by Beth Kelly
In recent years, coverage of scientific topics in mainstream media has grown. Political pundits often use scientists to further their own agendas, while social media has seen an explosion of science-based campaigns. Neil Degrasse Tyson’s choice to reboot Carl Sagan’s classic program Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey reflects a genuine national interest in the workings of the natural world, if not the complicated scientific processes that accompany them.
Tyson is part of a new breed of “celebrity” scientists, using their charisma to command the attention of anyone with even a passing interest in scientific phenomena. Coupled with a dynamic Twitter presence, Tyson’s influence extends across multiple media platforms. Using both his honed skills and natural aptitude for entertaining, he has become a vocal advocate for alternative energy and space exploration, all while striving to bring common science concepts into the homes of everyday Americans.
It’s impossible to argue this trend is anything but positive. An increased public interest in the universe and the wonder of scientific principles could spur countless changes, on both a political and social level. Unlike other areas of studies, science provides a rare common ground. It allows for petty differences to dissipate in a mutual appreciation of the natural world.
Of course it is not quite that simple. An awareness of the world is one thing, agreeing on how to handle its diverse resources is quite another. In the final installment of Cosmos, Tyson discussed the pros and cons of existing power sources, as well as new technology that may one day overtake carbon-based solutions. And yet, for all the intriguing possibilities presented on the program, nuclear energy went completely unmentioned. This in turn caused a greater uproar than would have come from an unfair spin in either direction, and with good reason. Excluding one of the most important innovations of the 20th century sent mixed signals to the general public and to the scientific community at large.
Any program with the historical authority of Cosmos, when evaluating a matter of scientific importance, is viewed by general audiences as the final word on that subject. If the program doesn’t mention or otherwise misrepresents the concept, the general public has little with which to critically compare it. As such, it’s important that a program with this level of influence not exclude issues of such monumental importance. His choice—or perhaps that of his producers—to omit any mention of nuclear technology whatsoever led many to question both political and cultural biases involving nuclear energy.
Needless to say, since the dawn of nuclear physics there has been a long-standing debate surrounding public safety risk versus the potential clean energy benefits. During a short-lived “Nuclear Renaissance” between the years 2007 and 2009, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued licenses to open 30 new nuclear reactors across the country. But in more recent years, due to a combination of competition from record low natural gas prices, the stock market collapse, and an increase in safety concerns, many of these plans were shuttered. Today, older plants such as Vermont Yankee in Vernon, VT, are being permanently shut down, and there are no plans to replace them with new reactors
Tyson is a highly revered physicist with an equally daunting grasp of astronomy and other affairs of science. His authority on the topic is not what’s in question here; rather his responsibility to the people to whom he has undertaken the effort of educating in these matters. Other environmentalists such as Mike Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute, and famous entrepreneurs such as Paul Allen, the cofounder of Microsoft, have made sure that nuclear energy has a voice in the alternative energy debate. A fuller analysis of Tyson’s deficiencies might be in order, but his treatment of the issue of nuclear power already speaks volumes.
Operating in the realm of show business, beyond the constraints of a university system or otherwise academic community, Tyson’s claims cannot be held to account. It’s difficult to rationalize this exclusion, considering that nuclear power plants generate nearly 20 percent of all electricity generated in the United States, and 63 percent of its carbon-free electricity. While the nuances of the nuclear debate may require an entire episode to properly examine, Tyson failed us in his unwillingness to even broach the topic. In the era of Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and other social media sites, sound bites reign supreme, and fiction is often construed as fact. Controversy is courted daily. But for a tough public mind, there should be no way to justify the omission of facts so clearly rooted in scientific truth. In doing so, Tyson has done both himself and his audience a great disservice.
Beth Kelly is a freelance science writer with a strong interest in nuclear power and its potential as a clean energy source. A graduate of DePaul University, she is currently based out of Chicago, IL. Find her on Twitter at @bkelly_88