Neil Tyson has responded extensively to comments over at the Point of Inquiry forums–comments that were, in turn, triggered by our interview. Without going into every issue, I want to chime in on a few points. Quoting Tyson’s responses:
“Tyson is wrong that the scientific atheists don’t criticize their own believing brethren”
1) No question that vocal/viisible religious scientists are criticized often and resoundingly. My comments were not about these individuals but about the persistence of belief among scientists in general (40% in America) – a point that I hardly ever see addressed in public discourse by anyone. And the related fact that members of the National Academy of Sciences are at 7%. Active atheists cite and celebrate this small number, yet, to me, the most interesting fact worthy of further research is why that number is not identically zero.
We did a show on this with Elaine Ecklund of Rice. Short answer: The relationship between religious belief and scientific education, or scientific expertise, does not appear to be linear. What Ecklund finds about many religious scientists is that these people start out as believers from religious families; then their scientific education and training causes conflict and makes them more religiously moderate; but they ultimately find some way of reconciling the beliefs of their upbringing and their science, and don’t move all the way to atheism. (But of course, you won’t find many fundamentalists in this camp, either.)
Next Tyson response:
“It was hard to believe that …both Mooney and Tyson so studiously avoided talking about …climate science denial…of the Republican Party”
3) Nope. Never came up. Which, by the way, is not the same thing as “studiously avoided”.
Indeed. We did an interview that was 50 plus minutes and still didn’t even get to this subject, just for lack of time. It is obviously not a topic that I studiously avoid. It’s a topic I’m going on and on about constantly. You may have noticed.
Next Tyson response:
“It seems he wants to call himself agnostic for cowardly reasons”
5) We need a word for Atheists who do not care what other people believe, and have hardly any energy or interest to engage the conversation. That would be me. Evidence that “disinterest” and “cowardice” are two different mental states. FYI: In spite of what shows up on YouTube, less than 1% of my public messages (spoken or written) involve God or religion.
Personally, I do use the word “atheist” to describe myself, because it means the lack of belief (theism), and I certainly lack belief. So I consider it the most accurate term for someone like me.
Still, I can see where Tyson is coming from. For many people, “atheism” calls to mind an organized movement that does things and takes positions, as well as an associated personal identity; agnosticism doesn’t really carry this meaning. So there is a clear difference in connotations, even if one can argue that substantively, all agnostics are really, effectively, atheists.
This is, obviously, a subject that one could say, much, much more about.
Last response to quote:
“I think by just staying out of the religion debate, he thinks he can remain the lovable, approachable non-threatening teddy bear of science education.”
6) My pedagogical goal is to get people to think straight in the first place, rather than to debate them later after it’s too late. For this reason, you will hardly ever see me on a program with Moon Hoaxers, Conspiracy Theorists, UFOlogists, Creationists, or even Astrologers. And, as is true in my reply to Kenny KJC, these subjects occupy less than 1% of my actual public discourse, in spite of what the viewing statistics of YouTube clips imply. Note also that my TAM6 presentation, which is all about pseudoscience, was given under heavy persuasion from people such as James Randi, who I respect so deeply that I would not decline his invitation to speak: http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/component/content/article/44-amazing-meeting/1232-qbrain-droppingsq-from-neil-degrasse-tyson-at-tam6.html So if the consequence of all this is that I am a “teddy-bear”, I happily accept the moniker, but my motives differ from what you assert.
I’m with Tyson here. If anything, I’m moving more and more to the view that we need to create a culture of scientific thinking–and rational, calm discourse in general–rather than banking on the hope of changing minds that are already fixed. It’s an indirect approach, not a direct one, and one that recognizes how strongly people cling to beliefs and resist letting them go.