In an exclusive interview with Salon, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson talked about his role as a scientist, how the media presents scientific breakthroughs, and about how climate change will have to get worse before citizens force their elected representatives to do anything about it.
Tyson explained that he doesn’t see himself as an advocate, but as an educator whose job it is to present "emergent scientific consensus," in the hope that the public and policy makers will 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," Tyson explained. " 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."
Tyson notes that during the Cold War, physicists actively advocated for specific policies because those policies were directly related to their work in developing nuclear weapons. When it comes to climate change, he would like to see more climate scientists take the lead instead of an astrophysicist like himself just because he's famous.
"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 said.
Even with that, he warned that the media often gets "emergent science" wrong, because they’re eager for scientific breakthrough stories that haven’t withstood the test of time.
"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?," Tyson explained "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, who once said, “people, if they begin to lose their wealth, they change their mind real fast, I’ve found — particularly in a capitalist culture,” expanded upon his role as somewhat unwilling spokesman over the dangers of climate change, saying there must be drastic change or things have to get progressively worse before people take action, citing 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 that the same rush to catch up to changing realities may 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.' "
Tyson concluded that we need what he calls "rampant curiosity," meaning people who are like children; curious about all things that surround them.
"If all people were curious, that would just solve everything, I think. Almost everything. It’ll solve so much of what today we identify as problems that need separate solutions."