Last Tuesday, renowned astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson held a special presentation at the Greensboro Coliseum, North Carolina. Besides talking about Voyager or Carl Sagan, Tyson also took a few minutes to address the audience about one of the biggest perils the nation is facing. It’s not terrorism. It’s not Russia. It’s not occult vested interests. It’s plain old ignorance.
“Americans overall are bad at science. Scared of math. Poor at physics and engineering. Resistant to evolution. This science illiteracy, is a threat to the nation,” Tyson said.
“The consequence of that is that you breed a generation of people who do not know what science is nor how and why it works,” he added. “You have mortgaged the future financial security of your nation. Innovations in science and technology are the (basis) of tomorrow’s economy.”
Tyson illustrated why such concerns are no trifle nor without precedent.
“Just look back 1,000 years ago at the Middle East, where math and science flourished in Baghdad. Algebra and algorithms were invented in the Middle East. So were Arabic numerals, the numbers we still use today,” Tyson said as quoted by Scientific Literacy Matters, an organization which stands for a more educated general public
“But when a new cleric emerged during the 12th century, he declared math and science to be earthly pursuits, Tyson said, and good Muslims should be concerned about spiritual affairs. The scientists drifted away, and scientific literacy faded from that part of the world. Of 655 Nobel Prizes awarded in the sciences since 1900, Tyson said, only three have been awarded to Muslims.”
“Things that seem harmless can have devastating effects,” he said.
The dusk of science literacy in the Arab world sits in stark contrast with Europe’s scientific enlightenment, a continent which has produced scientists of incredible caliber every generation since the days of Newton. Tyson mentions European money — such as the new discontinued Deutsche Mark which used to bear the portrait of mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss and his most famous contribution, the bell curve — to highlight how scientists are valued in Europe versus the US.
“It is a not-so-subtle message from the government that math matters,” Tyson said. “If it’s on your currency, it is part of your culture. You think it. You feel it. Whether or not you’re a scientist or a mathematician, you’re not going to be the person to stand in their way when they’re trying to get math and science done.”
So, what’s to be done? Obviously, we need more science reaching the public. This means less so-called ‘UFO sighting’ in the media and more real science in the news. It means actively involving children in school with science instead of feeding them creationist bullcrap like they do in some schools in Texas, and elsewhere. It means having genuinely capable people leading and organizing the nation’s educational system instead of having a religious nut like Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary. It means fostering critical thinking. It means honoring real values instead of superficial platitudes — or worse.
We each have a part to play else we risk diving into another dark age for science.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.