Neil Tyson on our lack of skepticism

By Phil Plait | June 30, 2009 7:32 am

My bud Neil Tyson was on Jimmy Fallon’s TV show the other day, and they asked him a series of questions. It’s worth watching:

About some people’s total credulity when it comes to ridiculous doomsday scenarios, Neil says:

It’s a profound absence of awareness of … how nature works. They’re missing some science classes in their training in high school or in college that would empower you to understand and to judge when someone else is basically full of it.

I actually disagree with Neil here; it’s not that students missed that part of science class, it’s that it was never taught in science class to start with. It’s very, very rare that science is taught as a process, as a way of knowing. Instead, it’s taught like a compendium of facts, as dry as a dictionary, and like a dictionary only pulled out when needed. In fact, the methods of science are a way of understanding everything in the whole Universe, and so can be used all the time, whether it’s when you’re deciding to eat a sandwich or when you’re trying to figure out why gamma-ray burst beams are collimated so tightly.

Being skeptical, asking for evidence, examining that evidence, and diagnosing it compared to the whole of learning that goes on around it is the way to go. That’s how you distinguish sense from nonsense. It takes work, and sometimes hard work, but it’s worth it. The prize is understanding.

And I do agree strongly with Neil when he says,

Sceince is basically an inoculation against charlatans.

Yup. One of many, but still the best.


Comments (52)

  1. JackC

    Quoth Phil: “I actually disagree with Neil here; it’s not that students missed that part of science class, it’s that it was never taught in science class to start with.”

    Quoth Neil: “They’re missing some science classes in their training in high school or in college that would empower you to understand and to judge when someone else is basically full of it.”

    Phil – That is exactly what Neil SAID! Neil did not say “They are not paying attention to the Science they were taught”, he said they were MISSING the classes. The classes were not there. Of course, the option is also left open that if they WERE taught, they did not pay attention. His phrasing is very good.

    In general, I have to agree. Some are lucky, most are not.

    I sat down to listen to James Hansen speak on AGW (not Jim Hensen! I don’t channel the dead, thank you) some time back – and a woman sitting next to me asked if she “should be afraid” of the subject matter – then said Well – it doesn’t matter – we will all be gone after December 2012…” I just sighed. If she had any science classes AT ALL, she definitely had her ears shut.

    BTW: If you have a chance to hear James speak – don’t bother. He is a horrid speaker. Bloody shame really. It did not really help that he was a Science bright bulb amongst a bunch of nitwits at this particular event.


  2. Nigel Depledge

    @ Jack –

    Have you never heard the word “missing” used in the sense of “skipping” or “failing to turn up”?

    Phil’s interpretation is just as valid as your own. However, either you do not give Phil the benefit of the doubt or he did not give Neil the benefit of the doubt.

  3. Pretty much everyone learns about evolution or basic biology at some point in school, that doesn’t stop people from becoming wingnuts later in life. I dare say even Jenny McCarthy and Oprah Winfrey got some basic exposure to science in high school or whenever. The basic information is out there, so simple ignorance isn’t the answer here.

  4. Jeff

    Phil is correct, I am one of the guilty professors as charged. When I was young, I started teaching them critical thinking and scientific reasoning skills. But as time wore on, as more and more students came in unprepared, I started watering down and now what’s left is a mush of memorization and my impending retirement.

    I don’t know the solution. I’ve told people, they must start teaching reasoning in kindergarten all the way through grad school. If they come into college unprepared, it’s almost too late because they are formed adults already.

  5. H.C

    I once taught such a class, and I divided the students in two groups : one group had to prove that Julius caesar existed, and the other group had to prove that he never existed but was invented by Charles the Great because he needed something that was better than a King : a Caesar. As a result the students learn to investigate what happened in the past, and they learn the difficulties to prove something that happened in the pas. The same could be done for science : try to prove that the speed with which something falls does not depend upon the weight etc.

  6. Calm down everyone. Semantics. Phil was stressing/clarifying the point. We’re on the same side here.

  7. Gary

    The flip side is that people are very willing to defer to authority, actually what they presume to be authority, when confronted with things they don’t understand. Not everybody can grasp mathematics or scientific hypotheses so they accept what they hear from someone who sounds like they know what they’re talking about. That is, of course, how we are trained as children and it becomes habit. For the most part this is advantageous when you are incapable of making good judgments. The failure of education for some people is that they aren’t trained to direct their natural curiosity toward answering their questions rather than accepting an authoritative-sounding answer.


    Hey, is it just me or is anyone else having the same problem of the video not loading?

  9. Jeff

    a memorization question : “Which of the following a-e is the definition of this law of science?”
    a reasoning question: “Which of the following hypothetical situations illustrate this law of science?”

    the percentage of reasoning questions I give are much less than I used to .

  10. In my years as a science teacher in NYC public schools, I was forced to teach science using ELA (English Language arts) and NOT Science standards. Schools get their money based on how kids do on the ELA and math exams, NOT science. I was mandated to do shared readings and essay writing and the like, and NOT to waste valuable class time on process, labs, investigation, etc. The schools do not care how much science the kids absorb, if any… if all their kids did excellent on the science exams and failed the ELA exam, the school loses funding, the principal is fired, and the school is considered a failure. That is the system we have set up now, and we are unfortunately reaping what we sow.

  11. IVAN3MAN

    @ Geeky Atheist,

    Thanks, mate! However, the link only seems to work via MSN Explorer, but not Firefox 3.0.11.

  12. Matt

    @JackC: It’s always interesting watch two guys argue over something they both fundamentally agree on. It always boils down to vocabulary and what one guy meant when he said X. My guess is that with a couple of beers Phil and Niel would find they never actually disagreed at all.

  13. MadScientist

    “Use it or lose it.” Very many people rarely have to make use of what science they learned in class and they forget. I agree if they were taught to reason well they might have half a chance even if they forgot some things – at the very least in this internet age they can look for reliable sources to remind them of things and work through the problem.

    Personally I don’t hold out much hope – as a chemist I find much of the current generation of chemists is incapable of understanding quantum mechanics and don’t even understand Maxwell’s equations. If you know your calculus you’re a “geek”. How they can claim to “know” about techniques like spectroscopy, nuclear magnetic resonance, X-ray diffraction and so on is beyond me. On the bright side, instruments are always being improved and new discoveries being made so there must be *some* people out there who know what they’re doing.

    @Chris TMC: That’s scary. Unfortunately not difficult to imagine – the administrators will do what they need to get a pat on the back and money from the government – even if that means churning out kids who aren’t really learning. What matters is “gaming” the system and getting what you want from it.

  14. dglas

    It is perfectly possible to despair – including doomsday scenarios – while being perfectly secular and not being anti-scientific. Growing up “with the bomb,” I know this all too well. There is much more at work in the prophesy mentality than just some bad science.

  15. Jeff

    @Chris: “The schools do not care how much science the kids absorb, if any… if all their kids did excellent on the science exams and failed the ELA exam, the school loses funding, the principal is fired, and the school is considered a failure. That is the system we have set up now, and we are unfortunately reaping what we sow”

    I hear you. I’ve faced similar political problems with the system throughout my career.

  16. Scott

    I’ve spoken to a couple 9-12 grade science teachers, what I’ve heard is that curriculum requirements are so large now that they need to focus on meeting those bullets and prepare students for the test rather than prepare them for the world. Sigh.

    Upside, college courses are still as insane as ever. We spent 2-3 weeks in biogeography (woo!) on exactly the process of science. Why? Because most don’t learn it in high school.

  17. John Baxter

    And the kids done pretty bad in English, to!

  18. Pocket Nerd

    My favorite science teacher started every test with the same question: List the steps of the scientific method. It emphasized for all of us that science is not an oracle that drops infallibly accurate, unquestionable answers; it’s an investigative process, something you do, a sort of mental kung fu.

    Thank you again, Mr. Summerhayes, for everything.

  19. Caleb Jones

    The over-emphasis on standardized testing is largely to blame.

    By way of anecdote, I have a younger cousin who missed some points because there were no correct answers to a multiple choice problem on part of the state’s math test. The problem was, “If you have a area 20 ft. by 20 ft. how much concrete do you need to fill the area?” Possible answers included: 20, 1, 400, 4000 (all without units).

    Your math/physics/geometry alarms should all be firing by now. My cousin asked the teacher about that problem after the test and the teacher said, “It’s just a multiplication problem.”

    This is one example of what happens when a significant amount of time and energy are put towards teaching to a rigid, washed out, and unchallengeable test. You end up teaching students what to think, not how to think. Knowledge/truth become the possessions of the teacher to disseminate to the students rather than being objects to be obtained by the student with guidance from the teacher.

    Another anecdote, I had a physics problem in HS (AP physics) where I couldn’t find an equation to solve. So I sat down and started with the basics: momentum, potential/kinetic energy, pressure, force, acceleration, gravity, etc. After an hour, I had an equation that solved the problem. In class the next day the teacher was going over the problems in class and I was surprised to find that the appendix in the book had a different equation that solved the problem. The teacher asked me to write up on the board how I did it. After I showed my own derivation, he slammed his book down and went off for 5 minutes on how that is exactly what it’s all about–how physics/math/science give you the tools to apply your knowledge to new situations. Not incidentally, I still consider him one of the best teachers I ever had.

  20. Yojimbo

    IMNSHO, a lot of this is a matter of the prevailing culture. That is, whether “science as process” was taught in school or not, our culture defines science as a monolithic block of data. If the only time you’re exposed to the idea of science as a way of thinking is in science class you had better really like your science teacher. (If everyone learned science from my high school physics teacher there would be no critical thinking anywhere :) ).

    Considering the influence of religion, politics, and pop culture on (at least American) society, we’re lucky to have as much rational thought as we have.

  21. emote_control

    Can someone upload this to a mirror so those of us who don’t live in the U.S. can view it? Thanks.

  22. I think what Neil actually said is a little ambiguous, and he may have meant the students aren’t taking such classes, or that such classes don’t exist. Either way, the point is: the classes don’t exist.

  23. Crudely Wrott

    As a 1969 graduate of Oyster River High School in Durham, NH, I must be an exception to the rule.

    The fact that I had a good notion that science was a tool for guiding inquiry into the unknown rather than a list of facts somehow gathered by someone else might seem a fluke to some. But they never sat in a class taught by Elenore Miliken. She taught informed inquiry as a means of discovery, a lesson that somehow (thankfully) stuck with me. Her lessons have served me well and I recall her classes with a growing nostalgia as time goes by.

    Also, a hat tip to my biology instructor, Neil Kazura, whose one-of-a-kind delivery lingers in memory: “Everybody brings a “badada” (potato) to the next class. Heh. No badada, no class.”

    Bless them both and if I misspelled Elenore’s name wrong I’ll finish that exta-credit topo map that I never finished back in ’68.

  24. Jumping on the bandwagon, science is not usually taught as “fun”. It is presented as a bunch of equations/facts you need to memorize.

    What is the name for rocks that are volcanic in origin?
    How long does it take for an object dropped from a height of 75 meters to hit the ground?

    Instead of “Look at this rock. Where do you think these holes come from?”

    But to be fair, many subjects aren’t taught enthusiastically. History is often events/names and dates. Foreign languages are a list of ways to conjugate the verb.

  25. doofus

    I forget to give credit where’s it’s due in my own case.

    Carl Sagan’s Cosmos came out when I was a senior in high school. It re-inspired my interest which was slowly being ground down by the system.

  26. Erin F.

    My high school sciences classes ranged everywhere across the board. My honors (AP, same diff) chemistry and physics classes were taught by amazing teachers, both of whom loved what they did, and had a lot of knowledge on the subject. Lots of emphasis on experimentation and lab work, which was great.

    On the other end, my biology teacher was… odd. Most topics were fine; the basic rote science people are describing above. But then we got to evolution, and the teacher spent 3 weeks showing us all the other theories out there that poke holes in Darwinism. Okay, because he never came outright and said “Look! It can’t be true!”, but showed (without using creationism, I might add) that there are other theories worth looking at. Not cool, because he was the faculty sponser for the Christian club at school, and was ultimatly trying to get us to say that only God could have created the world.

    He also cornered me after the bug collection portion of class (I failed; I’m not fond of bugs, and catching them and gassing them is even less appealing), and told me he found that people who failed the bug collection were oddly still pro-choice, and how did I feel about that. I didn’t even want to answer. He did a bunch of other stuff later on in the year that made his feelings about the topic crystal clear… ugh.

    My Dad wanted to have him fired. I didn’t want to make a fuss as a kid. Now I wish I’d made a fuss. That guy shouldn’t have been teaching public school. I still get pissed off, and it’s been over 10 years… I can’t imagine more teachers out there like him, and kids (and parents) not realizing how awful what teachers like him can be. I just hope when I have kids, I’ll be able to teach them how to think for themselves.

  27. Mike Wagner

    I wish my high school classes could have been better too. The physics teacher was good, but the biology and chem teachers were just regurgitating stuff. The math teachers were strictly line by line textbook teachers, and the textbooks didn’t teach, they just spit numbers at you.
    I’m going to university this year, at 36, and I’m doing some home-study in prep for my math course, and it’s amazing what a good textbook can do. And when it comes to remembering formulas, it’s as simple as going on youtube and looking for a mnemonic to work with.
    My boring math teacher would never have taught the class to sing the quadratic formula to the tune of “Pop Goes the Weasel”.
    We need texts that teach, teachers that bring the subject to life, and schools that don’t choose a curriculum by letting a school board decide what goes in the books.

  28. Molly

    Phil, I would have to disagree. The classes DO exist. They are just unfortunately not available to everyone. There is a huge gap in public education. You are either labeled “smart” or “average” at a very early age and that decides your track throughout your education, at least that’s how it works where I’m from.

    I guess I was lucky and was a “smart” kid. I was in IB in high school and critical thinking was the basis of my education, whether in science or history. However, I was not innately smarter than anyone else. I went to a Montessori preschool and had an educational experience and baseline knowledge others didn’t when I started Kindergarten at public school. I also had parents that greatly valued education. That was the only difference. It’s the idea of Outliers in perfect form.

    The point is, the classes are available, but the students who could benefit from them the most are never exposed to them. That’s the failing. It’s almost worse than them not being available at all.

  29. You misspelled Science in the second quote, Phil.

  30. Scott Rowed

    Massimo Pigliucci has a good paper on this at the McGill Journal of Education site:

  31. T_U_T

    Test whether I am banned. Banning me for obvious satire is cruel and unjust.

  32. T_U_T

    Ok. testing what upsets the automatic censor.
    test 1.
    Science is autism.

  33. T_U_T

    test 2.
    Science is autism !

  34. T_U_T

    test 3 ! Science is autism !!!

  35. T_U_T

    test 4.

    Science is autism !!!

  36. T_U_T

    test 5

    ZOMG ! Science is AUTISM !!!

  37. Anonymous

    Is this the guy who hates Pluto?

  38. Gonzo

    Being skeptical, asking for evidence, examining that evidence, and diagnosing it compared to the whole of learning that goes on around it is the way to go. That’s how you distinguish sense from nonsense.

    Brilliant Phil! You made my day here.

  39. curious

    ok… I guess this is semi-related. Did anyone see the Jimmy Fallon episode where he had The Amazing Kreskin (I think that was his name?) do some “light as a feather, stiff as a board” type thing?

    I tried looking up information about how and why that “worked,” especially because of the performer’s story about how he wasn’t allowed to perform that on Johnny Carson’s show. I know this is a little off topic, but I also know there has to be some explanation out there about why he could stand on Fallon who was lying on two chairs (head/shoulders on one, feet on the other) that has more to do with physics than the “woo” I found on the web. Obviously my search skills weren’t up to the task. Can anyone point me in the right direction? Thanks!

  40. Bill Nettles

    And yet, even Tyson doesn’t have a clean act. I went to the Planetarium that he’s in charge of in NYC last summer and saw the “Collisions” movie (I was extremely disappointed that I didn’t get to see a real planetarium show with projector and all). As asteroids and planets and comets and other space stuff zoomed around there were whishes, swooshes, and even booms when collisions happened. So much for good science!

    Yeah, I understand that it would have been hard to keep children focused on the sights without the sounds, but it’s that type of entertainment-quotient that leads to watering down right science. In cartoons (and even advertisements), I can understand it, but at Neil Tyson’s planetarium? Sheesh!

  41. Blizno

    I tried to watch the video but I got commercials and commercials and commercials. I finally quit out of disgust. I am not a consuming beast of burden; I am a human being.
    I forbid the world to force advertisements relentlessly down my throat.

    If I want to buy, I will. If I do not want to buy, leave me alone!

  42. Bog

    I’d also like to see a good grounding in macroeconomics and economic history as well. If the voters were well informed there, pretty much all the fools currently in office would never have been elected.

  43. coolstar

    It’s weak of me, I know (and I stole the gist of this from Chris W. commenting on the Not Even Wrong blog) but I still can’t resist:

    Neil Tyson is to Astronomy what Kenny G is to Jazz.

    And before all you fanboys get your knickers in a twist, yeah, Tyson does do some good (hell, some people LIKE Kenny G) but
    a) he really isn’t a very good astronomer (do a NASA ADS search and drop the book reviews, for a somewhat simplistic first cut) and b) I hate the self-aggrandizement.

    Let the stoning begin….

  44. cope

    Well, let me put in a plug for myself and several of my fellow high-school science teachers who DO teach that science is an action word, who DO try to teach critical thinking. Hell, I don’t even teach the standard 6 (5?7?) steps of the “scientific method”, I approach what scientists do from the perspective of science process skills. I introduce the idea of science process skills the first week of the year (on the same day I hold up the textbook and say “This is not science”). I then weave the science process skills in the whole year’s curriculum.

    I got the best compliment ever this year from a student I had taught the previous year in one of my earth/space science classes. She was taking chemistry from one of our notoriously demanding (in a good way) chemistry teachers and she thanked me for helping her do well in chemistry. I said something to the effect that, well, I don’t teach much chemistry in my class and she said, “No, but you taught me how to think”. As I said, best compliment EVER.

    Are there weak science teachers? Is there too much “teaching to the standardized test” going on? Obviously, but please don’t paint with quite such a broad brush.

    PS to coolstar: To me, Tyson’s value is as a promoter and evangelist for science. Re-read post #1 to see an example of the lack of correlation between being a world-class scientist and being able to effectively communicate with the public.

  45. Joe

    I have to disagree somewhat – It’s not that science is taught as a bunch of facts, necessarily. Almost inevitably, it’s learned that way. That’s easier than learning a ‘process’, after all.

  46. Brent

    @Phil: “Being skeptical, asking for evidence, examining that evidence, and diagnosing it compared to the whole of learning that goes on around it is the way to go.”

    That is not science, at least not to me. That is the process of evaluating information critically. Because if that process, in and of itself, makes something science, I’d like to know why I have a B.A. in history instead of a B.S. despite the evaluation of evidence and claims being at the core of history.

    For me, science is about describing the universe and predicting things based on that description. Evaluating information isn’t how you make those descriptions, it’s how you weed out the ones that don’t work.

  47. Caleb ( #20 ): My physics teacher always insisted – and quite rightly – that numerical answers must always include the correct units. If you stated a number, without the units, he would say “What – peanuts?”, and if you did it in writing, he would write “Peanuts?” in your exercise book. It worked for me!

    Here’s a true anecdote, to illustrate the point about the difference between using reason and simply “learning facts”.
    Some years ago, I attended an open-air boxing event, which was held on a July evening in the grounds of Cardiff Castle. The Castle has two entrances, north and south, and each ticket said on it, “Enter by North Gate” or “Enter by South Gate”, depending on where your seat was.
    I was waiting by the South Gate, for the gate to be opened – this was at 6 p.m. on a summer evening, with a cloudless sky – when two guys came along, looking at their tickets in puzzlement, and one wondered aloud, “Is this the North or South Gate?” Because there wasn’t actually a sign by the gate, saying “South Gate”, they were unable to work it out…
    I resisted the temptation to say anything to them, but I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. These people were evidently incapable of applying a simple bit of logic, i.e. “It’s 6 p.m., and there’s the Sun – so that way is west. So if I stand with the Sun to my left, then in front of me is north.”
    Now I find it extremely hard to believe, that anyone could possibly not KNOW that the Sun rises in the east and sets in the west – but I guess people must simply regard that as a “fact”, which they learned at school, and then never gave it another thought. It clearly doesn’t occur to them that such a “fact” can actually be put to a practical use in their lives, such as for finding directions! Some people are just totally ignorant of the entire concepts of logic and reasoning, i.e. of using known facts to deduce unknown ones!

  48. Steve in Dublin

    @Caleb (#20): The problem was, “If you have a area 20 ft. by 20 ft. how much concrete do you need to fill the area?”

    Sorry, but that question just doesn’t make any sense. Concrete is a 3-dimensional problem, not 2-dimensional. The question should read something along the lines of:

    “If you have an area 20 ft. by 20 ft. by 6 in. deep, how much concrete do you need to fill the area?” The answer is: 20 ft. x 20 ft. x .5 ft = 200 cubic ft.

    Sorry to nitpick as I realise you were only trying to illustrate the point that the multiple choice answers were missing the necessary units of measure… but this *is* a science-oriented site 😉


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