While giving an exclusive interview with Salon, the astrophysicist talked about his role as a scientist, how the media presents scientific breakthroughs, and how climate change will have to get worse before people start forcing their elected representatives to do anything.
While not seeing himself as an advocate, Tyson explained that his job as an educator is to present “emergent scientific consensus” in the hope that the public and policymakers use it to make informed decisions.
“I’m just trying to get people as fully informed as they can be so that they can make the most informed decisions they can based on their own principles or philosophies or mission statement. What concerns me is that I see people making decisions, particularly decisions that might affect policy or governance, that are partly informed, or misinformed, or under-informed.”
He noted that during the Cold War, physicists actively advocated for specific policies, since those policies were directly related to their work developing nuclear weapons. On the issue of climate change, Tyson said, he’d like see more climate scientists take the lead, instead of an astrophysicist like himself:
I’m an astrophysicist. But there are people who are climate scientists. I think more climate scientists should step up to the plate and serve that same corresponding role that the physicists played during the Cold War, and if they want, to empower lawmakers and the citizenry to make informed decisions about the future of the country.
He also warned that the media often gets “emergent science” wrong, since they’re eager for scientific breakthroughs that haven’t withstood the test of time. I would also add that most people in the media have no idea how science works, so they have a difficult time reporting on it.
In an era where sensationalist headlines draw in the clicks, “Material X found to increase cancer risk in population tested by 45%,” will draw less attention than “Scientists find Material X causes cancer!”
On the frontier of science, stuff is wrong all the time. I mean, if I have an experiment — what typically happens is, if it’s an interesting result that nobody expected, the press will come, and then they’ll write about it and maybe my host institution will send out a press release which will feed this… state. And the press will say “New results: scientists say…” and then they say cholesterol is good for you. And then a few weeks later, cholesterol is bad for you. And the public is wondering, what the hell is going on? Do scientists even know what they’re doing? How come they don’t agree? Well, on the frontier, we don’t agree. That’s what the frontier means. That’s why there is a frontier; that’s the whole point of the frontier. If we all agreed on it, it would just be in the textbooks and we’d move on.”
Tyson also expanded on his role as a somewhat unwilling spokesman for the dangers of climate change, noting that we need to make dramatic changes before it’s too late. As an example, he cited America’s reluctance to engage in space exploration until Russia launched Sputnik in 1957.
“– so there was Sputnik, launched in 1957, flying over the United States. A Soviet piece of hardware, launched on a vessel that would otherwise be used to carry intercontinental ballistic missiles. We freaked out. All of our pistons became aligned, and within 12 years of Sputnik going up, we are walking on the moon.”
Tyson believes the same logic will ultimately apply to climate change:
So I think maybe we have to sink lower before the pistons of Congress and the electorate align to take meaningful action, to protect the planet going forward. And this idea about being too late, well that’s defeatist of course. That’s saying, ‘Well, okay, we don’t know what to do so therefore let’s do nothing.’
He concludes by saying we need what he calls “rampant curiosity,” or people who share the curiosity of children.
We already have people who embody all the negative aspects of toddlers in power, so I suppose asking for people who embody the positive aspects can’t be that much of a stretch.