Science: The Rise (and Fall?) of America

Astrophysicist and Science Educator

In 2017, science is a political tennis ball being served hard and fast. It's a buffet from which people on the left and right cherry pick their information. It's something to be believed in or doubted. Is Neil deGrasse Tyson worried? "Everyone should be concerned by this, not just a scientist," he says. The reality is, even if science research organizations have their budgets cut, and even if science loses its credibility, scientists will continue to do exactly what they're doing—it just won't be in the US. From jobs and innovation, to immigrants and global clout, Tyson expresses how an America without science will fade away. Science is not a partisan issue; it informs politics, not the other way around. So how can the US hold onto its long tradition as a scientific and economic leader? Tyson's solution is better education, and he pitches one class all schools should teach, but don't yet have. Tyson's new book is Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.

  • Transcript


Neil deGrasse Tyson: I have to chuckle a little bit when I'm approached by anybody, but in particular journalists, and say, “Are scientist worried that the public is in denial of science or is cherry-picking it?” And I chuckle not because it's funny but because they're coming to me as a scientist when they should be going to everyone. Everyone should be concerned by this, not just scientists. In fact, scientists will just continue as they're doing. You might withdraw funding, but then there isn't any science done—okay.

You are transforming your civilization if you choose to either stand in denial of science or withdraw science funding from those who are actually doing the research. Everything we care deeply about that defines modern civilization pivots on innovations in science, technology, engineering and the math that is the foundational language for it all. Everything: transportation, your health, your communication through smart phones that talk to GPS satellites to find out where Grandma is. To make a left turn to find her address or the nearest Starbucks. Whatever is your need, whatever is your want, the emergent innovations in science and technology are not only enabling it, they are creating for you solutions to challenges you always lived with but never thought that they could be solved.

The message is clear: if you do not understand what science is and how and why it works—by the way, I'm not even blaming you. I look back as an educator, I look back to K through 12, kindergarten through 12th grade, and I say there's something missing there. If you, as an educated adult, can say, "This is what these scientists agree to, but I don't agree with them." If that sentence even comes out of your mouth it's like: oh my gosh.

Okay, well, we live in a free country, you can say and think what you want. I'm not even going to stop you. But if you rise to power and have influence over legislation and that legislation references what you think science is but is not, that is a recipe for the unraveling of an informed democracy. So I'm not even going to blame you. It's not your fault. I'm an educator. Let's go back to K through 12.

Somewhere in there while you're learning about reading, writing, and arithmetic and while you have a class in earth science and biology and chemistry, maybe physics, somewhere in there there needs to be a class, possibly taught every year, on what it is to analyze knowledge, information, how to process facts, how to turn data into information and information into knowledge and how to turn knowledge into wisdom.

Because it is wisdom that you need to invoke when you're a leader. You need insight into not only what is going on but what will then happen in the future as a consequence of your decisions.

You know who had all of that? Abraham Lincoln. We remember him for the Civil War and slavery, two top categories that he's justifiably remembered for. You know why I also remember him? In 1863, you know what he did? By the way, that year he had plenty of other things, many other priorities in his life. 1863: middle of the Civil War, Gettysburg Address. That same year, he signed into law the National Academy of Sciences who were charged with advising the executive and the legislative branch of all the ways that science needs to be recognized as a fundamental part of what will assure the future health, wealth, and security of the nation.

By the way, Abe Lincoln was a Republican president, greatly valuing what science is going to tell him. This puts into motion a valuation of academic science that would boost the United States from a backwoods country into the world's leading economic force. And he had the wisdom, the insight, the knowledge. He knew how to think about that problem.

Today you have partisanship over what is science? Again, people somehow don't understand what science is and how and why it works. That has to be a course in the curriculum K through 12, right through college, because everyone in Congress went to college. And so if you come out of college and don't know this, we need some of that in college as well.

Now the partisanship: you hear liberals claiming the science high ground, accusing right-leaning people of science denial, generally in reference to climate change data and, as well but less frequently, teaching evolution in the biology classroom. People want to teach biblical creation. So this high ground is not as high a ground as the liberal community would want to claim, because there is a portfolio of things that for you to think that way will require that you reject some mainstream science. And in that portfolio you find people who lean left.

If you are all-in for alternative medicine, and if you're anti-GMO, if you're anti-vax, you are in denial of mainstream science—period.

So we have these two political ends of the spectrum each accusing the other of whatever, and I'm saying science has no political party.

It is true—when you establish an objective truth with the methods and tools of science, it is true no matter what political party you are, what your philosophies are, what religion you belong to, what country you're born in. That's why it's science. It may be unique among human enterprises that it transcends all of this.

Now what we need to do is recognize what science is, how and why it works and what are the objectively established scientific truths, then have the political conversation. Do you put in carbon tax or tariffs on solar panels? Should you invest in this industry? Should you subsidize it? Those have political solutions. My jaw drops open every time I see people having a political conversation, arguing about a scientific truth. We're wasting time, people. Because nature is the ultimate judge, jury, and executioner, and the whole point of science is to find out what nature is, how it works, how we can best use our knowledge of nature in the service of our needs, and the needs of others across the world.

So if this keeps up the United States will just fade, and the rest of the world that understands how to invoke scientific insight and knowledge will rise up, and we will just become irrelevant on the world stage. By the way, when you innovate your jobs don't go overseas because you are innovating here and this is where the intellectual capital for that is located. That's how that works. If you're going to complain about trade imbalances it's because you're doing what everybody else is doing and now you want to protect your jobs by putting tariffs on other people so that we can buy our own products. But if you innovate you are making products that no one else knows how to make yet. So the whole concept of tariffs, that's what you do when you're not leading. You have those conversations when you're the same as everybody and then you go into a protectionist mode.

And one last point, about immigrants: on average since 1900 about one in ten Americans was born in another country, so ten percent immigrants, average. It's fluctuated from like five percent to 14 percent, but since 1900 it averages about one in ten. The Nobel Prizes have been given since 1900. Let's ask the question: what percent of American Nobel Prizes in the sciences were won by immigrants? One third of all Nobel Prizes given to Americans since Nobel Prizes began have gone to immigrants. They are a factor of three more represented in scientific scholarship, as represented by the Nobel Prize, than they are even in the population.

How does this happen? We were leading the world in science, technology, engineering and math, so the most brilliant minds around the world were attracted to us, contributing to who and what America became. As we begin to fade, that all goes away. The brilliant minds are attracted elsewhere and America fades. It's not a cliff face, it's just a slope. Maybe so gradual you're not even thinking about it, and one day we wake up and we start running behind other countries saying, "Can we join in? Tell us how you did it." That's actually not the America I grew up in.