When you interview astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, you don’t need a long list of questions.
During our chat last week about his upcoming appearance at the Florida Theatre, for instance, I asked him just one, about his thoughts on climate change, and he opined for a good 10 minutes. Here, verbatim, is what he had to say:
“I’m not a climate change expert, but I will comment on the relationship between the relationship of people as citizens in a democracy and things they should know about, so they can be informed as citizens in a democracy.
“One of the things that I think is missing in the educational pipeline in America is training, a class if, you will — you wouldn’t need this every year, but every couple of years — a class on what science is and how and why it works.
“The science classes we take are topic-driven, as you’d expect — here’s your chemistry class, here’s your biology class, maybe there’s physics and earth science, and there’s a book and they give you a test on what’s in the book, then you move on, as though this is just another topic like history or English literature.
“The difference is that science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. It is a wiring of the brain that empowers you to probe whether something is real or not in this world. If you do not have the power to judge that, to judge what is true and what is not true, then you might think that science is just one way of knowing things and, hey, here’s this other way of knowing things and there’s no difference between the two, and I choose to believe this and not that.
“You don’t have that option.
“You can have your own personal truth. What might a personal truth be? A personal truth might be that Jesus is your savior. In a free society, no one can, will or should take that away from you. You can stick with that to any extreme you want, provided you don’t subtract from the freedoms of someone else.
“The difference now is, if someone else has a personal truth that says Muhammed is the last prophet and no prophets will come after him, you’re going to have a hard time convincing that person that Jesus is the one and only true savior. It might even be impossible to do so without threat of violence, which is how some of the most horrific religious wars have unfolded over the last two millennia.
“But again, we’re in a free country, so you practice whatever you want. But if you now run for office and it’s time to enact legislation or a law, it seems to me you should base that on what is objectively true rather than on a personal truth that you’ve carried in. When you pass a law, that applies to everyone. And in a pluralistic country, where people not only have but are encouraged to have diversity of view and religion and skin colors and sexual preference and all of these freedoms, then if you bring your personal truth onto the level of legislative truth, then that is the beginning of the end of a free democracy, because you will then be constraining the freedoms of people who are different from you, and it is no longer a celebration of those differences, it ends up being a force that constricts it.
“We now have people where the facts of climate change conflict with their political worldview. It’s really a cultural worldview that manifests in politics. Your cultural worldview is ‘I don’t want to lose my coal job,’ ‘ I’m heavily invested in oil companies’ ‘I like oil and I don’t care that it pollutes.’
So that is your cultural standpoint and that standpoint resonates with certain industries and if you are a politician who wants to favor those industries you’ll come out and say that ‘global warming is not anything that I care about if it going to constrict these cultural and political plans that I have.’
“Now, if we had all been trained to know what science is and how and why it works, none of them would say ‘I choose not to believe this.’ They instead would say ‘OK, I hear you, I just don’t care.’ That would at least be honest. ‘I don’t care. I care more about these short-term gains, knowing that the long-term solution will have to be different.’
“That at least would be honest. Then that would be a political debate that you’d be having. You’d argue on political and cultural terms. But to have people today arguing the science of something that the consensus of measurement and observation has established, it is an abomination of the education system, that you can have an adult who thinks that they can cherry-pick science and align themselves with science that is not from the mainstream results that people are getting, and then base legislation on it.
“Again, it’s a free country. Believe what you want. Cherry-pick what you want. But if you are going to rise to power and base legislation on it, that’s irresponsible. It’s a combination of irresponsible and economically dangerous in the long run. You are sowing the seeds of the collapse of our economy going forward.”
Tyson, who is host of the “Star Talk” television and radio series, a best-selling author and head of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, said he’s not an advocate of anything, but views himself as a servant of the public’s appetite for science.
“If you look really closely at what I do, everything I say is an ‘if-then’ statement. If you do not support innovations in science and technology, then the United States will trail the world in health, wealth and security. I’m not telling you anything; I’m giving you the consequences of your actions or, if necessary, the consequences of your inactions, and then I walk away and go home.
“It’s a free country. If you want to vote for people who don’t care about this, that’s your freedom. But if you want to be informed about your vote, here’s some information that will help you.”