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Neil deGrasse Tyson - Communicating Science
Posted: 28 February 2011 02:03 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Our guest this week needs little introduction—he may be our most famous public communicator of science.

He’s Neil DeGrasse Tyson, renowned American astrophysicist, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, and the host of PBS’s NOVA ScienceNow, which just completed a new six part season.

Tyson is also the author of 9 books, most recently Death By Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries, which was a New York Times bestseller, and The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet.

In this double length episode, Tyson discusses a wide range of topics: the just finished 2011 season of ScienceNow; how to restore a science “Zeitgeist” in our culture; Bill O’Reilly’s recent foot-in-mouth comments about how the world works; this million-view YouTube clip of Tyson and Richard Dawkins; and much more.

http://www.pointofinquiry.org/neil_degrasse_tyson_communicating_science/

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Posted: 28 February 2011 07:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Great interview!

As a dinosaur paleontologist for the State of Utah; I often justify being paid a salary by noting how Dinosaur Paleontology is the interest gateway to Natural History, just as the Manned Space Program is the interest gateway to Space Science and Technology.  Both endeavors are more than justified by this fact alone, everything else is gravy; wonderful delicious gravy.

I also, when lecturing in schools push the fact that a Dinosaur Paleontologist’s top activity is writing. Teachers love it. With me, its like pulling teeth as I’m pretty dyslexic, but I publish a lot as I’m pretty eclectic.

The older I get, the more I see the critical need to be unambiguous in discussing geological and biological observations, as no discussion can be fruitful without being on the same page (apples vs. oranges). To discuss science with scientifically illiterate or uneducated politicians and the general public is difficult and sometimes we have to resort to mutual self interest. It does work in the Red States.

I also have to agree atheism (like religion) is a matter of faith, not science.

Jim Kirkland

[ Edited: 28 February 2011 07:30 PM by paleojim ]
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Posted: 28 February 2011 09:05 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Great interview with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Chris. It was more off the cuff and relaxed than usual. As usual, he made a lot of excellent points.

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Posted: 28 February 2011 10:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Tyson is wrong that the scientific atheists don’t criticize their own believing brethren; they certainly do.  People like Collins have received extensive criticism and so has Miller.  And the idea that the atheists must unconvert all the believing scientists before speaking to the public about their own beliefs is absurd, the equivalent to STFU.  As for Tyson’s criticism of Dawkins, I agree with Dawkins’ response.  wink  It is quite presumptuous for Tyson to tell Dawkins how to communicate; Tyson is unlikely to ever match Dawkins’ influence.  Different people will be receptive to different pedagogies, so every player on the team is valuable.  Personally, I find Dawkins far more entertaining than Tyson, because I really don’t need anyone to tell me how wonderful science is.

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Posted: 01 March 2011 12:32 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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To echo points that Taylor makes, Dr Tyson is wrong in assuming skeptics avoid criticizing the irrational superstitions of their ‘brethren’: the Internet is replete with examples of such criticism. Entire websites exist for that purpose. More importantly, it is the irrational ideas themselves that are criticized, regardless of who is expounding them, be it a scientist or a layperson. Most often, in fact, whenever individuals are singled out prominently for criticism, they tend to be those with proportional influence or prestige in their respective areas (for example, Collins and Dembski, to name two prominent targets of such criticism). If Dr Tyson means to imply that criticism of ideas should be reserved for such a time as when ‘scientists’ reach a greater consensus in matters of superstition, then I must call baloney. A somewhat popular idea, with clearly social and biological underpinnings, when it clashes with reason, should be singled out as irrational; bad ideas should always face competition from good ideas, and as publicly as possible. Debate is good, and essential, and it does a service to the public - even the portion of the public which feels injury when a favorite notion is ridiculed. It’s the culture of extreme sensitivity to the criticism of ideas which really must be countered, otherwise we inure entire generations to feeling their ideas are privileged. It isn’t an either/or proposition: you can promote good science and expose faulty thinking both at the same time.

The other, but more minor, pickle I’d raise is with Dr Tyson’s (implied) characterization of what atheism entails. It’s true that labels, particularly labels with social/political significance, are very malleable and do change over time - so that, for example, ‘punk’ today means almost exactly opposite of what it meant in the late 1970s. But with certain labels, if we cherish consistency in language, it doesn’t have to be this way (even ‘punk’ might be rescued). It’s true that Thomas Huxley himself adopted the label ‘agnostic’ for almost the same purposes that Dr Tyson does: namely to somewhat distance himself from the social stigma of what was commonly perceived as the acerbic manner of atheists. Fair enough, if you’re satisfied with slogans. But how about semantics?

There’s a 2007 essay by the philosopher Richard Carrier, on his blog (google: Richard Carrier agnosticism), which poses this question in simple terms. If Dr Tyson is curious about the language aspects of the point he raised in the above interview, Dr Carrier’s argument should prove interesting, and ultimately convincing. In the modern age, if we value consistency and coherence in language, we will, as skeptics, discard the label ‘agnostic’, regardless of the social stigma associated with the other ‘A’ word. Every self-labelled ‘agnostic’ is positively atheistic (dismissive) with respect to some gods. And every atheist is necessarily agnostic (mere lack of belief) with respect to some gods. Overlap means they are not mutually exclusive.

It then boils down to how we decide our self-labels. Do we do it according to emotional reaction to a perceived stigma (which is intellectually dishonest), or according to a consistent and coherent description of terms (such as “atheism is lack of belief in gods”)?

Strictly speaking, we are already inherently agnostic if we are rational skeptics. It’s simply not worth mentioning it any more. There’s nowhere left to hide.

Note: it’s always a pleasure to hear Dr Tyson speak. And he’s almost never wrong. =]

[ Edited: 01 March 2011 12:35 AM by arugula ]
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Posted: 01 March 2011 08:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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It was hard to believe that the topic was “Communicating Science” when both Mooney and Tyson so studiously avoided talking about how it became possible for climate science denial to crystallize as a core belief of the Republican Party.  Senior figures in that party laugh at the possibility that there is anything credible coming from an entire discipline of science.  Some of their number are seeking even now for ways to legally persecute some of the best scientists in this field.  You tell me:  is this state of affairs an indicator of whether science communication has been successful that should have been completely avoided in this discussion?  I thought you had not mentioned this at all, until I listened a second time and noticed the few references. 

On another topic, i.e. Tyson’s proposal to restore a “science Zeitgeist” I found his arguments hard to follow.  We’re supposed to fund everything, because no one knows where the great science will come from exactly, which just avoids the question of what to fund.  Then he points to the very focussed burst of US government spending on space research after Russia launched Sputnik as something we should emulate now, i.e. don’t spend on everything but focus on some great big goal like that.  Then he tells us his favorite great big goals - lets go to Mars, lets search for alien life.  For God’s sake, let’s not mention that the home planet is going down the tubes.  NASA actually does climate research which could be beefed up.  A massive effort could be mounted to find ways for this size of a civilization to live within the limits set by the planetary system.  We could start by eliminating the massive perturbation to the carbon cycle now under way.  Perhaps Earth’s ability to support life might be conserved enough so our descendants would have somewhere to live other than Mars or wherever the alien life is found. 

The US spent on the Manhattan Project because it was feared that the Germans might suddenly come up with the Bomb themselves and the US would therefore have lost the war.  The US spent on the space program because Sputnik’s orbit went over parts of the US, and by then it was all too easy to imagine that Soviet nuclear weapons could be sent to the US that same way.  What great fear could we possibly have that might in any way be comparable now?  Earth might have its ability to support life seriously impaired by climate change?  Who cares?  No one would care about something piddly and inconsequential like that.  Tyson wants us to focus on going to Mars. 

Its unbelieveable.  In ancient Rome as the Huns closed in Tyson would be in the Senate arguing for a big new research program to build ships capable of finding the edge of the world, perhaps because it would be too politically controversial to mention the actual problem.

[ Edited: 01 March 2011 08:55 AM by David Lewis ]
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Posted: 01 March 2011 03:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Chris Mooney is going out of his way to interview people who agree with his lame accomodation to religion crap. And if there is somone on the show who has the opposite opinion it takes a debate format with Mooney no longer being the host. It’s hard enough to listen to Mooney as it is without his obsession of trying to prove he’s right that atheists should STFU.

As for Neil deGrasse… Some of his comments were puzzling. I know people like him and Genie Scott seem to have a more narrow view of skepticism that only applies to what can be demonstrated to be true or false by science and ignore anything else. For example they will attack creationism but only when it comes to the science class room - ok fine, but there is STILL the much larger problem of creationism and bible literalism everywhere else. And don’t hate on atheists just because some us care about god being on the money, what would he say if they put on some astrology stuff instead? Being an atheist does not mean you’re an activist for atheism. If Neil’s reply to the question ‘Do you belive in a god?’ is ‘no’, then he’s an atheist. It’s simple. It seems he wants to call himself agnostic for cowardly reasons.

[ Edited: 01 March 2011 03:57 PM by kennykjc ]
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Posted: 01 March 2011 04:56 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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I loved this interview.  The discussion of how the human mind works (it lies to us), it’s limitations and how it does not readily process inputs in a scientific manner was perfect for the many of us who have remained unaware of these facts regarding such limits to our perceptions.  Such considerations generally remain an unknown unknown for most people (perhaps it’s simply a matter of being in subconscious denial), which is why we should study ourselves and be aware of our limitations before even attempting to engage in the study of and any subsequent discussion of higher levels of practically any topic at all.  Actually it will take our educators themselves being aware enough of these facts to start such a ball rolling with the public and even many of those remain sorely lacking in this respect.

The Google tip on how using it can feed your own delusions was precious!  And yes, as Dr. Tyson suggests I write. 
“I write, therefore I think, therefore I write some more, therefore I think some more…”.

Tyson is smooth and quite digestible.  Do it again some time.

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Posted: 01 March 2011 06:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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kennykjc - 01 March 2011 03:54 PM

Chris Mooney is going out of his way to interview people who agree with his lame accomodation to religion crap. And if there is somone on the show who has the opposite opinion it takes a debate format with Mooney no longer being the host. It’s hard enough to listen to Mooney as it is without his obsession of trying to prove he’s right that atheists should STFU.

As for Neil deGrasse… Some of his comments were puzzling. I know people like him and Genie Scott seem to have a more narrow view of skepticism that only applies to what can be demonstrated to be true or false by science and ignore anything else. For example they will attack creationism but only when it comes to the science class room - ok fine, but there is STILL the much larger problem of creationism and bible literalism everywhere else. And don’t hate on atheists just because some us care about god being on the money, what would he say if they put on some astrology stuff instead? Being an atheist does not mean you’re an activist for atheism. If Neil’s reply to the question ‘Do you belive in a god?’ is ‘no’, then he’s an atheist. It’s simple. It seems he wants to call himself agnostic for cowardly reasons.

As Tyson says, it is just not part of his persona. I think by just staying out of the religion debate, he thinks he can remain the lovable, approachable non-threatening teddy bear of science education. I think he is probably right. I just leave it alone, as long as he fights creationism. I also think that it takes a multifaceted front to fight, the other fronts being the ‘strident’ atheists like Dawkins, Dennet etc. Much as their ‘soft’ accommodation view drives me crazy, who knows who will make someone start on the road to rational thinking—

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Posted: 01 March 2011 08:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Since Dr. Tyson is an astrophysicist, I feel compelled to share this:

Astrophysicists are always wrong, but never in doubt. ... RP Kirshner
In that vein of thought, Robert P. Kirshner writes:

As Hubble said in The Realm of the Nebulae, “We measure shadows, and we search among ghostly errors of measurement for landmarks that are scarcely more substantial. The search will continue” . Hubble’s article had velocities from Trumpler without citation, distances wrong by a factor of seven, reference to de Sitter’s strange kinematic model, and was not enough to convince Hubble himself of the reality of cosmic expansion, but that article in PNAS pointed the way to understanding the history of the universe, and the continuing search among the “ghostly errors of measurement” has led to a deeply surprising synthesis of dark matter and dark energy.

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Posted: 03 March 2011 07:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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gray1 - 01 March 2011 08:03 PM

Since Dr. Tyson is an astrophysicist, I feel compelled to share this:

Astrophysicists are always wrong, but never in doubt. ... RP Kirshner
In that vein of thought, Robert P. Kirshner writes:

As Hubble said in The Realm of the Nebulae, “We measure shadows, and we search among ghostly errors of measurement for landmarks that are scarcely more substantial. The search will continue” . Hubble’s article had velocities from Trumpler without citation, distances wrong by a factor of seven, reference to de Sitter’s strange kinematic model, and was not enough to convince Hubble himself of the reality of cosmic expansion, but that article in PNAS pointed the way to understanding the history of the universe, and the continuing search among the “ghostly errors of measurement” has led to a deeply surprising synthesis of dark matter and dark energy.

When did Hubble say that?

The quality of instrumentation changes over time as does the computing power to process the data.

The degree of uncertainty changes over time.  But due to semantics and egotism that uncertainty is rarely accurately communicated.

psik

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Posted: 03 March 2011 12:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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psikeyhackr - 03 March 2011 07:25 AM

When did Hubble say that?

The quality of instrumentation changes over time as does the computing power to process the data.

The degree of uncertainty changes over time.  But due to semantics and egotism that uncertainty is rarely accurately communicated.

psik


This is the concluding statement to Hubble’s book as referenced which was published in 1936.

http://www.archive.org/details/realmofthenebula029143mbp

“THUS the explorations of space end on a note of uncertainty. And necessarily so. We are, by definition, in the
very center of the observable region. We know our immediate neighborhood rather intimately. With increasing
distance, our knowledge fades, and fades rapidly. Eventually, we reach the dim boundary the utmost limits of
our telescopes. There, we measure shadows, and we search among ghostly errors of measurement for landmarks that
are scarcely more substantial.

The search will continue. Not until the empirical resources are exhausted, need we pass on to the dreamy
realms of speculation.”

And yet even with today’s photos such as “Hubble Deep”, while we see farther and more clearly than ever before, Hubble’s own words remain timeless.  The highest quality of instrumentation and powers of calculation continue to churn on into infinity while we still have a dim boundary and ghostly errors to consider even though we have categorized some of the ghostly errors as being attributed to something we call dark matter.  It’s something invisible to us through all detectable spectrums, we don’t actually know what it is that’s causing the effects being observed and the fact is we may never know.  Perhaps it is that we have actually reached the point at which our “empirical resources are exhausted”.  Dim boundary, shadows, ghostly… no poet could do this one any better.

“The degree of uncertainty changes over time”  Most certainly it does, but even half of infinity is still infinity and that is what we are dealing with in considering our ever expanding universe.

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Posted: 03 March 2011 07:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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gray1 - 03 March 2011 12:04 PM

“The degree of uncertainty changes over time”  Most certainly it does, but even half of infinity is still infinity and that is what we are dealing with in considering our ever expanding universe.

Infinity is a mathematical concept.

So better instruments help us find more things we don’t know about.  I think that’s great.  It is just really stupid that we have all of these computers and so many people can’t get a grip on Newtonian physics.

This is the concluding statement to Hubble’s book as referenced which was published in 1936.

The neutron had been discovered only 4 years before that.  Knowledge of the neutron made the atomic bomb possible.  I don’t know when fusion was figured out.  Hubble’s stars run on fusion.  Plenty of certainties have been nailed down since 1936.  Using astrophysics or quantum physics to make a big deal out of newly discovered uncertainties is silly.

Too many attitudes about science come from obsolete Aristotelian and Platonic bullshit.  Physics does not care about Greek or Latin.  Too much philosophical junk from the humanities is allowed to muddy scientific waters.

The C.P. Snow “Two Cultures” problem has not been resolved.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/5273453/Fifty-years-on-CP-Snows-Two-Cultures-are-united-in-desperation.html

psik

[ Edited: 03 March 2011 09:35 PM by psikeyhackr ]
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Posted: 04 March 2011 06:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standing_on_the_shoulders_of_giants

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Posted: 06 March 2011 09:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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I am impressed by the intensity with which many of you have engaged this thread.  To this I offer several clarifying comments, which I would not have thought necessary, but perhaps it’s evidence that my communications skills are waning.

From Taylor
“Tyson is wrong that the scientific atheists don’t criticize their own believing brethren”
1) No question that vocal/viisible religious scientists are criticized often and resoundingly.  My comments were not about these individuals but about the persistence of belief among scientists in general (40% in America) - a point that I hardly ever see addressed in public discourse by anyone.  And the related fact that members of the National Academy of Sciences are at 7%.  Active atheists cite and celebrate this small number, yet, to me, the most interesting fact worthy of further research is why that number is not identically zero.

“It is quite presumptuous for Tyson to tell Dawkins how to communicate” & “Tyson is unlikely to ever match Dawkins’ influence”
2) If you re-watch the clip, you will see that my criticism of Dawkins was offered **only** in the context of his formal Oxford title: Professor of the Public Understanding of Science.  Further, the comment wasn’t “If you change your ways you can be influential like me”  It was more like “If you change your ways, you can be more influential than you already are.”  Sorry if these two points were not clear in my interview or in the clip itself.

From David_Lewis
“It was hard to believe that ...both Mooney and Tyson so studiously avoided talking about ...climate science denial…of the Republican Party”
3) Nope.  Never came up.  Which, by the way, is not the same thing as “studiously avoided”.

“Tyson’s proposal to restore a “science Zeitgeist” I found his arguments hard to follow”
4) Like I said, my communication skills must be in ebb—sorry if I was not clear.  A nation should fund all science frontiers and cross-pollinate them because history reveals that the most innovative solutions to problems (and often the most enduring) arise from just this kind of activity, and not, as most would suspect, by the direct application of financial and intellectual capital.  And since the 1990s, NASA’s research and exploration portfolio includes a signifiant contributions from Biologists, Chemists, Physicists, and Geologists, added to the already represented fields of Astrophysics, Medicine, Food Science, and Aerospace Engineering.  Any mission to Mars will attract and cross-pollinate the best and brightest ideas in all these fields.  I know of no other enterprise with that much promise to transform culture and society.

From KennyKJC
“It seems he wants to call himself agnostic for cowardly reasons”
5) We need a word for Atheists who do not care what other people believe, and have hardly any energy or interest to engage the conversation.  That would be me.  Evidence that “disinterest” and “cowardice” are two different mental states.  FYI: In spite of what shows up on YouTube, less than 1% of my public messages (spoken or written) involve God or religion.

From Asanta
“I think by just staying out of the religion debate, he thinks he can remain the lovable, approachable non-threatening teddy bear of science education. “
6) My pedagogical goal is to get people to think straight in the first place, rather than to debate them later after it’s too late.  For this reason, you will hardly ever see me on a program with Moon Hoaxers, Conspiracy Theorists, UFOlogists, Creationists, or even Astrologers.  And, as is true in my reply to Kenny KJC, these subjects occupy less than 1% of my actual public discourse, in spite of what the viewing statistics of YouTube clips imply.  Note also that my TAM6 presentation, which is all about pseudoscience, was given under heavy persuasion from people such as James Randi, who I respect so deeply that I would not decline his invitation to speak: http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/component/content/article/44-amazing-meeting/1232-qbrain-droppingsq-from-neil-degrasse-tyson-at-tam6.html  So if the consequence of all this is that I am a “teddy-bear”, I happily accept the moniker, but my motives differ from what you assert.

From Gray1
I could not follow the relevance of your Hubble excursion to anything in my interview.  Note however that your Eddington quote is fundamentally that of his contemporary JBS Haldane: “It is my supposition that the Universe in not only queerer than we imagine, is queerer than we can imagine.” —a much more quotable person, by the way.

Thank you all for your interest in my interview and the candid comments it triggered within you.

-NDTyson

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Posted: 06 March 2011 11:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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And thanks so much for coming here to discuss them!

Re. the percentages of theists among scientists and NAS members, it does deserve study, but as an example of what? Given the extensive evidence about how prone humans are to self-delusion and poor reasoning (cf. Kahnemann and Tversky, among others) I’d have thought it extraordinary if any large group of people of whatever sort were such as not to include theists or believers in ghosts, astrology, etc.

Perfect example of something that isn’t about theism per se but has to do with human fallibility among the brilliant: double-Nobel-winner Linus Pauling’s vocal support of high-dose Vitamin C. He wasn’t the only Nobel to have odd ideas, and it’s the same general theme.

Our prior probability of human irrationality is near one; lack of belief in theism is the surprise that needs explanation among scientists in general and NAS members in particular, it’s more surprising than the residual number who remain theists.

Cheers,

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