Neil deGrasse Tyson Says Religion Is Stunting Scientific Development In America

Friday, 20 June 2014 - 12:41PM
Friday, 20 June 2014 - 12:41PM

When our very own Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke at the Ogilvy & Mather Inspire Lecture in Cannes, France earlier this week, he loudly expressed his concern for the decline of the United States' dominance in the world of science. 


Tyson draws on the Islamic World as a reverse role model. According to him, the decline of mathematical innovation in the "Islamic world" around the 12th century AD was caused by the rise and spread of Islam (it's unclear to what exactly he is referring when he says "Islamic world"). He references the 12th century Islamic cleric Hamid al Ghazali, who advocated a focus on spiritual endeavors rather than scientific endeavors. "One of the most intellectually fertile periods in the history of the human species, " was undone, according to Tyson, by these Islamic ideals of strict spirituality that "manipulating numbers is outside of your spiritual responsibilities and that all the events around you are the will of Allah." 


"If something falls, and you say, 'Allah did that.' If you're content with that, you will not be the one who discovers gravity. If you're content with everything you see as being the will of a divine force, you have been removed from the equation of all those whose curiosity leads to solutions to problems," he said.


We're sure there are a lot of people across the world who disagree with Tyson's remarks about the effects that religion can have on science, but the general sentiment that we need to keep an eye on our scientific advancement will certainly start a dialogue.


Tyson went so far as to say he "lies awake at night asking [himself] how many secrets of the universe lay undiscovered because 2 billion [people of the Islamic world out of the 7 billion people on earth] are not participating in [scientific pursuits]." Tyson sure has a lot of confidence to make that assertion at this particular conference considering that France's second primary religion is Islam.


We get the point, Neil DeSassy Tyson, scientific innovation is important. But does exploration of the universe override what is actually happening down here on Earth? And maybe the lack of geopolitical/historical understanding of the world is also something that, here in the US, we (aka Tyson) need(s) to work on as well...


Tyson harks back to the day when The United States was one of the international leaders on the scientific discovery. "The US valued research in physics, driven by war," he says. "When you discover something, you get to name it. It displays for you your imprint on the history of knowledge, thought, and innovation." Thus the United States was able to name elements like californium, berkelium, and americium during the 20th century. "Investments in those areas can transform a complacent country into a innovation nation," says Tyson. 


While he's right that American participation in wars like World War One, Two, and especially the Cold War, did indeed accelerate scientific innovation, we must remember that the American context of the 20th century is pretty idiosyncratic... we haven't had a war on American turf for a good 150 years. 


However Tyson is certainly valid in raising awareness about the common scientific illiteracy sweeping through our nations schools and professions. "I do know in the US we're losing it. There's something going on," he said. "When I think of the major contributions the US made to our civilization and culture in the 20th century --  I now see this: a headline that says, 'Half the schools in the district are below average.' This is the country I hail from.""It was science literacy reaching into the vernacular," Tyson said. "People felt compelled to comment in their own way."


To sum up, Tyson is worried that the United States is losing faith in the importance of science. And that's probably true, and it's certainly problematic. We don't want to fall behind!


But are scientific technologies developed during the context of wars necessarily beneficial to our civilization as a whole? Or are they typically destructive of nature? Many scientific discoveries have dramatically increased living standards, and saved lives across the board, but where should we draw the line between scientific discovery and wartime competition? Do you think scientific exploration trumps efforts to better the world back on earth? What are your opinions on the topic? We want to hear from you-- please share your thoughts below. 

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