Neil Tyson on Not Fighting in the Trenches on Sam Harris Podcast


I try to take the high road. I'm not interested in fighting in the trenches.

My notes from a fascinating chat between Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Sam Harris. I was struck with Tyson's extreme discipline for focusing on his fundamentals of education and finding playful ways to talk about science in the context of things people already care about (pop culture).

He's a man who has decided what he wants his contribution to be and seems really skilled at avoiding the rest of the BS. Following are notes that I took from a second listen to the podcast.


  • Tyson: People care about science when it is playfully folded into things they already care about
  • Harris: The boundary between communicating science to the public and doing science in the act of thinking out loud about data is very thin, if it exists at all


  • Scientific discoveries become public interest. Examples: "Big Bang", "Black Hole" - official terms that are strings of single syllable words to describe complex phenomena that become part of the lexicon. Fun for the public to follow. The idea is graspable because the words don't get in the way.
  • I was struck with how Tyson cuts through the bull and avoids controversy. "Call a climate expert. Don't call me.". I don't occupy any platform.
  • Skeptic vs. Denier defined: Skeptic: doubts claim and convinced by evidence. Denier: doubts claim and doubts evidence.
  • You don't see me debating people. I'd rather just educate them in the first place so that the debate isn't even necessary.

Tyson: Platforms and Training the Electorate

  • Tyson's fundamental position: There are objective truths out there that you ought to know about and I as an educator have a duty to alert you to those objective truths. What you do politically in the face of those truths is your business.
  • Defines someone with a "platform" as: trying to get people to see the world that they do. Including politically.
  • I never say anything against a politician. Why? Because they have electorates that support them.
  • My target is the population that are following statements that are objectively false. I see it as my duty to train the electorate how think about this information and once they are trained they can do what they want.
  • As an educator, it is a task to educate people so that they can judge what is true and what is not.
  • Harris: You're preserving your effectiveness as a communicator and educator. (Tyson: yes, that's an accurate statement)

Tyson on Religion/Politics

  • Your religion is a belief system and does not cue off of objective truths. Otherwise we would call it science. It's your right to hold religious beliefs.
  • However... Governmental Decision... Laws need to be secular in a country that preserves religious freedom.

Harris: Problem with Atheism

  • Atheism defines itself in opposition: We don't call ourselves "non-astrologers". And if it became ascendant, we would talk about reason, evidence, common sense, and science to neutralize those claims without ever defining ourselves in opposition to astrology
  • Atheism as a term has no philosophical content

Tyson on Label Atheist

  • I don't do anything to dodge the term
  • if you require that I give myself a label... closest is "agnostic".
  • would rather have no label at all
  • label is an intellectually lazy way to assert you know more about someone than you actually know and therefore don't have to engage them in conversation.
  • Oh you're an atheist? And bam, in comes a whole portfolio of expectations on what you will say, what your behaviors and attitudes are...
  • dictionary definition is irrelevant... dictionary does not define words, but rather describes them as they have come into meaning
  • there is conduct that [outspoken atheists] exhibit that I do not... this captures the sense of what atheist is defined by those most visible
  • interesting: "Goodbye" an historical abbreviation of "God be with you.".
  • Uses AD/BC vs. CE/BCE.
  • Until he no longer hears, "I thought you were an atheist"... no labels.

  • Harris interjects with this insightful and humorous assessment: Atheist given meaning mostly in circles of religious dogmatists... they think they know a lot about you based on your admission that you are an atheist... It's almost like you're in a debate with someone and they draw the police crime scene outline of a dead body on the sidewalk and you just walk up and lie down in it... that you just conform perfectly to their expectations of how clueless you must be of their context.


Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) | Twitter