“Science is a way of equipping yourself with the tools to interpret what happens in front of you.”
“People,”lamented Richard Feynman in 1964, “I mean the average person, the great majority of people, the enormous majority of people — are woefully, pitifully, absolutely ignorant of the science of the world that they live in.” In the half-century since, we’ve sequenced the human genome, put a man on the moon and rovers on Mars, confirmed the existence of the Higgs “God particle” boson, and achieved innumerable scientific miracles, small and large, that enhance our daily lives in fundamental ways. And yet, bad science spreads, good science journalism is fighting an uphill battle against media reductionism and distortion, and the general public remains as just as woefully and pitifully distrustful of or, worse yet, unconcerned with science as in the Feynman days.
In this fantastic conversation with Stephen Colbert, Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson — passionate crusader for space exploration, eloquent champion of the whimsy of the cosmos, modern-day Richard “Great Explainer” Feynman — brings his characteristic blend of sharp insight, quick wit, and unapologetic opinion to the issue of scientific literacy and how it relates to everything from education to government spending to morality.
Highlights below, though the entire hour-long conversation — including the most brilliant and hilarious James Cameron Titanic critique you’ll ever hear — is more than worth the time.
On the ethics of discovery vs. the broader morality of application:
We are collectively part of a society that is using or not using, to its benefit or its detriment, the discoveries of science. And at the end of the day, a discovery itself is not moral — it’s our application of it that has to pass that test.
On the misunderstanding of science:
[Science] is distrusted not because of what it can do, but because people don’t understand how it does what it can do — and that absence of understanding, or misunderstanding, of the power of science is what makes people afraid. … Just because you don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it’s bad for you — go figure out how it works! That’s why we need a scientifically literate electorate — so that when you go to the polls, you can make an informed judgment and you can draw your own conclusions rather than tune into a particular TV station to have your conclusions handed to you.
On the poetry of astrophysics:
Some of the greatest poetry is revealing in the reader the beauty of something that is so simple you had taken it for granted. That, I think, is the job of the poet. The simplicity of the universe, if it doesn’t drive you to poetry it drives you to bask in the majesty of the cosmos.
Our academic system rewards people who know a lot of stuff and, generally, we call those people ‘smart.’ But at the end of the day, who do you want: The person who can figure stuff out that they’ve never seen before, or the person who can rabble off a bunch of facts?
[Science] is a way of equipping yourself with the tools to interpret what happens in front of you.
On our broken yardsticks for assessing the value of scientific research:
Today, you hear people say, ‘Why are we spending money up there when we’ve got problems on Earth?’ And people don’t connect the time-delay between the frontier of scientific research and how it’s going to transform your life later down the line. All they want is a quarterly report that shows the part that comes out of it — that is so short-sighted that it’s the beginning of the end of your culture.
He goes on to point out that people grossly misperceive how much is actually being spent “up there,” assuming anywhere between 10 and 15% of taxpayer money, whereas the real number is a mere 6/10 of a penny on the tax dollar, or 0.6%. The solution:
The greatest need is to be able to have the foresight necessary to make investments on the frontier of science even if, at the time you make those investments, you cannot figure out how that might make you rich tomorrow.
“Under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.”
“Men, it has been well said, think in herds, wrote Scottish journalist Charles Mackay in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, his satirical 1841 history of mass manias and popular folly. “It will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”
In this episode from PBS’s NOVA ScienceNOW video podcast series, Neil deGrasse Tyson tells the story of British polymath Francis Galton, who in 1906 set out to confirm Mackay’s contention but found, instead, the opposite: That crowds can have astonishing collective intelligence that far supersedes the cognitive capacity of individuals.
In The Wisdom of Crowds (public library), whose title plays on Mackay’s book, James Surowiecki examines Galton’s insight more closely to demonstrate how, under the right circumstances, groups — from game-show audiences to multibillion-dollar corporations — “are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.” He recounts Galton’s experiment and its connotation for democracy. (Ironically, Surowiecki wrote this years before the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and Anonymous.)
One day in the fall of 1906, the British scientist Francis Galton headed for the country fair.
As he walked through the exhibition that day, Galton came across a weight-judging competition. A fat ox had been selected and members of a gathering crowd were lining up to place wagers on the (slaughtered and dressed) weight of the ox.
Eight hundred people tried their luck. They were a diverse lot. Many of them were butchers and farmers, but there were also quite a few who had no insider knowledge of cattle. ‘Many non-experts competed,’ Galton wrote later in the scientific journal Nature, ‘like those clerks and others who have no expert knowledge of horse, but who bet on races, guided by newspapers, friends, and their own fancies.’ The analogy to a democracy, in which people of radically different abilities and interests each get one vote, had suggested itself to Galton immediately. ‘The average competitor was probably as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of the ox, as an average voter is of judging the merits of most political issues on which he votes,’ he wrote.
Galton was interested in figuring out what the ‘average voter’ was capable of because he wanted to prove that the average voter was capable of very little. So he turned the competition into an impromptu experiment. When the contest was over and the prizes had been awarded, Galton borrowed the tickets from the organizers and ran a series of statistical tests on them, including the mean of the group’s guesses.
Galton undoubtedly thought that the average guess of the group would be way off the mark. After all, mix a few very smart people with some mediocre people and a lot of dumb people, and it seems like you’d end up with a dumb answer. But Galton was wrong — the crowd guessed 1,197 pounds; after it had been slaughtered and dressed the ox weighed 1,198 pounds. In other words, the crowd’s judgment was essentially perfect…. Galton wrote later: ‘The result seems more creditable to the trustworthiness of a democratic judgment than might have been expected.’ That was, to say the least, an understatement.
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