Neil deGrasse Tyson Writes to His Fans
On UFOs, Fallacies, Why Science Matters, and More
Randy M. Zeitman was interested in the age-old dilemma of whether intellectually talented people should pursue their own interests or devote that mental power to solving the pressing problems of society. He questioned the value of walking on the Moon or the Hubble Space Telescope if we still haven’t cured cancer, or if we still have a problem feeding the world. In October 2004, Mr. Zeitman (politely) challenged me on this tension between doing what you want and doing what is right:
Dear Mr. Zeitman,
Thank you for sharing your comments and critical perspectives. I once felt exactly as you do, but changed my mind after I learned some basic (yet not widely appreciated) facts of life and of society.
You referred to a cure for cancer. Tax money spent on cancer and disease research in America exceeds that which we spend on space by a factor of ten. When you include private/corporate R&D spent on curing disease, the factor rises to one hundred. So it is not as though we are not already investing huge resources into these crucial fields. NASA just happens to be the most visible among targets for your line of argument.
Note that you did not compare the cost of curing cancer with money Americans spend on the Defense Department, or on farm subsidies. Why not? The Department of Defense spends in ten days what NASA spends in a year, not including the cost of veterans’ benefits. America spends upwards of $100 billion per year in cash payments to farmers so that they do not grow crops. This, itself, is more than six times NASA’s annual budget.
But what’s more important than any of the above comparisons is the fact that truly innovative solutions to problems come primarily from the cross-pollination of disciplines. And this cross-pollination is entirely unpredictable in its nature and its direction. I give several examples drawn from health, but thousands exist in all fields: A new computer algorithm for image analysis was invented back when the original Hubble Telescope mirror was launched and found to be defective. Until the optics were repaired, applying this algorithm was the best we could do with the fuzzy images. Turns out, the algorithm was shown to be ideal for the early detection of breast cancer, enabling diagnosis long before the trained human eye could determine that cancer was present. No doctor has the background to even think about computer algorithms for this purpose. And the same is true for X-ray machines (invented by physicists exploring the electromagnetic spectrum), the MRI machines (concept discovered by physicists), and ultrasound devices, developed by the military for undersea surveillance.
I will add that my visibility as a Black scientist serves to break stereotypes that, themselves, take an incalculable toll on society, as opportunities and resources are closed off because people in power do not see people of color as having the intellectual mettle to compete in the workplace, in academia, or elsewhere.
So I could not disagree more with your contention. The facts of how society works argue strongly against it. To the extent that you represent an otherwise non-vocal minority, I am intrigued by the strength of your conviction.
We live in a wealthy nation. The wealthiest the world has ever known. In some ways, we define our culture (passively or actively) by what we do as a nation as expressed through congressional funding priorities. The National Endowment for the Arts is funded because it contributes a dimension to the quality of life we enjoy as Americans. Transportation is funded (even subsidized) because we value the economic vitality that it brings. The National Science Foundation is funded because it drives basic research that, history has shown, is a foundation of technological progress, especially where corporate R&D does not go. The Smithsonian is funded because we value the preservation of who and what we have been, to ourselves and to the world. The military is funded because we (as a nation) value above all else the real or perceived security it brings. The National Institutes of Health is funded because we care greatly about curing disease—and on and on. It is this mixture that defines America as a nation.
I suppose another way to set priorities would be to rank the problems of America (and of the world) and solve them in order, applying all resources at once. I believe this scenario is more resonant with your sense of what I should be doing with my life. But the history of the search for solutions does not support this contention. As I said, the most innovative solutions to problems commonly come from outside of the field—from people inspired by different priorities. The government knows this (primarily through fighting wars, and not through some deep insight into human nature) and values it through high investments in pure science, compared with the arts, for example.
No one has ever suggested that obtaining Hubble images is more important than feeding people. But this premise seems to feed your objections. The best of all worlds is to do it all. And, with all the flaws in the system, we nonetheless do it all better than anybody.
Again, thank you for your interest in my interview, and I do appreciate your comments in spite of (or perhaps because of) our points of disagreement.
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Thursday, May 3, 2012
How’s it going, Ty? I feel I can call you that ’cause I feel like I know you already.
I’ve watched literally every second of all your YouTube videos. I would be at your talks, but my job requires me to travel a lot. My name is Jarrett Burgess and I play professional baseball. I’m emailing you because ever since I was four-years-old, I wanted to be an astronaut. You inspired me and gave me confidence in doing what I love to do, despite the public and family pressure on me to play baseball. I want to be known for discoveries and making a difference in science. I don’t want baseball to define me.
Keep up with your videos—you’re even reaching out to people like me. Yeah, I can throw a baseball 100 mph from the outfield, or run a 60-yard dash in 6.2 seconds, and hit a baseball over 410 feet. Even when I’m on the field, I’m thinking about science. I want to pursue my goal in science. I need help and a guide on what I should start off doing. I’m 21-years-old and the most dedicated person, with great integrity and, most importantly, an amazing imagination. And I love the cosmos.
Please help me, Neil, in any way you can. I will appreciate it.
Thanks for that all-out appeal to connect with the cosmos. You express a dilemma that afflicts many in society: Should you do what you’re best at? Do what others expect of you? Or do what you love most?
I love baseball (a few dozen of my Tweets are on the subject), so I’d be hard-pressed to tell you to take your 100 mph arm and study the universe. But I also happen to love what I do. And because I love what I do, I am self-driven and incentivized to make myself better at it every day—without limit.
If I remember correctly, minor league players make hardly any money at all. So your time in the farm system is conceived to hone your skills in anticipation of being called up, rather than to accumulate wealth. It seems to me that you could’ve instead attended a good baseball college, where you can play competitively while simultaneously majoring in astrophysics. If memory serves, in the early 1980s, Roger Clemens pitched for the University of Texas at Austin, took them to the nationals, then entered the Major League.
Meanwhile, in the 1980s, Brian May had a successful career as lead guitarist for the legendary rock group Queen, then—then—then—decided to get a Ph.D. in Astrophysics. Earned just a few years ago.
I’d bet most people who are encouraging you to stay in baseball carry high expectations that you will make tons of money. But that means your career would be driven by the search for wealth, rather than the search for cosmic fulfillment. In my experience, when money is the sole carrot, people can lose sight of life’s deeper sources of happiness.
Until you major in physics or astrophysics in college (taking all the attendant math courses) you will not know for sure what you’re better at—academics or sports. That will be useful to know. If you’re better at sports than academics, but still love the universe, then return to professional baseball, play for 10 years while getting your master’s degree over the winter months, then, like Brian May, get your Ph.D. after you’ve made tons of money.
If you delayed professional baseball, and went to college to major in Physics (while still playing baseball) that would make headlines—especially in today’s science starved culture. And if it doesn’t, I’ll make sure it does.
In any case, I am delighted to learn that I have helped, in whatever small way, to sustain the rage of your cosmic flame.
Best to you.
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Thursday, March 19, 2009
Has the pursuit of scientific knowledge led to more harm or good for life on this planet?
I just want to clarify and make it clear that I don’t intend to attack you or the pursuit of scientific knowledge. I am a supporter of science and do believe that today it does more to help us than hurt.
My question is more to the fundamental issue of whether we, as humans, have ultimately caused possibly fatal damage to our planet through our activities that we must acknowledge fall under the category of scientific pursuit. Gunpowder, coal-fired power, the internal combustion engine, nuclear weapons—these are scientific contributions to life on Earth.
I do believe that these may in fact have been inevitable innovations, in some way, once we left the savannah and began developing technology that enabled us to survive outside our ecological niche.
But, as you are a deeply thoughtful and brilliant human, more even so than just a scientist, I wanted to ask you if you’d ever considered that question: If we could take it all back, wouldn’t it really be better for this planet? Not just us, humans, but all life?
Anyways, thanks for your excellent work in spreading the word of science in the modern world. Whatever we may have done before, we certainly need science now!
Trenton Jordan noted that he was losing his skepticism regarding UFOs. The cause? Freshly released video footage from shuttle missions, in which unexplained objects were flitting about outside the windows. He was aware of space debris and other possible explanations, but he grew convinced that NASA must be withholding information about aliens that the public deserves to know. He wrote to me in July 2008, in search of arguments that might quell his skepticism.
Dear Mr. Jordan,
Thanks for your kind words about my life’s work. They are warmly received.
Regarding your evaporating skepticism of visiting aliens: When you see shapes or lights that fly through the air or through space, and you do not know what they are, they become a UFO—emphasis on the “U.” Such sightings split into four broad categories:
The observer is crazy or otherwise delusional.
The observer sees and reports inaccurately, confounding an account that would be a simple description of natural phenomena.
The observer sees and reports accurately, but is insufficiently familiar with natural phenomena to be mystified by what he or she sees.
The observer sees and reports accurately something that defies any normal or conventional explanation—constituting a genuine mystery.
Note that eyewitness testimony is, by far, the weakest form of evidence that a person can present in support of a claim. In spite of its high value in the court of law, in the “court” of science, eyewitness testimony is essentially useless. Psychologists have known for quite some time how ineffective the human senses are as data taking devices. Note that the pedigree of the observer is irrelevant here—as long as he or she is human, the fallibility of observation is manifest.Eyewitness testimony is, by far, the weakest form of evidence a person can present in support of a claim. In spite of its high value in the court of law, in the “court” of science, eyewitness testimony is essentially useless.
Note further that claims of a “cover-up” or “conspiracy” is the battle cry of people who want to believe, in the face of insufficient data to fully support their claims.
Another well-known shortcoming of the human mind is what psychologists and philosophers call “argument from ignorance.” The NASA cases you describe come closest to category (4) above, since we have video of strange phenomena—video that we take to be generally reliable, reminding us again of what the “U” in UFO stands for. Once you confess to not knowing what you are looking at, no logical line of reasoning allows you to then declare that you know what you are looking at. And that includes assertions that the flying shapes “must be” intelligent, technologically advanced aliens from distant planets secretly observing the behavior of Earthlings. You simply bear insufficient evidence to make that jump, however tempting it may be.
A similar argument from ignorance comes from the Big Bang. When I am asked what was around before the Big Bang, I say, “We do not yet know.” Often the reply is, “It must be something—it was surely God.” To go from “We don’t know” to “It must be God” is another example of an argument from ignorance. This kind of disconnect has no place in rational investigations, yet it perennially permeates the thoughts and statements of people who already know what they want to believe.
So if the flying mysteries actually turn out to be intelligent aliens, it will not have been demonstrated by any observation yet brought forth. What’s required to draw the conclusions you seek is much better evidence of the kind that would survive the “court” of science: Aliens visiting multiple media centers, for example, demonstrating their technology on national television; joining the President and First Lady for a state dinner or high tea in the Rose Garden; allowing themselves to be CAT scanned at the Johns Hopkins Medical Center so that we can learn about their physiology; submitting some of their communication devices or other hardware to our most respected research laboratories. The day real evidence comes forth, you will not need congressional hearings parading high-ranking eyewitnesses on the subject.
Until any of that happens, UFO sightings of category (4) are simply intriguing unidentified lights and shapes in the sky—perhaps worthy of further study like any mystery in science—but without conspiracy theorists invoking cover-ups to bridge all gaps in the data, convincing themselves of what they are already sure is true.If you want public money to investigate UFOs for the possibility that they may be alien visitations, then you need much, much better evidence to justify the cause.
Should NASA direct funds to study these mysterious reflective objects visible from the window of spacecraft? Would be nice one day to have a radar device that constantly monitors and photographs anything of any size that approaches the craft. But there’s so much happening outside the window of a spaceship—dislodged tools, loose paint chips, particulate fuel exhaust floating by. Not to mention rapid, ever-changing lighting conditions.
In summary, if you want public money to investigate UFOs for the possibility that they may be alien visitations, then you need much, much better evidence to justify the cause.
Thanks for your interest.
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Adapted from Letters from an Astrophysicist by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Copyright © Neil deGrasse Tyson 2019. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.