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Neil deGrasse Tyson In Cleveland

We have arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”
–Carl Sagan

Your wish is my command, dear readers. You asked for a post on seeing Neil Tyson speak and you get it.

For those of you who don’t know Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson (shame on you), he is an astronomer, director of New York City’s Hayden Planetarium, author and, most importantly, educator and champion of science literacy. Back in September, D and I attended one of his lectures at the beautiful Playhouse Square Theatre in downtown Cleveland.

Adventures in Science Literacy: A Cosmic Perspective was the title of the lecture. “Or adventures in science illiteracy,” as Tyson began the evening.

"Say it with me: Biiiilllllllliiiioooooonnnnns."

Who is a scientist?

Tyson describes this person as “one who is aware of the way things work, fluent in math and empowers ideas, behavior and survival.” As he said on Lab Out Loud:

The most important feature [of the science-literate] is an outlook that you bring with you in your daily walk through life. It’s a lens through which you look that affects how you see the world. And the science literacy that can be promoted along those lines shows up in a lot of ways …  So science literacy is not the know-it-all who’s fluent in science jargon; science literacy is the person who knows how to question the world around them, and en route to an answer that’s deeper than you would otherwise get.

While a well-educated scientist or science-literate is preferred, note that nowhere does this description say anything about the stereotypical haughty, liberal nerd in glasses, lab coat and ivory tower. But also note that Tyson and some other scientists in the media like him got here through their knowledge and willingness to impart that knowledge.

There was then a series of interesting tidbits including one on the visualization of the periodic table: by atomic number, by melting point, by nation of discovery and the fact that, even by the mid-1800s, half of the current table remained to be discovered. I remember momentarily entertaining some rather profound thoughts on science philosophy (more or less continuous through time) versus science methodology (discontinuous; dependent on available inventions of the time) and promptly losing them to the lecture. So it goes.

The rest of Tyson’s talk related to the impact of science illiteracy on formerly exceptional nations and societies. Ahem. Yes, he’s talking to us, America.

[A valid question at this point is whether America is indeed growing in the direction of science illiteracy and the accompanying decline of rational empire. Yes, on religious and secular fronts. A note on the latter, which Tyson doesn’t really get into here: While there are a lot more domestic and foreign scientists working in American academia, government and industry than at the height of the atomic age, I refer back to the Sagan quote at the beginning of this post and point out that there is a growing divide between those who understand and develop science and technology and those who don’t. And both sides aided this uncommunicative over-specialization – scientists were all “Back off, I’m a scientist” while laypeople said, “Get in the lab and prolong my now comfortable-consumer lifestyle.” The compartmentalization and commodification of science superposed a culture of science. With that, back to Tyson.]

“America is sliding into scientific insignificance because of religious dogma.”

We have always been a religious nation, but the attack on science by religious fundamentalists in the United States worries Tyson, and rightfully so, because it is taking its toll on our economic viability going forward. (According to the World Economic Forum, the US ranks 52 out of 139 nations in quality of university math and science instruction. In 2010.)

Tyson points to the Arab-Muslim world as a stark example of the impact of religious dogma (not religion itself, mind you) and where such prevailing thought has led the region: oppressive socio-economic conditions outside the super-oil-rich states, the mistreatment of women and active schools and terrorist cells of religious extremism in every country. All of this, according to Tyson, was the fault of one late-11th-early-12th-century philosopher named Ghazali who is reported to have single-handedly moved Islamic thought from the realms of theology and Aristotelian inquiry to faith and faith alone. Reading more about him, I am less inclined to look on Ghazali as the Augustine of Hippo of his time and vilify him alone for the decline of rational Islam. Also, hailing from a culture that created and practised rational knowledge systems that predate the west’s by, oh, a few millennia, I allow fully for many different means of and reasons for knowing. (Epistemology through the ages FTW.) However, underlying what can be termed science, be it western Aristotelian or eastern Vedic, is empiricism, i.e. observation, inquiry and measurement, and never faith in any dose.

Times of social, political and economic stability and growth are good for science and progress, which in turn create more years of stability and growth. Of course, this feedback loop has a tragically negative corollary. We tend to circle the wagons, get more conservative and view any change with suspicion in the face of real and perceived threats. So, it’s a pity that the invading Crusaders and Mongols turned the volume up on existing Muslim fundamentalists, which hasn’t let up to this day, given continuous instability in the region since the Middle Ages.

The greater pity is that Europe and the West would never have seen science as we know it had Arabs not translated Aristotle’s, Archimedes’s, Ptolemy’s, Euclid’s and countless other Greek scientists’ works and kept them alive in the Islamic Golden Age, as Tyson reminded us that night. Al Biruni, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Rushd (Averroes) – I remember reading about these men and buildings in Kuwait named after them. And it makes me sad.

“Katrina did not cause the disaster in New Orleans. Faulty levees did. What country do we live in?”

Just like that, Tyson connected it all back to America and bridged two of my worlds with those very words.

He prefaced this statement with something along the lines of not allowing ourselves to be spoonfed news and views, but instead that knowledge of science helps us develop our own ways to question the prevailing narrative and check if it makes sense. To borrow a similar sentiment from another of his lectures, “I don’t require that you understand the geological crystalline structure of quartz. What I would like you to have is a way for you to [ask and] answer questions about that.”

[Placeholder for some interesting stuff he said on American growth and decline that fell out of my head, but will jump right back in when I stop thinking about it.]

Naturally, some parents in the audience had the obvious question, “How do I get my kids interested in science?”

Tyson’s answer: “Get out of the way! And get out of the way as a minimum. As a maximum, further stimulate curiosity by surrounding kids with things that they can explore on their own.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson In Cleveland

As is the case with any speaker who wants to be invited back, Neil Tyson ended on a hopeful note. “Rational thought will prevail over superstitious thought.” He reminded us that “we have more scientific television programming than ever before” (note to self: put Big Bang Theory in Netflix queue) and that religion can work with science, an attempt at reconciliation that didn’t sit well with half the audience, but one that I understand having grown up in a very Hindu but very scientific family. Can we get to that place in America? I sure hope so. It’s that or certain collapse. Can modern America lend itself to such synthesis and movement? I don’t know.

What do you think? If you have or haven’t seen and listened to Tyson in person, I’d like to hear your comments.

1 comment… add one
  • Blair December 10, 2010, 7:14 PM

    I would like to have heard the lecture. One of the problems with the science/religion divide is a total lack of tolerance. Someone said “It is not necessary to react, but I may choose to respond”. In other words, listen, think, and then, if you have a contribution to make, speak.

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