How to explain anything to anyone, according to Neil deGrasse Tyson

Do you really know your audience?
Do you really know your audience?
Image: AP Photo/Richard Drew
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Neil deGrasse Tyson just wants to get back to his lab at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium in New York. “My possibly delusional goal is to one day give all this up and go back to the lab in a way that no one notices,” he says.

That day will come, though, only when there’s a swarm of articulate scientists who can communicate their work to the masses like Tyson can—and we’re not there yet.

Tyson’s research focuses on studying the structure of galaxies and formation of stars, and in the past he’s been called on by the US government to advise them on science and technology innovation and space exploration.

But he’s also become an expert in communicating science to the public. He’s written columns for the New York Times and the Huffington Post, authored 13 books, and hosted shows including NovaNOW and a resurrection of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. He currently hosts StarTalk, a weekly show on National Geographic with an accompanying podcast.

This year, at the Starmus festival for science and art held in Trondheim, Norway from June 18 to June 23, Tyson will be awarded the Stephen Hawking Medal for Science Communication for his work. It’ll be presented to him by none other than Stephen Hawking himself. It is the first time the award has been given to an American, in a time when the country perhaps more than ever needs to generate  interest and trust in science. President Donald Trump has been a longtime denier of many scientific facts, especially around climate change. Last week, he withdrew the US from the Paris climate agreement while misinterpreting research from MIT.

Tyson is still optimistic about the future of science communication in the country because he sees general interest all around him. “When we brought Cosmos to the screen, I think back in 1980s, it would have been unthinkable that a 13-part science documentary would appear on network television. But [Cosmos] appeared on Fox, and then distributed around the world, in 181 countries in 47 languages in that same week,” he says. “This appetite is real, and I’m just part of the landscape in which it’s unfolding.” The key to success, he says, is meeting your audience where they are. If you can relate to them, you can make them excited about anything.

Quartz caught up with Tyson to talk to him about what makes an effective science communicator. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Quartz: Why do you think it’s important to get people to care about science?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: I don’t think of what is important or not, I think of what needs or desires people have and I think of my energy and role as a servant of those needs and desires.

What happens is the phone rings, there’s a message in the inbox. It could happen in several ways: the most common is that the universe flinches and the press wants to know about it. Then there’s the documentarians who are creating specials, whether that be a mini-series or just one off programs, and they need a talking head. Then there’s artists, who are lately being touched by science, and science is serving as their muse.

I’m a servant of their curiosity, and when I’m asked, I task myself to be as good at it as I can be, because why not? Given how much thought I give to the universe, the least I can do is think about how to communicate.

What do you think are some of the greatest challenges in reaching people when you talk about science?

The way you’ve asked that is I’m trying to accomplish something, and then there’s a challenge and I want to try harder to accomplish that, and that is not my mental state.

[But] let’s divide people into three categories for this exercise: There are people who know they like science, and there’s nothing resisting their access to it. They will consume science programming often, and almost no matter who the guest is on a program.

Then there are the people who don’t know that they like science, and those people just need to reawaken some interest that they had long ago, but they’re not otherwise hostile to it.

And then there are the people who are actively hostile to science. They pose the greatest challenge. But I’m not waking up saying ‘How can I get these people?’ I’m just offering what I do. If they come to it, they do, and if they don’t, they don’t.

My radio show, StarTalk probably has the best chance of reaching those people because my main guest, by design, is not a scientist—it’s someone huge from pop culture. A politician, an artist, performer, an actor—this sort of thing. They’re my guest, and I talk to them about all the ways science may have touched their lives.

If you’re a fan of [the guest’s] you’re going to track them wherever they are because that’s what fans do, and now you’re going to hear someone you’re a fan of talk about science. If you’re one of these people who’s actively hostile to science, and now you see science framing and wrapping conversations that I’m having with someone you care deeply about—that could be transformative to you.

How do you connect with audiences that have these different kinds of backgrounds?

When I released my most recent book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, I ended up on a staggeringly broad range of media programs. I was reminded first-hand how fractured media is today, how we followed the bubble of media that we only care about or that feeds our worldview. What I found is that each different demographic had to tap different parts of what I could offer—different ways I could frame the information.

I’m not giving the same exchange with each host: If the host is playful I can be serious, or maybe take them one notch into the playful zone. If it’s a conservative host, then I frame it in conservative context. If there’s a liberal host, I can frame it that way. If the audience is old, I know they may [have] lived [through] the second World War or the Cold War or the Space Race.

The core information is not altered. The science is intact. But if I’m going to be an effective communicator, I’m going to shape the content in a way that can best be received by the receptors of that audience.

So knowing your audience is extremely important to you?

That’s the only way you know you’re communicating. Otherwise you’re just giving a lecture, you’re facing the board and talking to the board, and people in the classroom behind you have to meet you at the board.

The educator who says ‘Oh, these people just don’t have an interest in learning’ should just be fired on the spot.

A real educator will try to understand what the receptors look like in every individual, in every person they’re tasked with teaching. For many people there are some common receptors so you can get halfway there. But if you want to get all the way there, that means [understanding] what are the receptors in a 12-year-old versus a 20-year-old versus a 50- or 80-year old. If the person grew up in a city versus the suburbs or in the countryside, if they’re foreign, if they grew up wealthy, struggling—all of this will feed the demographics of your audience.

If you don’t care [about the demographic], then you’re not in a position to complain that not everyone understood your message.

How do you balance your outreach with your research?

There is no balance—everything is always out of equilibrium. It’s a matter of total redirection of energy all the time, depending on what need or force is operating at any given moment. To think of this as balance—that’s just false.

My possibly delusional goal is to one day give all this up and go back to the lab in a way that no one notices. That could probably only happen if there are enough other people on this same landscape that I occupy, so that no longer do I have any kind of singular role communicating science to the public. Then I can just sort of fade and back away and go to the lab.

I try to say no as much as possible. I come when I’m called, if there’s some urgency, some need that I can fulfill uniquely. There are things I’m asked to do and I decline because I know someone else can do it, and it doesn’t need me for it to succeed or work well.

I get about 200 requests a month to make an appearance, and that’s just impossible. If I did [each], that would be all I did, and [my research] wouldn’t exist.

What would you study if you could go back tomorrow?

Tons. I have all these ideas about the structures of our solar system, the centers of galaxies, the large-scale structure of the universe—I have very broad interests.

What’s your dream data set?

The total catalogue of all exoplanets in the galaxy. I would try to establish some means to learn how star systems are formed and their surrounding planets.

An interesting thing about the universe is it is so vast, it’s common that there are extremely rare things that show up that can otherwise defy explanation. In other words, if something only happens in one in 1,000 stars and you have data in a million stars, then it’s happening 1,000 time in your data set. Rare things can be easy to study when you have a large enough sample.