Talk Show Shenanigans with Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Stephen Colbert

In an interesting (and refreshing for my workload) change of pace, we have been assigned a video in addition to the normal literature readings for this week. See below.

In the clip, we see Neil deGrasse Tyson (NDT) and Stephen Colbert (SC) discussing the discovery of Tabby’s Star, a mature star found by Kepler that exhibits non-periodic dips in brightness, some of which are ~20% of the total brightness. The star also appears to be dimming gradually over time. Currently, we are unsure what is causing these phenomena.

Upon first watching of the clip, I was a little disconcerted but was unable to figure out why.

The first thing I noticed was NDT’s comment on the Kepler mission. Kepler was launched “to find Earth-like planets orbiting Sun-like stars”. Sounds good so far. “And there is a catalog of nearly 2000 of them now”. Aaaaand that is misleading as heck. I feel like I can confidently claim that a lot of people would interpret that as “We have found over 2000 Earth-like planets around Sun-like stars” instead of the actual fact that while Kepler was proposed to do one thing, it ended up finding exoplanets of all sorts (with a natural bias towards larger and smaller period planets). While this might be viewed as a nitpick, science communicators like NDT are often criticized heavily for misleading comments and errors in their appearances, and, it could be argued, rightfully so. Scientific communicators are the filters that bring the complicated and nuanced ideas (both new and old) within a field to a significant portion is the public. In this way, they have an incredible influence on the public perception of science. A power that is quite enticing (to me anyway). A good science communicator can drive public interest to a field (or science in general) for decades (eg. Carl Sagan, Bill Nye, Jane Goodall, and Steve Irwin are a few I could think of). It is important that they be correct and precise as often as possible. I understand when they, as fellow humans, make mistakes (I can’t even type a line of this post without having to hit the backspace key), but they have to be very careful because, to many, their word is gospel. They are the experts, after all. If you can’t trust them to get things right, who can you trust? It is hard in that people who become popular end up being asked to comment on broader and broader topics. As smart as they are, no one can be expected to have infallible knowledge of astronomy, physics, biology, climate science, anthropology, and every other topic of scientific inquiry.

The comment that started this whole line of thought could’ve been worse, but it reminded me of this topic.

The second bit that irritated me slightly was how SC makes his joke about how Tabby’s Star is definitely a ringworld (he has a picture!), and interrupts NDT when he tries to respond. While I understand that SC has a job to do and is making a joke (sidenote: I chuckled), I am always uncomfortable watching something like this happening. Just the fact that NDT is there makes it seem like the scientific community as a whole stands by this opinion at some level (“Yeah, I was watching SC last night, and NDT was on and they said we found alien megastructures around a star!” (not trying to create a strawman, but to illustrate a possible outcome)). This type of thing can make the scientific community seem less credible and can impact the subconscious way that people view scientists and research. Now, I haven’t seen the full show this is from so I don’t know if they discuss it later afterward, but at least with this level of context, it is frustrating to see.

I mean, it is also just a 2-minute segment from a late-night comedy show. Nothing in this clip is particularly awful. Nonetheless, it may act as a barometer of current societal trends and give insight to where these trends might take us.