When I am Lord of the Planet, this fellow shall be my Science Advisor.

A few weeks ago, Kevin Drum had a post (yes, I am too lazy to track down the link) in which he indicated that he just doesn’t think the evolution-versus-creationism “debate” is that big a deal, and his reasons basically boiled down to the notion that the only place this ‘debate’ takes place is in elementary schools; nobody is challenging the teaching of evolution in colleges or in the use of evolutionary theory in medical research and so on. This strikes me as tragically wrong-headed, because in a society that is only going to become more and more scientifically dependent, the current American retreat from science can really only be counteracted on a generational basis. If we don’t make it a priority to teach our kids the right science, then we’re going into the future societally hobbled.

This is a point that comes up repeatedly in Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s new book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier. The book is a collection of many short pieces Tyson has written over the years, from magazine articles to op-eds to speeches and even a few poems. As such, the themes of the book can get a bit repetitive, but Tyson may well be the most engaging science writer since Carl Sagan (although Timothy Ferris is not to be discounted). As a collection, the book covers a fairly wide range of topics, almost all of which deal with science in general or space exploration in the particular. Tyson’s writing on these subjects is less poetic than Sagan’s, but Tyson makes up for it with infectious enthusiasm.

Here is an excerpt from an interview Tyson gave Calvin Sims:

CS: Some studies have shown that only about 20 to 25 percent of the adult population can be considered scientifically literate. And one study found that one American adult in five thinks that the Sun revolves around the Earth, a notion that was abandoned in the sixteenth century. Does that surprise you?

NDT: Didn’t you just ask me whether we’re in a crisis? Yes, we are. And yes, it concerns me deeply. There’s fundamental knowledge about the physical world that the general public is oblivious to. And by the way, science literacy is not simply how many chemical formulas you can recite, nor whether you know how your microwave oven works. Science literacy is being plugged into the forces that power the Universe. There is no excuse for thinking that the Sun, which is a million times the size of Earth, orbits Earth.

CS: This is particularly troubling because so much political debate has a basis in science: global warming, stem cell research. What do we do about this?

NDT: I can only tell you what I do about it. I hate to say this, but I’ve given up on adults. They’ve formed their ways; they’re the product of whatever happened in their lives; I can’t do anything for them. But I can have some influence on people who are still in school. That’s where I, as a scientist and an educator, can do something to help teach them how to think, how to evaluate a claim., how to judge what one person says versus what another says, how to establish a level of skepticism. Skepticism is healthy. It’s not a bad thing; it’s a good thing. So I’m working on the next generation as they come up. I don’t know what to do with the rest. That 80 percent of the adults, I can’t help you there.

This strikes me as terribly sad, but also terribly true. Throughout the book, Tyson repeatedly sounds the alarm about where we are headed as a nation. Here’s another excerpt, this from a speech:

Recently I gave a talk in St. Petersburg, Florida. The last question of the night – I don’t know if this person was particularly worried about the upcoming election – was, “What would you do if, a year from now, all the money for science and engineering research was cut to zero, yet Congress allowed you to pick one project you could do? What would that project be?” I promptly replied, “I would take that money, build a ship, and sail to some other country that values investment in science. And in my rearview mirror would be all of America moving back into the caves, because that’s what happens when you don’t invest in science and engineering.”

There was a day when Americans would construct the tallest buildings, the longest suspension bridges, the longest tunnels, the biggest dams. You might say, “Well, those are just bragging rights.” Yes, they were bragging rights. But more important, they embodied a mission statement about working on the frontier – the technological frontier, the engineering frontier, the intellectual frontier – about going places that had not been visited the day before. When that stops, your infrastructure crumbles.

There’s a lot of talk about China these days. So let’s talk more about it. We keep hearing about ancient Chinese remedies and ancient Chinese inventions. But when do you hear about modern Chinese inventions? Here are some of the things that the Chinese achieved between the late sixth and late fifteenth centuries AD: They discovered the solar wind and magnetic declination. They invented matches, chess, and playing cards. They figured out that you can diagnose diabetes by analyzing urine. They invented the first mechanical clock, movable type, paper money, and the segmented-arch bridge. They basically invented the compass and showed that magnetic north is not the same as geographic north – a good thing to know when you’re trying to navigate. They invented phosphorescent paint, gunpowder, flares, and fireworks. They even invented grenades. They were hugely active in international trade over that period, discovering new lands and new peoples.

And then, in the late 1400s, China turned insular. It stopped looking beyond its shores. It stopped exploring beyond its then-current state of knowledge. And the entire enterprise of creativity stopped. That’s why you don’t hear people saying, “Here’s a modern Chinese answer to that problem.” Instead they’re talking about ancient Chinese remedies. There’s a cost when you stop innovating and stop investing and stop exploring. That cost is severe. And it worries me deeply, because if you don’t explore, you recede into irrelevance as other nations figure out the value of exploration.

What else do we know about China? It has nearly 1.5 billion people – one-fifth of the world’s population. Do you know hoe big a billion is? In China it means that if you’re one in a million, there are 1,500 other people just like you.

Not only that, the upper quartile of China – the smartest 25 percent – outnumbers the entire population of the United States. Lose sleep over that one. You’ve seen the numbers: China graduates about half a million scientists and engineers a year; we graduate about seventy thousand – much less than the ratio of our populations would indicate. A talk-show host in Salt Lake City recently asked me about those numbers, and I said, “Well, we graduate half a million of something a year: lawyers.” So the guy asked me what that says about America, and I said, “It tells me we are going into the future fully prepared to litigate over the crumbling of our infrastructure.” That’s what the future of America will be.

Ouch. Really, truly, ouch. But the flip side of Tyson’s grim picture of the state of affairs in America as regards to science and engineering is that the fix is pretty obvious: reinvest in those things, reinvest in those things now, and reinvest in those things heavily. It’ll take a lot of investment and a lot of time – probably a couple of decades as new students come all the way through the educational systems and enter the workforce – but it’s the only thing that can guarantee our continued position as one of the leaders of the world. Nothing else is going to get it done: not deregulating every business sector known to exist, not squashing every labor union, not eliminating every tax, not scratching every libertarian itch. Humanity is going to need to depend more and more and more and more on science and engineering, and if we willingly abdicate our leadership and mortgage our futures therein, well, all the tax cuts and military expenditures in the world won’t be enough to keep America from becoming just one more name on the UN roster.

I don’t want to depict Tyson’s book as relentlessly pessimistic, because it’s not. Reading between his lines, I think that I can say that while Tyson is not terribly optimistic about America right now, he’s more optimistic about the human species. And his sense of wonder, still intact after years of being an astrophysicist, comes shining through. The passages I quote, though, are the ones that stick with me, because they’re issues that I continue to think about a lot and I frankly wish would come up once in a while over the course of our political campaigns. Anyway, Neil DeGrasse Tyson is emerging as one of our country’s most valuable voices.

(By the way, a neat feature of the book is that it includes a selection, scattered throughout, of Tyson’s postings to Twitter. For example: “First mammals to achieve orbit, in order: Dog, Guinea pig, Mouse, Russian Human, Chimpanzee, American Human”.)

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4 Responses to When I am Lord of the Planet, this fellow shall be my Science Advisor.

  1. New York Erratic says:

    OMGosh, piles of opinions.

    Next semester (and hopefully every semester thereafter), I'll once again be teaching science at a university to future elementary and high school teachers. I am – and have been – teaching science to the very people we're most worried about communicating science properly.

    And I'll tell you something: the #1 way to improve science education and science in general in this country isn't funding or big projects or what have you. It's FAILING students that can't perform.

    That's it. I was shocked last fall at the number of students who were lacking in the fundementals. They don't even know PEMDAS – how can I teach science to a student who can't do basic arithmetic?

    I taught history of life to junior-level bio majors last spring. Most couldn't tell me what photosynthesis was. They had a level of comprehension I would expect from an elementary school kids. And these were college kids – in their major!!!

    We need to kick out 90% of the kids from the college classroom. We need to fail students who are under performing. We shouldn't let in kids who can't do basic algebra. And I don't teach at a community college. I teach at a reasonably well-respected, PhD-granting, state funded research institution.

    It's not about cost. Einstein and Newton were educated using books and chalkboards. It's about rigor and standards. IMHO.

  2. Call me Paul says:

    Unfortunately, Kevin Drum is mistaken. Science is under attack at every level in our education system, including advanced high school and university programs. We are at a crisis level in science education on our continent.

  3. New York Erratic says:

    I just saw my response and realized that I made it sound like they literally had never heard the word "photosynthesis."

    The college juniors knew photosynthesis was "how plants make food," but when I asked for the basic reaction – what two reactants and what two products – they couldn't give me back "carbon dioxide and water are used to produce sugar and oxygen."

  4. Roger Owen Green says:

    Jaquandor for Lord of the Planet.

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