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Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on Combating Science and Health Misinformation

Wesam Abo Marq Wesam Abo Marq
23rd May 2024
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on Combating Science and Health Misinformation
Astrophysicist and science promoter Neil deGrasse Tyson (Getty)

The persistent spread of anti-science sentiment, along with misinformation and disinformation about science, has become a significant issue. In an interview with Forbes magazine, astrophysicist, author, and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson discusses strategies to combat science and health misinformation.

Who Is Neil deGrasse Tyson?

Tyson has been a prominent figure in science communication for the past couple of decades, covering topics from space to various other scientific fields. He has contributed a monthly "Universe" column to Natural History magazine and authored 17 books, including "Death by Black Hole" and "Astrophysics for People in a Hurry."

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A photo shows Neil deGrasse Tyson (Tyson’s website).

In addition, he has hosted television shows such as "NOVA Science" and "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey." Since 1996, Tyson has also served as the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History.

Neil deGrasse Tyson's Remarks on Science

Tyson shared his thoughts on the state of science in the U.S. “The problem is that many people don’t know what science is and how and why it works,” Tyson said. “It’s missing in the standard educational background. When I see how science is being taught or not being taught, I have a bit of sympathy for them as an educator.”

He emphasized that science is about understanding how the world works and stated, “when you don’t know science, you don’t really know how the world works.” Tyson continued, “You have to put the burden back on the shoulders of education and educators. When science is taught in school, it’s a lot of tests on vocabulary, problem sets, and regurgitation. At no time are most people told how fundamental science is to what we do and care about.” This disconnect can make science seem separate from daily life, something to nerd out over rather than a tool for everyday use.

People Are Susceptible to “Personal Testimony"

The lack of scientific understanding can make people highly susceptible to what Tyson described as “personal testimony." He explained, “One person with a YouTube channel can say ‘I’m right and everyone else is wrong,’ and we can respond maximally to this kind of personal testimony.” Psychologically, hearing information from someone with a recognizable name and face can be far more impactful than seeing charts and graphs. “By contrast,” he added, “scientific consensus can seem like a faceless data point, a faceless statistic.”

Tyson further highlighted the lack of proper training in probability and statistics. He noted that much of science involves understanding the likelihood of events occurring and explained, “much of training in any type of scientific discipline is in some sort of statistics classes.” Without a good grasp of probability, people are likely to misjudge the significance of events.

He provided a thought-provoking example: “If you read about some type of food associated with a 20% increase in cancer risk, that may sound like a lot. But what if the baseline cancer risk is one percent? That would mean going just up to 1.2%, not to 20%.”

Tyson also discussed the influence of anecdotal evidence in popular media, such as diet books. “Say someone has cancer and goes on a diet and in doing so declines standardized medicine. If the problem resolves, that person may write a book about how good that something diet is.” However, Tyson pointed out that such books often lack scientific rigor. Personal experiences do not equate to scientific evidence. Otherwise, he quipped, everyone on a reality TV show would expect to become President of the U.S. someday.

Tyson stressed the need to overhaul the educational system to teach science as a method of understanding the natural world and distinguishing objective truths from falsehoods. 

Effective At Science Communications with All the Heavy Politicization

While Tyson adapts his approach to fit specific platforms and audiences, he maintains consistency in certain aspects. "I make sure that my facts are lined up. I make sure the tone is calm," he explains. He emphasizes the importance of effectiveness in communication.

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A screenshot of Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about his book (YouTube)

However, navigating science communication can be challenging amid the heavy politicization of scientific issues like climate change, vaccines, and the pandemic. Many scientists who seek to discuss objective truths find themselves inadvertently drawn into contentious debates, facing attacks, false accusations, and even death threats. Despite these challenges, Tyson remains undeterred.

Tyson stresses the urgent need for change, particularly in how science is taught. When fundamental scientific principles like statistics and probability are not understood, the likelihood of making correct decisions significantly diminishes.

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