You would be forgiven for thinking that astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has been on a climate change crusade these past few weeks. As the U.S. and Caribbean have been hit by a series of seemingly unprecedented storms, Tyson has been making the rounds on cable news to offer some dire warnings about the planet’s new normal.
“Neil deGrasse Tyson says it might be 'too late' to recover from climate change,” a CNN headline read. On MSNBC, it was, “Neil deGrasse Tyson blasts climate change deniers in government.” Even Fox News picked up the story, writing, “Neil deGrasse Tyson says human-caused climate change could doom coastal cities.”
While Tyson is used to the bizarre phenomenon of news outlets picking up his every utterance and tweet, he swears he’s not on some sort of mission. “I never speak out on climate change unless someone asks me,” he tells The Daily Beast in a phone interview leading up to the fourth season premiere of his podcast-turned Nat Geo series StarTalk this Sunday night.
But if you do ask him — about pretty much anything that touches on science — he will not hesitate to tell you exactly how he feels. In our wide-ranging interview, Tyson shares his views on everything from the geek-ification of America to the anti-intellectualism that led to President Trump and the “irresponsible” leaders who only believe science when it aligns with their worldview.
StarTalk is about to start its fourth season on Nat Geo. Is there anything you’re really excited for people to see this year?
What I want people to take notice of is the range of guests that make perfectly valid StarTalk content. So it goes from Katy Perry to Lance Armstrong to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Jane Goodall. The range is huge. And it’s a reminder that science touches us all at times. And my guests, when they come on, my conversations with them explore all the ways science has touched their lives. And so if you’re a viewer and maybe you don’t care much about science or you didn’t do well in school, or you sold back all your textbooks, or maybe you hate science, you’re going to come because there’s a celebrity that you care about. And the conversation then goes there, it talks about ways that science matters. And then you’ll leave a little bit more enlightened about the role of science in our society. Especially as it relates to our health, our wealth, our security. And on another level just your sheer level of discovery and curiosity.
Some of those guests, like Lance Armstrong or Jane Goodall, have an obvious connection to science in their lives. But with someone like Katy Perry, do you go in knowing what aspect of science you’re going to talk with her about? Or are you ever surprised?
Occasionally we’ll know. In a previous season, when we had Whoopi Goldberg as a guest, we knew that she played a recurring character in Star Trek: The Next Generation. So that was a place I knew I wanted to go in the conversation. But I don’t always know where the conversation will land. And that’s the fun part, because perhaps there’s a hidden geek underbelly that was there always, but you never knew because in all the other ways you would interact with that person — maybe you bought their albums or watched their shows — they don’t have the occasion to reveal it. So I like to think of StarTalk as a geek safe space.
In the case of Katy Perry, we would learn that she is hugely curious. She’s educated only through age 15 — she’s in her 30s now — at which point she earned a GED. So she’s kind of incompletely educated relative to college-bound people and everybody else who kept going to school. And that’s OK. She’s not alone in the world with that profile. But what distinguishes her is she remains intensely curious about everything she doesn’t know about. And you can feel that, it’s palpable in the interview. It’s a childlike curiosity, a curiosity that we all had as children and somehow got beaten out of us or wore out or was not encouraged, because by the time you’re an adult most people have forgotten how to even think of a question, much less ask a question. So that was delightful. Half of that exchange with her was her asking me questions! And fulfilling her curiosity about the universe.
You talk about it being a “safe space” for geeks and it does feel like nerds were ascendant during the Obama years. Do you have concerns that that trend is being reversed now?
OK, so I’ve thought about this, maybe too much. I think nerds began their ascent with the release of the movie Revenge of the Nerds. Because in that movie, the nerds were still not people you wanted to date. They were still sort of social rejects. But they had huge tech savvy. It’s the tech-savviness in that film that gave them an advantage over the football jocks and all the cool people and the beautiful people. So what would happen over the years from when that movie came out [in 1984] is that computing would become a household thing. Everybody has a personal computer. And it’s geeks who invented these things. It’s geeks who know how to fix them. So there was a power shift, especially in high school, where if you’re a popular jock, cheerleader, whoever, and you need someone to fix your computer, you need a nerd friend to do that. So there was this detente. If you gave a nerd a wedgie, you did not get your computer fixed, plus they wouldn’t help you on your math homework. So nerds began to rise. And I watched this happen. And then the richest person in the world was the patron saint of nerds, Bill Gates. And all of a sudden, nerds started gaining wealth, because they could start their own companies and didn’t have to rely on something they inherited or something they had to have the suave and debonair talent to attract investors. So that was the ‘80s and then in the ‘90s, Bill Clinton was president — the first president to wear a digital wristwatch, by the way, if my memory serves.
Yeah, it seemed to switch to where it became cool to be a nerd. But now I wonder if you think it’s now going the other way?
No, I do not think it’s ebbing, I think it’s gaining strength. And what do I evidence that by? By the first-run films that feature science, authentic science. The films Gravity, The Martian. The show The Big Bang Theory, now in its 11th season. Longer than M*A*S*H?! Those may be caricatures, but nonetheless, they are portraying PhD scientists having fun. And for the success of the show to be that high, it has to be attracting people not just in the geekosphere. On top of all this, I have nine million Twitter followers! That’s crazy! What is that? I don’t even understand it. There’s an appetite that has always been there but is finally being served in ways that are tasty and make people want to come back and want more. And my recent book [Astrophysics for People in a Hurry] spent 10 out of 20 weeks at No. 1 on The New York Times’ best seller list. This is a list that typically has celebrity tell-alls and political pundit books and self-help books and athlete memoirs and I and my colleagues would all celebrate if any science book made it anywhere on anyone’s best seller list. So for this book to make it onto the The New York Times’ best seller list and reach No. 1 — next week I just learned it gets swapped out from the No. 1 slot by Hillary’s book, of course. So, no, I see no sign that it’s on the ebb, at all.
The flip side of that, of course, is the sort of anti-intellectualism in politics that may have helped elect Mr. Trump.
I see less anti-intellectualism in younger generations than I do in older generations. Not that it isn’t there at all, but I see less of it. And maybe, we might have to wait 10 or 20 years for that generation to become heads of agency and captains of industry. But if that’s the case, then we just have to wait this one out. And, I hate to sound like Trump in this next comment, but I think there’s blame on both sides, in the following way. Why would you ever resent someone who’s smarter than you unless it was in part because they made you feel dumb, made you feel inadequate, made you feel like they’re better than you? Anybody who does that to you, you’re going to punch him in the nose. Or do the verbal equivalent of that. Because no one wants to feel that way.
Now, mind you, the geek community forever has always felt socially left out. We’re not beautiful enough, we don’t get to go to the party, you didn’t invite us. So it’s not like we didn’t feel, as a community, social forces that rejected who we were at our core. But that’s now 30 years in the past, so I think we’ve overcome that. Now, some part of the academic class needs a little more empathy and sympathy for the people who struggled in school. So that you’re not considered their enemy. Instead, you’re supportive of them and a friend of theirs and if they want to learn, you will help them learn, without having any judgements placed on them at all. So I think the world could use a dose of that, on top of whatever else is going on.
So I want to talk to you about climate change, which I know you’ve been speaking about a lot recently—
Just to be very precise here, I never speak out on climate change unless someone asks me. Because it is not my expertise. My expertise is the universe. So I’m in an interview about the universe and they say, ‘By gosh, we’ve had six hurricanes in the last six weeks, tell us about that.’ So then I speak about that and it gets picked up on YouTube and it gets reposted and it looks like I’m on some kind of climate change mission when 100 percent of those came about as supplemental questions to other questions I was asked about the universe. If you have very serious questions about climate change, get a climate scientist. I will not speak for them. I can speak in general for science literacy. And why it matters and how it enables you to understand what a scientist says. But specific questions about climate change, you should ask a climate scientist.
Well, one thing you said that made the rounds was that no one was questioning the scientific predictions that the eclipse was going to happen, but they do question the predictions that we’ll have stronger storms due to climate change.
So that was a single tweet and that became my most retweeted tweet ever. And I did not expect that. So that really resonated.
Why do you think it resonated so strongly with people?
Because I think we take for granted how much science we take for granted. (Laughs) I should tweet that! You forget how much we’re touched by science. So some other science comes up and you say, ‘Ah, I don’t trust those scientists.’ They cherry-pick it in ways that satisfy their politics, their religion, their culture, their economic needs or wants. If you cherry-pick science and think that’s a legitimate thing to do, then somewhere in your educational past, something has failed. So I don’t even blame the person, it’s not about that. It’s something else systemic that is going on that even allows an adult to get to that state.
Or do you think there’s different motives at work, with climate change, where if you acknowledge that it exists and is a problem, then that means you have to do something about it?
I would rather someone say, “I recognize what you scientists are saying and I understand and I even agree with it. I choose not to care. I’d rather just allow all of this to happen.” You can argue with that. But that at least is honest. [For leaders] to pick the one research paper that conflicts with the emergent consensus of measurements and observations and then base policy on that, that is as shaky a possible ground as you can imagine. So it comes down to irresponsible leaders who are doing the cherry-picking.
On the other side of it, were you heartened by the intense national interest in the solar eclipse?
Oh yeah, yeah! What better way is there to sort of galvanize everyone in a way to look up? Yeah, totally jazzed by it. And I went into a media blackout leading up to it. I wanted to force the media to find others to talk to and not just come to me. You can go to the local astronomy clubs and community college professors, they’re available to you. I don’t have special knowledge of eclipses they don’t have. So I was in a secret place for the eclipse. I can tell you now, but at the time I was in a secret place.
What was your experience of the eclipse like?
It was wonderful. I had seen another one, most of my life ago, when I was 15, off the coast of Northwest Africa. Ships are good because you can go where there aren’t clouds. This one I was 7,000 feet up in Deadwood Lookout in the mountains of Idaho.
Going back to StarTalk, I know you’ve talked a little bit about why you have comedians co-host with you, but can you expand on that? Why is that so important to you?
So I happen to think the universe is hilarious and I find that people learn more when they’re laughing and smiling. Not only do they learn more, but they want to learn more if they can repeat that state of pleasure. So we realized that if I have a professional comedian as a co-host then I don’t have to worry about the energy to make something funny, they’ll just do that. Because that’s what they do. It’s the natural state of a comedian to see what humor is in something that you might not otherwise think to be found. As a result, I have the main interview and then I have the comedian and then typically I have an academic expert on the subject of what came out of the interview with the celebrity. So the academic expert is like a valve of gravity, the comedian is a valve of levity and I control those values continuously throughout the show. And in this way, it helps us ensure a consistently delivered combination of enlightenment and joy and entertainment.