After imperiously declaring that his infallible mind-powers override objective reality, scientist/entertainer Neil deGrasse Tyson finally got around to admitting he’s been misrepresenting the allegedly intolerant and stupid George Bush quote he’s been deploying during seminars for years.
Tyson slandered Bush with an utterly fabricated quote whose false presentation by Tyson completely distorts its meaning. He denied he got it wrong after Sean Davis at The Federalist called him on it. Then, under pressure, Tyson finally conceded his total-recall super-brain might have failed him in a few particulars after all. This is as close as he could bring himself to an apology:
For a talk I give on the rise and fall of science in human cultural history I occasionally paraphrase President George W. Bush from one of his speeches, remarking that our God is the God who named the stars, and immediately noting that 2/3 of all star-names in the night sky are Arabic. I use this fact to pivot from the present-day, back to a millennium ago, during the Golden Age of Islam, in which major advances in math, science, engineering, medicine, and navigation were achieved. The Bush reference is not written on my PowerPoint slides, which I keep sparse, but I remembered it from a speech he gave after September 11, 2001. And I presented it that way, as Bush’s attempt to distinguish “we” from ‘they.” When eager scrutinizers looked for the quote they could not find it, and promptly accused me of fabricating a Presidential sentence. Lawyers are good at this. They find something that you get wrong, and use it to cast doubt on everything else you say. Blogosphere headlines followed, with accusations of me being a compulsive liar and a fabricator.
What followed fascinated me greatly. As others had uncovered, the President indeed utter the following sentences:
In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.” The same creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today.
But I was wrong about when he said it. It appears in his speech after the Columbia Shuttle disaster, eighteen months after September 11th 2001. My bad. And I here publicly apologize to the President for casting his quote in the context of contrasting religions rather than as a poetic reference to the lost souls of Columbia. I have no excuse for this, other than both events- so close to one another — upset me greatly. In retrospect, I’m surprised I remembered any details from either of them.
Of course, very little changes in that particular talk. I will still mention Islamic Extremists flying planes into buildings in the 21st century. I will still contrast it with the Golden Age of Islam a millennium earlier. And I will still mention the President’s quote. But instead, I will be the one contrasting what actually happened in the world with what the Bible says: The Arabs named the stars, not Yahweh.
Davis catches that ball at the net and sends it right back into Tyson’s smug face, nothing that even when the business of misquoting Bush is set aside, the allegedly objective and logical Tyson is still making enormous errors in basic reasoning that even a small child could point out, most notably that there is nothing at all inconsistent with the notion of humans coming up with names for the stars that might be different from whatever God calls them. Tyson is essentially flaunting his ignorance to make a “point” that doesn’t actually make any sense at all; stripped of its HAHA LOOK AT THAT STUPID IDIOT BUSH trappings, nothing remains of this particular seminar slide except the utterly pedestrian point that astronomy is not an exclusively Christian pursuit.
Davis’ response to Tyson’s absurd effort to pat himself on the back – “In retrospect, I’m surprised I remembered any details from either of them” – is hilarious: “Dude. You didn’t remember any of the details. That’s kind of why you’re in this mess.”
No telling how the deranged mob of Tyson cultists will take even this qualified admission of error from the Lord of Science, since they’ve been keeping themselves busy nuking Wikipedia entries and screaming at the top of their lungs that Tyson is incapable of error. He knows that, which is why he parsed his semi-apology so carefully; it’s irresponsible of Tyson not to forthrightly and earnestly apologize, and give his childlike followers a useful life lesson in the value of independent thought and skepticism. Which, you would think, would be of paramount importance to a scientist, who should also be among the first to denounce cults of personality. But that’s not how Big Science works any more, following its fusion with politics.
It’s sheer speculation on my part, but my guess is that Tyson’s false Bush anecdote was not stored in a sector of his mental hard drive that got corrupted by the memory of 9/11 passions; he probably got it from a left-wing blog, or maybe heard someone relate it at a social event. It does not reflect well on him at all that he couldn’t be bothered with the five minutes of research needed to determine what Bush actually said, or why, especially since Tyson’s fabricated quote runs so completely contrary to what everyone – short of the most rabid Bush-haters – knows about the former President’s conduct in the days after 9/11. This story wasn’t “too good to check” – it was obvious B.S. to anyone old enough to remember watching television in 2001.
Although Neil deGrasse Tyson isn’t a government official, this nasty little saga fits into what I meant when writing about “The Rise of the Ineptocracy” today. He’s got plenty of sharp knives in his mental cutlery draw; he earned his advanced degrees. But he got lazy, and made a fool of himself. In a culture obsessed by credentials and official titles, too many of his followers failed to think critically about what he said, and wrongly concluded he was too smart to do something dumb. When that kind of unreasoning worship is directed at politicians with trillions of dollars to spend, the resulting damage is a lot worse than a few Wikipedia edits.