I've been a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson for a long time. He's even my friend on the facebook1.
Today, however, he earns a new level of respect plus several thousand cool points. Thanks to a post over on Stop Trying to Inspire Me, I found an interview he did with Linda Holmes for NPR where he discusses science literacy and education.
You should read the entire interview (it's not too long), but here are some of the good bits:
NdT: The center line of science literacy -- which not many people tell you, but I feel this strongly, and I will go to my grave making this point -- is how you think. If someone comes up to you and says, "I have these crystals. If you rub them together, it will heal your ailments." I don't want you to say, "Oh, that's bunk." No. Because extreme skepticism, such as that, and extreme gullibility are two equal ways of not having to think at all. And I don't think I'm the first to say that.
So the thought is -- what's your next thought when someone approaches you with the crystals? It should be, "How does that work? How do you know it works? By what mechanism does it work? How much does it cost? Where did you get the crystals? What evidence do you have that it would work on me?" Start asking questions. And people who are just charlatans out there, or are self-deluded, you'll reach a point where they don't have answers to those questions, because if they did, they wouldn't be trying to sell you crystals.
NdT (speaking on how we inhibit curiosity): You're afraid your dish might break, so you tell them to stop playing with the china. Well, what's the cost of replacing your dish? A few dollars. If it's expensive, maybe twenty dollars. Why is it that you don't spend that, but you'll easily write a check to send your kid to some fancy school for thirty or forty thousand dollars a year? "Oh, because at the end, they'll have the degree from this school." It ain't about the degree. It's about: How do you think? That doesn't have to come from an institution, it comes from your trajectory through life and whether your appetite for learning, whether your urge to query the unfolding of nature around you is nurtured or quelled. That's the difference. "Squashed." "Quelled" is too calm. "Squashed."
What happens, the kid goes and plays in the mud. "Don't play in the mud; you'll get your clothes ..." There's bugs in the mud. That's kinda cool. They turn over a rock. "You'll get dirt on your clothes." There's millipedes under the rock. Let the kid find the millipedes. Plucks the -- off the rose -- "Don't break the rose like that; that's a rose." No, they want to see what's inside the rose; it's kinda interesting. The middle is not the same as the outside. Let the experiment run its course.
NdT: Who is it that we say are the best kids in the class? The ones that shut up and pay attention to the teacher, not the ones who are jumping up and down and breaking things. Kids should be allowed to break stuff more often. That's a consequence of exploration. Exploration is what you do when you don't know what you're doing. That's what scientists do every day. If a scientist already knew what they were doing, they wouldn't be discovering anything, because they already knew what they were doing.
This is a fundamental disconnect between what's going on in the educational system and what it takes to be a scientist. So the system does not promote interest in science. People who are scientists today are scientists in spite of the system, typically, not because of it.
LH: So there's a lack of support in the educational system for science, but not necessarily in the ways people would think about.
NdT: That's correct. There's a lack of support for scientific curiosity. There's a curriculum, there's a book ...
And then, near the end of the interview, he drops this:
NdT: "They told me it wasn't going to be on the test." "Oh, I should know that -- I got straight A's." See, the measure of what they should know comes to them from their grade, not from the act of gaining insight itself. So I don't ... I'm going to ... it's not time for me to do it yet. I'm saving up for it.
LH: Saving up for what?
NdT: Saving up my energies to make that case. I mean, it's in this interview now, but I'm not ready to make that why I show up on television. There's still some universe things I want to get off the table.
LH: But ultimately, that's your bigger agenda.
NdT: I'm going to be in your face.
LH: You're going to be the pro-curiosity guy.
NdT: I'm going to be back in your face. That's right.
Well, Neil deGrasse Tyson, this is something that I'm trying to get done in my classes this semester. I've outlined my formal plan, I've discussed very similar ideas about scientific learning & curiosity, and I'm trying to push the whole "engage your curiosity for science" bit with my students. I know you're a busy guy who has "some universe things" you want to do first, but when you're ready, I know a science teacher in Groton, CT2 who'd love to work with you to help revamp science education. Drop me line. Seriously. Let's do this.
- It's pretty rare to have an astrophysicist that can discuss his field in a way that is interesting and informative to non-science fold. My students recognize him nearly instantaneously thank to several video clips I've shown them which happen to feature Dr. deGrasse Tyson. (back)
- That'd be me, for clarification. (back)