Arranging an interview with the well-known astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson was not a particularly easy task. After about a month of emails back and forth between me and the good doctor’s various people, a time was arranged and on Nov. 22 I found myself on the phone with him, from his office at the Hayden Planetarium in New York. “Tyson here,” he said, and we were off for about 38 minutes–mostly him speaking and me listening, as it should be. I consider this one of the most interesting interviews I’ve ever done; although I enjoy my usual beat of interviewing touring comedians and musicians, the chat with Dr. Tyson was a very welcome departure. (The full, minimally edited Q&A, which runs to a bit over 5,000 words, is now available here.)
Deftly demonstrating how he applies the scientific method in daily life, Tyson gently corrected me a few times when he questioned the premise behind a couple of my questions. For example, Carl Sagan was neither a mentor nor a close friend of his; the two men only met four or five times, though Tyson clearly has great respect for Sagan as a scientist and a person. And as a web-only extra of sorts, here’s an excerpt from our conversation that illustrates his thought process rather nicely. [And by way of a timely tie-in: on Feb. 14, 2014, the National Science Foundation released the results of a study of 2,200 people conducted in 2012 in which approximately one out of four stated that the Sun revolves around the Earth; the results were widely reported in the media, including time.com. This was not the first poll to make a statement like this. Tyson explains why, although the state of science education in the US could definitely stand some improvement, you shouldn’t believe this particular result, because the question was being asked in totally the wrong way. The moral being, don’t believe everything you read, because there’s journalism, and then there’s science.]
Q: A well-known Gallup poll in July of 1999, that I’m sure you know of, stated that 18 percent of Americans thought the Sun revolves around the Earth. (Sixteen percent of Germans believed the same thing, and 19 percent of the British.) Do you think the general public’s knowledge of space has increased or decreased in the past 15 years, with the religious right and creationism and so forth?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: I’m not convinced that the people who said the Earth goes around the sun, that they fully understood the question as posed. I’ll give you an example— I was told this, I didn’t re-verify it, but it’s intriguing nonetheless—that in one of the U.S. Census forms, it might have been 1990, it asked, in terms of where you’re from, it said, what is your ancestry: is it from Europe, is it from Africa, Asia, Central America, South America? And there was a huge number of people who checked Central America who lived in Kansas, because that’s the center of America, right? [Laughs] So the way you word something can influence whether someone understands what your intent is in asking that question, or not. And just because you get an answer that’s one way, doesn’t mean you asked the right question to probe what it is you need to know about your audience.
So if you sit here, we still say “The sun rises, the sun sets.” It’s in our vocabulary. And so, to say “Does the sun go around the earth,” yeah—it rises, and it sets. But if you said “In space, what would you see?”, I don’t think any of them would say that the sun went around the earth. It depends on how you ask the question.
And so, I don’t believe those statistics. I saw them; I just don’t believe them. I think there’s a flaw in the connection between the intent of the question and the wiring of the mind of the person who answered it.
That’s a very scientific way to look at it.
No! If you say “‘Draw the solar system,” I don’t think they’re going to draw the sun going around the earth. They’re going to put the sun in the middle. You know they’re going to do this, right? And so, I don’t believe that. But your greater question is still an important one. The science illiteracy that is rampant is real; I just wouldn’t cite “the sun going around the earth” as the best example of it. It’s real, and it’s a problem. But I think there’s more access to science than ever before.
Here, then, is the article as published in the Insight section of the Austin American-Statesman newspaper on Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013.
Although Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s official title is director of the Hayden Planetarium at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, his place in our popular culture sits closer to that of Ambassador of the Known Universe to the United States. An articulate, unpretentious educator who understands how to translate arcane scientific concepts into explanations the public can and does lap up, Tyson is the best-known living astrophysicist in America — which is to say, the only one the average person would have a chance of naming at all.
To run down why: There’s Tyson’s established status as the go-to guy for explaining cosmic phenomena on TV news broadcasts, his stack of best-selling books, his own radio talk show-podcast StarTalk (startalkradio.net), his key role in demoting Pluto to dwarf-planet status in 2006 (Tyson’s advice to Plutophiles: “Get over it”), his assorted witty asides to his 1.5 million Twitter followers, and/or his frequent talk-show appearances schooling the likes of Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart on everything from the nature of black holes to the importance of funding NASA, not to mention a cameo a few years ago on “The Big Bang Theory.” Lately, Tyson’s visibility to the naked eye seems to be, pun intended, nearly universal.