Human World

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Learning how to think is empowerment

Neil deGrasse Tyson is the Frederick P. Rose director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York – and host of the PBS series NOVA ScienceNOW. He’s a 2009 EarthSky Science Communicator of the Year. It was announced on August 5, 2011 that Tyson will be hosting a new sequel to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage TV series. EarthSky’s Deborah Byrd spoke to Dr. Tyson and asked him why he spends so much time talking to people about science.

Why do you want people to know about science?

Once the wiring of your brain is set up to interpret data, that’s empowerment. What I really want is to empower people to make decisions on their own, and to become an informed electorate in any political process that they enter.

It was not a priority of mine to communicate science to the public. What I found was that enough members of the public wanted to know what was going on in the universe that I decided to stay to get a little better at it so I could satisfy this cosmic curiosity .

But you communicate beyond astronomy, into the realm of science literacy at large.

That’s right. It’s essential that as many Americans grow up to be scientifically literate as possible. Innovations in science and technology are the drivers of economic growth and have been since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. By and large, were I to have a goal in this, it would be simply to foster science literacy. Learning how to think rather than what to think.

And we understand you have a special commitment to educating children.

Yes. Kids are born scientists. They’re born probing the natural world that surrounds them. They’ll lift up a rock. They’ll pick up a bug. They’ll pull petals off a flower. They’ll ask you why the grass is green and the sky is blue, and they’ll experiment with breakable things in your house. I think the best thing a parent can do, when raising a child, is simply get out of their way.

What happens when you do get out of their way? Sounds messy!

It might mean they break a dish someday, because they’re experimenting with how dishes roll down the corridor. But they’ll learn something about how fragile something as brittle as glass can be. There’s a lesson there.

Yeah, you’ll break a dish. So you buy as new dish. And you say, “Well, that can be costly.” But, as Derek Bok, who was president of Harvard, once said, “If you think education is costly, look at the cost of ignorance.”

That exploration can become a fundamental part of what a growing child requires to become a thinking member of society.

Bottom line: Neil DeGrasse Tyson tells us that learning to think is an important part of human development, and making sure that future generations are scientifically literate is critical.

December 15, 2011
Human World

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