Can science save us from the new coronavirus? With the internet awash in both sound science and pseudoscience, how can people know what to believe? Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and Ann Druyan, creator of the “Cosmos” series now airing on the National Geographic channel, discussed these and other issues with the USA TODAY Editorial Board. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity:
Q. How can science and history help people navigate this difficult and scary time?
Druyan: We are 50 years into a period when scientists have been sounding the alarm … telling us that if we don’t stop living the way we’re living and doing what we’re doing, we are dooming our civilization. And nothing, during all that time, has been able to awaken us from our sleepwalking until now. These are the days the Earth stood still. This is the first time when our whole civilization has suddenly realized that nature will not be deceived, that we can have leaders who manipulate us and deceive us, but nature will not be lied to. And so, at this moment, everyone is turning to the scientists, looking for a vaccine, looking for a remedy. Knowing science and history is the only way out of this, because if there is going to be a remedy, it will come from science.
Q. Are we in some sort of giant scientific experiment?
Tyson: The power of science is unique in our culture because of its capacity to predict future events, not only based on rhythms of the past, as ancients have done, but also our modern understandings of how nature works and what our interaction with nature is. And you run these models, you get the best understanding available, and we make a prediction. Do people put their head in the sand? Do they say, I choose not to believe that, not realizing, as Ann just said, that nature is the ultimate judge, jury and executioner of your ideas? So, yeah, we’re in an experiment (in whether the world will listen to scientists). And when we come out on the other side, we may be better off for it, but it’s quite costly to have gotten there.
Q. How can the average person distinguish between the real science and the pseudo science that they see on the internet?
Tyson: It’s hard. What does the internet do? It gives you access to information unfiltered. Before the internet, there were these gates: editorial boards at newspapers, editors at publishing houses. There were these gateways. And yes, occasionally, crap would get through, but basically you could pass judgment on the likelihood of something being correct based on the editorial traditions of the entity that you were referencing. That’s gone. So much more of that burden, because it is a burden, is now on the shoulders of the individual, and so this is why science is more than just how much you know. Science is a toolkit for how to query information. Science literacy is a way of thinking, a way of engaging the act and the art of asking questions.
Druyan: I completely agree with what you said, Neil. Science is a way of seeing absolutely everything. It’s that baloney detection kit that (my late husband) Carl (Sagan) wrote about.
Q. Scientists who make great efforts at public education and communication sometimes get dismissed by their peers as popularizers or generalists. So doesn’t the scientific community bear some of the responsibility here?
Druyan: Yes, that has been true in the past. Carl was a full-time scientist who authored or coauthored 600 peer-reviewed scientific papers, and yet he got blackballed from the National Academy of Sciences. Why? Because of this bias that we have against sharing this knowledge, the bias of the priesthood, that wants its arcane jargon to be the secret language of the lucky few.
Tyson: There’s blame enough to go around, but we’re still talking about people who are in charge who are denying science. They’re the ones with the actual power. Scientists don’t wield the power that politicians do or that the electorate does. To imply that we might have a rise of flat-earthers because scientists historically were prevented from communicating with the public — there are other forces going on out there that require all of our collective effort, media as well, to try to fight.
Q. Are human beings bad at rational risk assessment?
Tyson: That’s something that is just ignored in school. When my wife and I had our kids, I got a hold of a book that assessed all the causes of death at every age of your life, ranked by highest risk to lowest risk at every age. And you can watch things transform as you get older. Certain causes of death go away, others rise up. My wife and I coordinated to reduce the risks that were maximum according to the statistics, not that we ignored what our feelings were about a risk. That still matters, because that’s why we’re all living human beings.
Q. Is it hard to persuade “young invincibles” to stay home during the coronavirus pandemic?
Tyson: That message took a while, because the bars were all filled with the 20-somethings for so long, but they all have a grandparent (who could get infected). I think that’s what ultimately did it. Otherwise, in a free country, if the risk you take only affects you, then the most you can do is communicate to that person what those risks are, and then they make their own decisions. But it’s no longer a free country if that person taking risk with their own life puts your life at risk. That’s an important message to communicate.
Q. Now that a lot of parents are home-schooling, how can they try to get their kids interested in science?
Tyson: Anyone who’s had kids knows that they’re born into this world curious. They’re curious about everything. Their curiosity operates on a level where at a young enough age that curiosity can actually kill them. But what parents often do is constrain that curiosity to the point where the curiosity is viewed as something bad. Managed curiosity is something that you don’t have to instill within children. Since they’re born with it, you just have to, sort of, not get in their way.
Q. Is the pandemic likely to lead to more focus on the life sciences and more people studying these sciences in medical school?
Tyson: Often, the greatest investments that we make are the “I don’t want to die” investments: I fear that I have an enemy, so let me have money flow like rivers. It turns out, a virus is an enemy. It’s an enemy that’s attacking everyone. … That virus doesn’t carry a passport. It can move across borders at will. So in a sense, it is a war, and people behave differently when they fear death than any other way that I know. Will this prompt more people to go into biology? Most certainly.
Q. Will this crisis bridge the gap between scientists and people who are skeptical about scientific pronouncements?
Druyan: I think this is a moment, a singular moment in my lifetime. … Maybe we’ll emerge from this with a greater respect for what the scientists are saying. But it’s a two-way street. The scientists have to speak with a kind of openness and reality and humility that is compelling.
Q&As with more coronavirus experts:Coronavirus experts on what to do and U.S. response to the pandemic
- Substantial undocumented infection facilitates the rapid dissemination of novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) – Science Magazine
- England coronavirus testing has not risen fast enough – science chief – The Guardian
- Coronavirus Tests Science’s Need for Speed Limits – The New York Times
- Trump Falsely Distorts New York Times COVID-19 Science Story – FactCheck.org
- This is the brightest supernova ever seen – Science Magazine
- Coronavirus Today: Science will save us – Los Angeles Times
- Italians stuck at home are measuring light pollution for ‘science on the balcony’ – TechCrunch
- ‘Oumuamua might be a shard of a broken planet – Science News
- College of Arts and Science converts thriving academic programs to departments – Vanderbilt University News