Future Tense

Candidates Bungle Science, but Neil deGrasse Tyson Says the Problem Starts With Voters

In the Sept. 16 GOP debate, Donald Trump rolled out the old dog-and-pony vaccines-cause-autism show. His assertions were quietly rebuffed by neurosurgeon Ben Carson—but Carson then went on to agree with physician Rand Paul that children receive too many vaccinations, too quickly, at too high a dose.

Incidents like this are a grim reminder that candidates from all parties often mangle science topics. Whether it’s misinformation about climate change, evolution, genetically modified organisms, or something else, voters often come away with inaccurate information.

But when I spoke to astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, he pointed out a sort of chicken-and-egg situation: Politicians adopt platforms that they think will resonate with voters. So in the 2016 presidential campaign, or any other race, it’s not so much that the candidates set out to spread misinformation about science topics; it’s that they are trying to appeal to what voters already think.

This helps to explain how Ben Carson and Rand Paul could get medical degrees from the University of Michigan and Duke University respectively and still question the safety/efficacy of a standard vaccine regimen today. “My issue as a scientist with regard to a scientifically underinformed statement, my issue is not with the candidate, it’s with the people voting for that candidate,” Tyson told Slate.

So how does Tyson approach science communication to the masses? “I think maybe one of the solutions is when we teach science, you don’t teach it as a satchel of facts to be tested on later,” he said. “It’s a way of probing what is or is not true in the world. … And if you’re empowered with that knowledge then you’re less susceptible as an adult to people just handing you things to say or do or believe that have no correspondence with the natural world.”

Even if change needs to start with voters, it certainly doesn’t help to hear candidates perpetuating misinformation from the podium.