in aiming for that outcome, or even another outcome short of a 93% success rate. The two—studying the 7% and attacking religion publicly by raising consciousness about rationalism—are not mutually exclusive projects

Posted on Nov 28, 2007 at 12:41pm by Trajan117 Comment #39

From what I’ve seen personally and read, being brainwashed is

a) a common occurrance, albeit often named with nicer sounding terms like “upbringing”, “socialization” or “cultural heritage”, and it is

These are certainly processes by which people acquire beliefs, but they are not mere euphamisms for brainwashing. I was referring to the more outrageous and extreme end of the spectrum of aculturation practices, which generally include a lot of emotional abuse, denial of access to alternative pints of view, and more unpleasant tactics than typical aculturation practices. I get your point, but I would say not all childrearing is tantamount to brainwashing.

In other words: Where is the mystery here about religious scientists? As I said above, in earlier centuries or in other cultures today ALL scientists were/are religious. Nobody lives in a vacuum, and all of us play different roles and are masters of compartmentalization.

Absolutely! I do think there probably is something worth looking at in the brain that might predispose some people to being better at or more in need of the kinds of thinking necessary to hold religious faith and scientific epistemology in their minds concurrently, but I agree that it’s a ubiquitous phenomenon. That is why simply talking people out of their religion ain’t going to work.

Posted on Nov 28, 2007 at 1:15pm by mckenzievmd Comment #40

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Posted on Nov 28, 2007 at 1:52pm by zarcus Comment #41

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Posted on Nov 28, 2007 at 2:21pm by zarcus Comment #42

Tyson has an admirably clear way of expressing himself. However, several times he mentioned the problem that scientists speak in jargon.

The issue of communication was one Tyson repeatedly raised—he attacked it from a number of articles.  He ended up on the point that communication is the responsibility of the educator and not the students. 

This is a point which bounces back to the “what is the purpose of CFI” thread—- it is our responsibilty to communicate reality to these 7r;s in a way that works.

Posted on Nov 28, 2007 at 6:46pm by Jackson Comment #43

I finished listening the Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and I think it was one of the best episodes from POI.

I understand his reluctance to the ‘isms’, but sometimes is imposible to avoid them (Tyson called himself an agnostics just a few minutes after his statements against ‘isms’).

What I really liked about Tyson statements was his hypothesis about the origin of sciece and technology innovations: the tendence to question authority. I really like it, because I think that, no matter how scientific literate you are, if you thing that everything is done, that the perfect way of knowledge and behaviour is on the past, and that you are not smart enough to challenge authority.

Posted on Dec 03, 2007 at 8:01am by Barto Comment #44