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Neil deGrasse Tyson, Please Speak Out about Militarization of Science!


I hope Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is a smash hit when it debuts Sunday night, as much so as the 1980 Cosmos hosted by astrophysicist Carl Sagan. I also hope Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of the new series, uses his star power to ignite a much-needed debate about the militarization of American science

Unlike his predecessor, Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of the new series Cosmos, has avoided speaking out on military research and other controversial issues.

Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, is already one of the most prominent science communicators in the world. And yet he is so focused on celebrating science that he seems loath to delve into linkages—historic and current—between science and war.

In 2011 comedian Stephen Colbert, who has a knack for posing tough questions in goofy guise, asked Tyson whether scientists deserve to be depicted in movies as bad guys, who "lead us to the Terminator or… create the superbug that wipes out the world."

In his reply, Tyson seemed to absolve scientists of responsibility for their research: "When you part the curtains, at the bottom of all that, there's a politician funding that research… We have scientists who invented the bomb, yes, but somebody had to pay for the bomb, and that was taxpayers. There were war bonds. There was a political action that called for it. Everyone blames the scientists."

Earlier this year, Tyson went further, implying that scientists' view of nature actually makes them averse to war. He told Parade Magazine that "when you have a cosmic perspective, when you know how large the universe is and how small we are within it—what Earth looks like from space, how tiny it is in a cosmic void—it’s impossible for you to say, 'I so don’t like how you think that I’m going to kill you for it.' You will never find scientists leading armies into battle. You just won’t. Especially not astrophysicists—we see the biggest picture there is."

If only Tyson's depiction of scientists were true! His description of physicists in particular is "simply wrong," historian of science Patrick McCray notes in "An Open Letter to Neil de Grasse Tyson." "Consider just one university—Caltech," McCray writes. "Its physics department was entirely militarized during World War Two and churned out over 1 million of bombardment rockets. Caltech’s Willy Fowler (Nobel Prize, 1983) did pioneering work on nuclear reactions in stars; he also led a secret 1951 study to promote the use of tactical nuclear weapons in the event of a Soviet attack… On the other side of the Iron Curtain, there was Yakov Zel'dovich…, who made major contributions to astrophysics--and to designing weapons of mass destruction for a murderous totalitarian regime."

Tyson's statement, McCray adds, represents "a total disservice" to his predecessor Sagan, who "perhaps more than other scientists of his generation, understood and witnessed how his fellow scientists--especially physicists--had contributed to the arms race… Sagan used Cosmos as a warning for how science--as wonderful as it can be--can also be an awful awesome tool when misused or applied without any sense of humanistic temper."

By "militarization of science," I mean the skewing of research toward martial ends. According to the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, the 2013 U.S. budget granted $140 billion to all agencies for research and development. More than half of that amount, $71 billion, went to the Defense Department. Another $2.426 billion was allocated to the Department of Energy for "Weapons Activities," and $729 million went to the Department of Homeland Security for R&D.

Physics is far from the only field benefitting from all this spending. In previous posts, I have complained about neuroscientists' efforts to gain more military funding; about the involvement of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in a major new brain-mapping initiative; and about the participation of leading psychologists in a controversial mental-health program for soldiers.

Some scientists, to be sure, are antiwar activists. For example, psychologist Roy Eidelson and anthropologist Brian Ferguson have courageously spoken out against the participation of their disciplines in U.S. military operations. Ethicist Jonathan Moreno and security analyst Peter W. Singer have also pointed out the downside of innovation in drones, "neuroweapons" and other technologies.

But I can't remember a time when so few prominent scientists have taken a strong antiwar stance. Other than, perhaps, MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, who is 85, what major scientist today is criticizing U.S. militarism, and raising tough questions about science's role in perpetuating war? Where is today's equivalent of Carl Sagan? Or the great chemist Linus Pauling, whose anti-nuclear activism led to a ban on atmospheric nuclear testing (and accusations that he was a communist sympathizer)?

Scientists, who have historically helped perpetuate war and even benefitted from it, have a special responsibility to seek war's end. At the very least, scientists should publicly debate the pros and cons of doing war-related research. (In my post on this proposal, I confessed that a defense contractor once gave me money for my ideas on fighting terrorism.) Tyson would be the ideal moderator for such a debate.

He apparently fears that speaking out about U.S. militarism would undermine his role as a cheerleader for science. According to a recent profile in The New Yorker, Tyson "refuses to take explicit political positions in public, or to criticize elected officials, even those who reject evolution; he would rather invest his energies in creating a more enlightened electorate."

But Tyson's celebrity also gives him the power to serve as science's conscience, as Pauling and Sagan did. As the historian McCray says in his letter to Tyson, "Cosmos and its promotion is going to give you a big bully pulpit. Use it wisely. Use it like Carl Sagan would have."

*See Tyson's response to this post, and my response to him, in my next post. I also talk with my pal George Johnson about Tyson's stance on science and war on If you're not totally sick of hearing me by then, listen to me argue on "Big Think" "Why the U.S. Military Needs to Shrink."

Postscript: For more on Tyson's political engagement, or lack thereof, check out a revealing 2013 interview of Tyson by Scientific American blog editor Curtis Brainard, who was then at Columbia Journalism Review. For a more upbeat take on Cosmos than mine, see today's post by Clara Moskowitz.

Photo by NASA/Bill Ingalls, via Wikimedia Commons,

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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