Neil deGrasse Tyson talks science standards


Neil deGrasse Tyson

As part of a rule passed in March, NSF requests must “promote national security or the economic interests of the United States” to receive funding. Meanwhile, a debate is raging over new science curriculum standards that encourage students to go beyond just memorizing facts to gain a deeper understanding of key topics like climate change, physical science, and evolution. Recently, I asked celebrated science champion, astrophysicist, and Director of the Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson about these and other topics.

Congress has been looking into science funding lately, with some legislators calling for greater oversight over how the money is spent. Does that concern you?

Yes, of course. Science should not be viewed as “Well, there’s one science we should fund and another we should fund less.” All of science matters, and it’s just a historical artifact that what was once called the study of natural philosophy later broke into multiple branches of academic study. Biology, chemistry, physics—they were all one if you go back several hundred years. They became separated for understandable reasons. People developed different methods and tools, and they could no longer speak to one another once a vocabulary of their fields rose up.

But, what we’re finding is that answering the really interesting questions about the universe requires a cross-pollination of disciplines that will take us to frontiers that could not have been imagined by any one field in particular. This is what gives us the fields of astrobiology, astroparticle physics, and cosmochemistry. It’s a “stitching together” of fields that previously were distinct and never spoke to one another.

What’s your reaction when one group or another tries to limit science funding?

We live in a capitalist democracy. I would never tell someone how they should vote or what they should think, but as an educator, I’d like you to know how to think about information. That’s important. When new information comes along, you’ll need to know how to put it together and how to take it apart.

And a concern that I have—I wouldn’t quite use the word fear, although some would—is that if we don’t fund the base of science—the kind of science that could never be funded by corporations because they require a return on investment on a quarterly or annual timetable—we will fall far behind the rest of the world.

The most fundamental discoveries of science have time horizons measured in decades not in years. If you don’t want to fund it, it’s your choice to vote that way, but understand the consequences.

What are the consequences?

The big one is that you are knocking out the kneecaps of the very foundation of the growth economy of the 21st century. Innovation in science and technology are the engines of economies. That would undermine our capitalist system that we’ve all bought into as American citizens. So I just offer you this consequence: It’s an “opportunity cost” as the economists would call it, the cost of inaction. As an educator and a scientist, it is my duty to alert you to the consequences of your decisions as they affect your future.

The recently released Next Generation Science Standards are causing a lot of debate in education circles. In a nation known for technological advances, why are we still arguing over the role of science in the curriculum?

Every several years the National Science Teachers Association, with other groups, comes out with a modified curriculum that reflects the emergent scientific concerns of the nation and the emergent scientific discoveries, so that part of it is not new. But this latest report is getting a little more play in the media, I think, because there are forces that have been trying to influence the science curriculum here in America, so that now you have another stage for conflict. And, of course, the media thrives on conflict. I understand that.

But conflict doesn’t help teach children.

No, but my concern is not so much what people learn, not so much what they’re taught, but how they think. How is your brain wired for thought? Is it wired for wonder and curiosity, or is it wired for just believing what someone tells you? That’s what concerns me most, because if you are wired for curiosity and skepticism and wonder, which are the three fundamental aspects of the mind of the scientist, then you would never have people saying, “Oh, I don’t believe in global warming.”

Science, at its best, is right, whether you believe in it or not. So it tells me that there has been a failure in the educational system, not simply about whether they taught you about global warming, but there is some failure in the attempt to convey to people what it is to think.

Look at how many exams are given where it is multiple choice or where they just want the right answer. And if you don’t get the right answer, it’s wrong. I’ll give you a simple, admittedly contrived example where it’s very clear: If you and I and another guy have a spelling test and we’re asked to spell ‘cat,’ you’ll spell it c-a-t and get a correct check on that one. But if I spell it k-a-t, they’ll say no, that’s wrong. And if the other guy spells it x-q-w, that gets marked wrong as well.

Meanwhile, I think my k-a-t is not as wrong as his x-q-w, but the exam result doesn’t reveal this. And, in fact, if you look up ‘cat’ in the dictionary, the phonetic spelling is k-a-t. So we’ve reached a point where we somehow care more about an answer rather than the act of solving a problem.

And it’s the problem-solving and the investigation of the natural world that the scientist does. Right now, 95 percent of scientists and the work they do shows that humans are responsible for the warming of the Earth. I don’t see people banding together saying, “I don’t believe in E=mc2!”

What’s next? Are people going to object to the law of gravity because it makes them heavy? I worry for the future of America.

You’ve suggested doubling NASA’s budget for space exploration from 0.5 percent to 1 percent. Will that really make a difference?

First, I don’t go around saying what I want to happen. They are always if-then statements. You shouldn’t do it because I’m telling you to do it; you do it because you understand the causes and effects of what NASA is and has been and, we hope, will continue to be.

We are falling behind in the world in our capacity to compete scientifically. We are a capitalist democracy. I know what can drive the economy in the 21st century, where innovations in science and technology are the engines of tomorrow’s economy.

So, here is NASA, this flywheel of innovation not only within itself and what it spawns, but also as a cultural flywheel. By that I mean that when you’re a kid, and NASA achieves something, all of a sudden, big, cool things to achieve become possible. They are something you think about doing when you are in school.

I’m old enough to remember a period when that actually happened. I remember thinking, “We’re going to the moon? Holy cow, we’re going to the moon! Wow! Oh, and we’ll need engineers and physicists and biologists and medical doctors and geologists.”

And suddenly the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math—became everybody’s goal to participate in this effort. Even if you weren’t a STEM professional—let’s say you wanted to go into law—you were thinking that maybe there could be some space law that would respond to your attention.

So, I said double NASA’s budget—whatever it is, double it. At the time it was half-a-penny on the dollar. That would take care of this and solve these challenges.

Last question—tell us one amazing fact about the universe.

There are zillions of fun facts about the universe, but perhaps the best one is that we still don’t know what dark matter and dark energy are, and together they comprise about 96 percent of all that drives the universe. So, everything we know and love and care about is just 4 percent of the cosmos.

For some people that is daunting, even scary, but I am completely excited by that. It is a profound statement of the depth of our ignorance; in spite of the fact that we celebrate the height of our successes.


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