The Sciences

Neil Tyson on our lack of skepticism

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitJun 30, 2009 4:32 PM


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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.

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