Dr Neil DeGrasse Tyson's Stern Warning For Australia's Scientific Community

What do you ask one of the smartest people alive in 7 minutes? That’s what I had to decide last week when I interviewed Dr Neil DeGrasse Tyson: astrophysicist, TV host and one of the only people on Earth who can claim ownership of a whole planetarium. In the amount of time it took the Curiosity Rover to land on Mars, Dr Neil DeGrasse Tyson slammed Australia’s scientific ignorance, and told me what keeps him up at night.

For what it’s worth, what keeps him up at night is now causing me to lose sleep. But let’s backtrack. Who is Neil DeGrasse Tyson?

If you’re a space geek, you already know Dr Tyson’s significant credentials: host of the StarTalk Radio podcast, director at the Hayden Planetarium, host of FOX’s Cosmos, astrophysicist, researcher and the internet’s favourite science-‘splainer.

With countless honours to his name and a list of published work as long as your arm, Dr Tyson is coming to Australia for “an evening with” event thanks to Think Inc.

Before he gets here, however, Dr Tyson has strong words for Australia’s politicians, many of whom support pulling vital funds out of research.

We caught up with one of the best brains in the world before his talks next month to get his take on science in relation to government, and what keeps him up at night.

Giz AU:

I don’t know how familiar you are with Australia specifically, but our peak science body, the CSIRO, which does a lot of great research, is currently losing a great deal of funding, and I wondered if you had any advice for governments who devalue the importance of science?

Neil DeGrasse Tyson:

I have a little bit of awareness of what’s going on there [in relation to scientific funding cuts]. Some of that is mirrored here in the United States where there there are political forces operating that either devalue science or assert that the statements of science are just not true, simply because they conflict with the philosophy of the politics or religion or of the culture.

This is a peculiar state for a nation to be in, in an era where innovations in science and technology will form the engines of tomorrow’s economy. So what I’ve said is that in a free country, people can believe what they want, and I value freedom of thought and speech, but here’s the problem: if your expression of your freedom of thought and speech includes the denial of objectively true findings of science, and you want to resist that, what you are effectively doing is bankrupting the future economic state of your country. The growth industries of this era will come from science and technology.

In fact, it’s been doing that since the industrial revolution. People need to know what the causes and effects are of the thoughts and of their actions. As an educator, I find it incumbent upon me to highlight what will happen if they take the science out of the schools, or if they reject studies that have been conducted, or if they drop the budgets for the science research that’s going on. I just tell them: ‘here’s what will happen’ and ‘here’s why’. If people have some minimum level of intelligence and foresight for the health of the country, they should heed this advice, otherwise they we all go over the waterfall together.

Giz AU:

You mention going over the waterfall and what happens to the economy if we reject scientific discoveries and defund these vital research programs. What do you think of leaders who reject things like climate change science? Do you think there are similar economic consequences for climate change denial as well?

Neil DeGrasse Tyson:

So, with regard to climate change denial, here in the US there are two parties. The party that typically makes and votes and acts conservatively tends to be the one more resistant to statements about climate change. Here’s my concern: if you are in denial of an established scientific truth and you’re a politician, that means you aren’t at the table to talk about ideas of what to do in the face of that truth.

Maybe you want carbon credits or maybe you want to regulate or deregulate. There are actual political solutions to real scientific challenges, and if you’re spending your time denying the science, then you’re losing time that could be crucial to you if you want to implement a political reaction to that objectively established science.

People are confusing what the politics should be. And I find that disturbing actually. In nations where people are educated and there are leaders that are supposed to be taking the country into the future and to do so intelligently and wisely, they should be talking about what to do given that there is human induced climate change.

Giz AU:

Do you have a concern at the moment that we’ve become short-sighted in regards to scientific discovery?

Neil DeGrasse Tyson:

Yeah! I think — by the way, there’s no one person to blame for this [short-sightedness]. Western Culture has created a society where what drives the economy are profit margins of corporations, and they have quarterly reports, annual reports, so their investment horizon for the future isn’t much more than a year or two.

I don’t know the terms in the Australian Parliament, but members 435 Congress have to get re-elected every two years. The economics and the politics do not blend well with long term thinking: 10 year, 20 year, 50 year thinking.

At some point, somebody in the government has to be thinking on those terms. If not, you’re just going to be a cat chasing a laser pointer on the ground. We chase wherever it is instead of stepping back and realising that it’s just a laser and I’m not touching it! Let me map my own path to where I’m heading.

Giz AU:

What do we need to do to get more people interested in science and where we’re going next as a species?

Neil DeGrasse Tyson:

I don’t have a silver bullet there. I can tell you that there’s a lot of attention being given o getting kids interested in science, and that’s certainly noble to do, but I have a slightly contrarian view where, seeing as how adults vastly outnumber children, particularly in the West, and seeing as how adults run things, the most combustable mixture of power and ignorance would be adults in charge of politics who do not know or understand the science that influences that very politics.

It seems to me we should put some kind of extra emphasis on adults, because once adults understand the importance, value and meaning of science, then the rest you get for free! They’ll fix the curricula and they will pass the legislation that matters to all of this. I don’t have the silver bullet, but I know that’s gotta be the goal.

Giz AU:

So with all the problems of the future staring us in the face with science denial, climate change and a broken curriculum for teaching science to kids, what’s something that’s keeping you up at night?

At this point, my heart broke into tiny pieces as our phone cut out, but Dr Tyson was good enough to call back to answer it.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson:

My apologies for that! You asked a great question as to what keeps me awake at night. There are a bunch of things. One stays awake because of fear, one stays awake because it’s intellectually stimulating, you can stay awake because you wonder what the answer is, but let me pick the one that has me distracted by my ignorance at the answer.

That would be: would intelligent aliens that we encounter judge us to be intelligent? I lay awake at night wondering that. We come up with our own definitions of what’s intelligent! We come up with the tests! But would an alien intelligence so far beyond us see that we to they are like worms to us? That keeps me awake at night.

Get tickets to hear more smart Neil DeGrasse Tyson words at Think Inc.

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