While on CNN’s Reliable Sources, Neil deGrasse Tyson took time out from promoting his new Fox documentary mini-series Cosmos to air his problem with the way the network, and others like it, have been presenting scientific debate. He says the network should stop trying to appear “balanced” by putting anti-science talking heads next to serious scientists.
Host Brian Stelter introduced the segment by suggesting that science might be the one area that should remain “immune from politics.” Sadly, it’s a point that does need to be made again and again. Whether it’s climate change, evolution, or vaccines, the scientific debate is often fought not between two experts in the area, but by placing a scientist in a studio with a person who firmly believes that science isn’t true, regardless of the facts presented. Opposing views make sense when discussing matters of opinion, but science? Science is meant to be objective for the very reason that personal bias - the kind that science-deniers revel in - is kept out of it.
Enter Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist who has become in many ways the face of science in the 21st century.
Tyson starts by pointing out that even the people who deny science probably rely on it a great deal in their every day lives.
“Our civilization is built on the innovation of scientists and technologists and engineers who have shaped everything that we so take for granted today,” Tyson said. “So some of the science deniers or science haters, these are people who are telling that to you while they are on their mobile phone.”
“They are saying, ‘I don’t like science. Oh, GPS just told us to go left,’” he added. “So it’s time for people to sit back and reassess what role science as actually played in our lives. And learn how to embrace that going forward, because with out it, we will just regress back into the caves.”
While there are certainly people who have a vested interest in keeping people in the dark about scientific fact, most people simply don’t know enough about the scientific method or even what the word “fact” means in a scientific context. Stelter asked Tyson if he felt that the media has a responsibility in correcting that.
“The media has to sort of come out of this ethos that I think was in principle a good one, but it doesn’t really apply in science,” Tyson said. “The principle was, whatever story you give, you have to give the opposing view. And then you can be viewed as balanced.”
“You don’t talk about the spherical Earth with NASA, and then say let’s give equal time to the flat Earthers,” he added. “Plus, science is not there for you to cherry pick.”
The problem with having “both” sides of the issue is that it gives the audience a false sense of equivalency between the two sides. By the end of a segment where a scientist said one thing and a - say - oil lobbyist says another, a casual observer might be forgiven for concluding that it’s a topic that there are competing sides, both with valid ideas. Who’s to say which side is right?
What that ignores is the fact that the scientist has spent years - sometimes decades - of her career studying the topic at hand. Her conclusions have gone through a gauntlet of fact checks and reviews by other scientists who have also spent years studying the subject. When she concludes that what her data shows is factually sound, it carries a great deal of weight. On the flip side, the oil lobbyist (to stick with example) has done but one thing: decided he preferred that the data not be true.
One way Tyson said we can begin to change this scientific ignorance is by promoting good, factually sounds science whenever the opportunity presents itself. He suggests scientists do a better job of “contextualizing” scientific findings - explain to people “why it matters?” Having strong voices within the scientific community (and Tyson should be considered chief among them) that can explain science in ways that the public-at-large can understand is a huge step. It’s not always easy, but it’s imperative, because the anti-science community never seems to have a problem saying their opinion in front of a camera.