Neil deGrasse Tyson: Science, Abraham Lincoln, Immigrants, and the Fading of America

In 2017, science is a political tennis ball being served hard and fast. It’s a buffet from which people on the left and right cherry pick their information. It’s something to be believed in or doubted. Is Neil deGrasse Tyson worried? “Everyone should be concerned by this, not just a scientist,” he says. The reality is, even if science research organizations have their budgets cut, and even if science loses its credibility, scientists will continue to do exactly what they’re doing—it just won’t be in the US. From jobs and innovation, to immigrants and global clout, Tyson expresses how an America without science will fade away. Science is not a partisan issue; it informs politics, not the other way around. So how can the US hold onto its long tradition as a scientific and economic leader? Tyson’s solution is better education, and he pitches one class all schools should teach, but don’t yet have. Tyson’s new book is Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.

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I have to chuckle a little bit when I’m approached by anybody, but in particular journalists, and say, “Are scientist worried that the public is in denial of science or is cherry-picking it?” And I chuckle not because it’s funny but because they’re coming to me as a scientist when they should be going to everyone. Everyone should be concerned by this, not just scientists. In fact, scientists will just continue as they’re doing. You might withdraw funding, but then there isn’t any science done—okay.

You are transforming your civilization if you choose to either stand in denial of science or withdraw science funding from those who are actually doing the research. Everything we care deeply about that defines modern civilization pivots on innovations in science, technology, engineering and the math that is the foundational language for it all. Everything: transportation, your health, your communication through smart phones that talk to GPS satellites to find out where Grandma is. To make a left turn to find her address or the nearest Starbucks. Whatever is your need, whatever is your want, the emergent innovations in science and technology are not only enabling it, they are creating for you solutions to challenges you always lived with but never thought that they could be solved.

The message is clear: if you do not understand what science is and how and why it works—by the way, I’m not even blaming you. I look back as an educator, I look back to K through 12, kindergarten through 12th grade, and I say there’s something missing there. If you, as an educated adult, can say, “This is what these scientists agree to, but I don’t agree with them.” If that sentence even comes out of your mouth it’s like: oh my gosh.

Okay, well, we live in a free country, you can say and think what you want. I’m not even going to stop you. But if you rise to power and have influence over legislation and that legislation references what you think science is but is not, that is a recipe for the unraveling of an informed democracy. So I’m not even going to blame you. It’s not your fault. I’m an educator. Let’s go back to K through 12.

Somewhere in there while you’re learning about reading, writing, and arithmetic and while you have a class in earth science and biology and chemistry, maybe physics, somewhere in there there needs to be a class, possibly taught every year, on what it is to analyze knowledge, information, how to process facts, how to turn data into information and information into knowledge and how to turn knowledge into wisdom.

Because it is wisdom that you need to invoke when you’re a leader. You need insight into not only what is going on but what will then happen in the future as a consequence of your decisions.

You know who had all of that? Abraham Lincoln. We remember him for the Civil War and slavery, two top categories that he’s justifiably remembered for. You know why I also remember him? In 1863, you know what he did? By the way, that year he had plenty of other things, many other priorities in his life. 1863: middle of the Civil War, Gettysburg Address. That same year, he signed into law the National Academy of Sciences who were charged with advising the executive and the legislative branch of all the ways that science needs to be recognized as a fundamental part of what will assure the future health, wealth, and security of the nation.

By the way, Abe Lincoln was a Republican president, greatly valuing what science is going to tell him. This puts into motion a valuation of academic science that would boost the United States from a backwoods country into the world’s leading economic force. And he had the wisdom, the insight, the knowledge. He knew how to think about that problem.



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