Facts So Romantic

Why Neil deGrasse Tyson Shuns Sam Harris’ Swamp of Controversy

Photograph by FOX / Getty Images

On The Tonight Show, in March 1978, the late astronomer Carl Sagan had lots to talk about. He had just published Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence—which would win the Pulitzer Prize—and Star Wars, released the year before, still captivated the public’s imagination. When Johnny Carson, the show’s then-host, asked Sagan to expand on some comments he’d made prior to the evening, about the film’s indifference to scientific accuracy, Sagan said the “11-year-old in me loved” it, but it “could have made a better effort to do things right.” His critique would resonate today: After making the biological point that the Star Wars scenario—humans evolving long ago, in a faraway galaxy—is vastly improbable, Sagan said there’s another problem: “They’re all white.” Carson, pushing back a bit, said, “They did have a scene in Star Wars with a lot of strange characters.” “Yeah,” came Sagan’s reply, “but none of them seemed to be in charge of the galaxy. Everybody in charge seemed to look like us.”

Sagan’s mordant behavior as a public scientific figure, of course, wasn’t limited to the subject of racial bias. In protest of the United States’ preparation to wage nuclear war, in 1987, he was arrested, along with more than 400 people, for climbing over a chain-link fence into a nuclear weapons test site in Nevada. This combination—of a public sociopolitical conscience allied with scientific expertise, as well as what Isaac Asimov called an “unmannered style” of address—is arguably what made Sagan such an inimitable figure in the public’s engagement with science. Today, after becoming the star host of Cosmos, the popular reboot of Sagan’s classic television series, it can seem that Neil deGrasse Tyson has, as it were, taken up Sagan’s mantle as the preeminent science communicator of our time.

“There’s blood on the tracks from him having done this in a way that no one had even approximated before,” Tyson told Sam Harris, a philosopher and neuroscientist, on Tuesday, on Harris’ Waking Up podcast. Tyson acknowledged that, when Sagan was considering his appearance on The Tonight Show, his colleagues discouraged him, saying it would vulgarize science into mere entertainment. “I benefit,” Tyson said, “from the fact that Carl Sagan sort of did this first.” Just exactly how to do “this”—ensuring that science has a say in society—was the main subject of the episode, “Thinking in Public: A Conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson.” Harris’ title could seem generic, but it’s actually apt. Their discussion, nearing two hours, is a pointed and illuminating exchange on how popular scientific experts, like themselves, should behave toward the public.

“I have opinions on many things, but they’re not the kind of opinions where I give a rat’s ass if you agree with my opinion.”

Anyone familiar with Harris will know that his approach can come off as cavalier. Not long ago, when he was on Real Time with Bill Maher, he was discussing the causes of Islamic terrorism. (Harris doesn’t have a degree in religious scholarship, but he claims to be well read in not only Muslim, but also Christian and Buddhist, doctrines; after spending years practicing meditation in India, he pursued a doctorate in philosophy at Stanford but, toward the end, switched to neuroscience, since he was interested in the neural mechanics of how beliefs are formed.) When Harris sketched Muslims’ basic belief-system, and said, “Islam at this moment is the mother lode of bad ideas”—for the way, he said, it’s ripe for violent and theocratic application—Ben Affleck, who was also on the show, was appalled. Such statements, he said, were “ugly,” “gross,” and “racist.” (His visceral reaction is now a well-trafficked meme.)

Tyson, on the other hand, can’t be heard staking definite, controversial positions on any topic. “I think as an educator, I can help train your mind how to think about information and how to arrive at conclusions. Then you’re empowered, and then you can make whatever politically leaning decisions you must, but have them anchor on objectively verifiable science—that’s my goal,” he told Harris. “That’s why you don’t see me debating people. I’d rather just educate you in the first place so that the debate isn’t even necessary.” But Harris questioned this neutral posture: “Do you feel that you need to walk a razor’s edge between political passions and polls on questions of religion or hot button issues—culture-war science, evolution, etc.—because you’re trying to preserve a trust from both sides insofar as that’s possible?” 

“Initially,” Tyson said, “I thought I was walking a razor’s edge, because I’m not out here to offend anybody. I just want to enlighten people, as an educator.” But then Tyson realized, he said, that this—enlightening people—was a strong position in itself. “That position is: There are objective truths out there that you oughta know about! And as an educator, I have a duty to alert you of those objective truths,” Tyson said. “What you do politically, in the face of those objective truths, is your business, not my business. I have opinions on many things, but they’re not the kind of opinions where I give a rat’s ass if you agree with my opinion. That’s why it’s my opinion. That’s the difference, I think, between me and many others who are scientifically astute, or are scientists themselves, and take up a platform that involves trying to get people to see the world the way they do—even politically. I have no such interest in doing that.”

“I see it as my duty to train the electorate how to think about this information. Once they’re trained, they can vote for who they want.”

But, Harris countered, “Let’s say human-caused climate change is as disastrous as Al Gore thinks it is.” Is it possible to remain politically neutral when Donald Trump could become president? The Donald, Harris noted, “said climate change was a hoax cooked up by the Chinese to destroy our manufacturing base.” There’s great consensus that we are causing climate change, but let’s just stipulate that the evidence is even stronger than it is now, Harris said: Doesn’t your politically neutral position collapse—“wouldn’t you then have a duty to say that, in this case, ‘Trump is a dangerous ignoramus who’s not qualified to be president’?”

Tyson demurred: “I’ve never said anything against a politician. Why? Because politicians have electorates that support them. In a free democracy, that is their right. I, as an educator, could go around hitting politicians in the head, but then there’s the matter of all the people who wanted to vote for them. So, for me, my target is not the politician. My target is the population following statements that are objectively false. I see it as my duty to train the electorate how to think about this information. Once they’re trained, they can vote for who they want.”

Tyson, in other words, sees himself as a professor, and his classroom is the world; in the classroom, it’s customary that professors don’t take sides—they teach you how to choose sides, or perhaps invent another one. They don’t get mired in what Harris called his “swamp of controversy.” Plus, said Tyson, denouncing politicians is a rather unproductive bore. “This is like the people who said, ‘Oh, get George W. out of office—he’s an idiot, he’s this,’ and then he’s finally out of office and then Sarah Palin rises up. ‘Oh, Sarah Palin, she’s an idiot!’ How many times can you start saying that a leader is an idiot without looking at your fellow members of your country who are voting for them?”

In the end, Tyson sees his role as attacking the fact that people don’t understand the facts, not as attacking the exploitation, by politicians, of people’s ignorance.

When that segment of their discussion ends, the conservation continues to be anything but stale. They shift to Tyson’s apparently shifty attitude toward identifying as an atheist, his relative silence on the race issues roiling cities and college campuses, and his own critiques of the way Harris—on his podcast and in his books—communicates to the public. “I’m a slow learner,” said Harris. “I think I’m getting better.”




Brian Gallagher is an assistant editor at Nautilus. Follow him on Twitter @brianscottg.


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