As host of the recently remade and well loved series “Comos”, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has an enormous platform through which to shape the way the public thinks about ‘science’. As with all such platforms, this one not only brings with it an incredible opportunity to engage citizens in knowledge making, it too brings with it the potential to produce ‘ignorance’. This latter potential was made apparent in Tyson’s interview on the Nerdist Podcast earlier this year. During the interview (minute 20:15) one of the hosts, who it is stated majored in philosophy, characterized the philosophy of science and math as “why is a yard a yard and what makes this this? You know…I almost felt there was a little too much question asking involved.” At hearing this, one might anticipate that most teachers and academics and therefore Tyson would exclaim: questions are wonderful, one can never have too many questions! Instead, what was heard was this: “I agree.”
Let me first state that Tyson has, in many ways, been an incredible advocate of and means for engaging students and the public at large in educational programming over the last few decades. His comments here however, are reflective of a rather narrow view of what should be included in that programming. Moreover, they are not representative of the breadth and diversity of perspectives of those in either social science or STEM fields. Tyson’s intention may not be to preclude this diversity, he may even elsewhere acknowledge its value, but it is important to consider here the cultural work of his comments.
In the interview, Tyson further illustrated his perspective on the philosophy of science in characterizing ‘philosophers’ (in a vast and problematic generalization) as preoccupied with unimportant questions. ‘Unimportant questions’ being defined as those concerning definitions rather than ideas (though the distinction was not made explicit). And, ‘importance’ being conceived of as relative to that which moves us ‘forward’. Never asked or problematized were: are philosophers of science only interested in definitional questions, are those questions and the broader variety of questions they ask actually unimportant, and where is forward? Responding to this exchange, Damon Linker recently wrote in a post for The Week:
Tyson is right about one thing: Philosophy is primarily about posing questions. But he’s wrong to view such questioning as a pernicious waste of time. If Socrates is to be believed, it may actually be the best way of life for a human being — and quite possibly the only way to avoid the dogmatism to which all thinking is prone.
Without asking the very kinds of questions about science and technology that Tyson eschews in the interview, we lose potentially important insights into the relationship between these systems of knowledge production and broader society. Questions like…Why do certain technologies get made or science gets funding and others don’t? In what ways do science and technology reflect and reproduce social systems and structures (be they dominate or generative of broader distributions of power)? Who is most and disproportionately affected by the intended and ‘unintended’ (if not unknowable) outcomes of science and technology? What drives/allows for decision making processes regarding scientific knowledge production that are not often imbued with meaningful representation for those most likely to be affected by those outcomes? Linker’s comments might prompt us to then contemplate what forms of dogmatism and what cultural or professional norms are most cultivated by a failure to ask such questions?
As a Graduate Teaching Assistant in Science & Technology Studies my responsibility in working with first year students in STEM fields is to cultivate exactly this type of questioning. It should be noted that many students come to the class with important and interesting questions of their own. However, it has also been my experience that many students, having been exposed to and influenced by the type of discourse that Tyson engages with in his interview, reiterate a devaluing of social science approaches to the very professional systems they are choosing to enter. In the course of our class discussions and in considering the types of questions STS asks about ‘science’, I’ve watched students become more critical thinkers in regard to the concepts, skills and materials covered in their core classes. My view on this is, of course (and, like anyone else’s), an interested one that is informed by my own experiences, associations and ways of thinking. As such, I would refer to the comments and considerations of STEM students themselves. In an anonymous survey for the “Intro to STS” class this past semester, students were asked “does and, if so, how does this course inform your broader education.” They responded as follows:
- I really like this course because I think it made me more aware of issues in the community and the globe as a whole. I think the way I see innovation has changed a great deal and I hope that I will be able to apply some of this critical thinking in my future. - Bioinformatics & Molecular Biology Major
- It introduces us to the problems in the world, especially those associated with what we’re learning. It relates how what we do affects more of the world than we might think. It also introduces students to becoming aware of issues in the world, what causes them, and possible solutions. - Product Design for Innovation & Mechanical Engineering Major
- This course helped me think more critically about technology and the benefits and detriments of it, which most of the other courses I have taken have not mentioned. - Biology Major
- This course provided me a chance to get a fair volume of writing in, which is sometimes hard to get. It also pushed me to think critically about a lot of the issues I was learning about in other classes from a different perspective. - Math & Computer Science Major
In total, this question received 19 responses and of those responses 17 students had similar comments to those above, while two students said that they didn’t feel the class informed their broader education. By and large, the responses reflect that far from being regarded as unimportant, questions considering the relationship of science and society are of great value to future scientists. Once more, they are open questions. In alluding to, but not specifying ‘where is forward’, Tyson obscures that he is assuming scientific and societal agreement or ‘closure’ on where we are and where we want to be. He too assumes that science ‘uncompromised’ by ‘unimportant’ questions is what will get us there.