Neil deGrasse Tyson is pretty darn cool. He’s an incredible science communicator and one of just a few scientists who have achieved celebrity status. He proactively educates people through lectures, documentaries and writing and he also issues occasional correctives on scientific topics to the media, Hollywood and politicians.
Of course, nobody has a perfect track record when it comes to science communication and every once in a while Tyson does get something wrong, including when he tweets to his 5 million followers.
In those moments, other scientists jump on Tyson’s messages, as we should expect from critical, skeptical researchers who care deeply about accuracy.
For instance, earlier this month, Tyson sent out a confusing tweet about evolution and how animals experience pain during sex. Many biologists and science writers were left scratching their heads. Tyson followed up with a link to biologist and writer Emily Willingham’s response, which was quite good. But his original tweet was shared 2,300 times while the follow-up was shared only 187 times. Unfortunately, that disparity in attention is pretty standard for correctives issued on social media.
Yesterday, Tyson rankled his poor beleaguered peers in biology again with a tweet about bats being “blind,” something biologists who work with those animals would call a big misconception.
Maybe this will all blow over, but biologists and science writers are surely scrutinizing Tyson’s 140-character messages a bit more than they would otherwise. Indeed, many biologists have taken to making up their own parody biology facts as seen through lens of an astronomer.
I have to wonder: will chemists, agronomists and engineers be next? People who closely follow science are always wary when experts in one discipline start publicly talking about topics on which they don’t have formal training or a track record of peer-reviewed publication.
This led me to a thought about something neat and constructive Tyson could do in response to this recent flap. He should hand the keys to his Twitter account over to a biologist for a day.
How cool would that be? Tyson could use the powerful platform he’s built as an astronomer to highlight someone from another discipline for a day. That person would be able to introduce themselves to a very large audience, share a few compelling messages about their work, and walk away from the experience with more followers themselves. They might also learn that having 5 million followers means seeing in real-time that you can’t make everyone happy!
Heck, maybe this is something Tyson could do once a month, highlighting researchers from different disciplines throughout the year. It’d be a great benefit to the scientific community, a nice gesture from a leading scientist who commands such a large audience, and a project that could underscore the many different ways science touches our lives.
Aaron Huertas is a science communicator and public relations professional who lives in Washington, DC.