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Science, celebrity, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson's tall tales

It’s probably not how he planned to spend his September, but Sean Davis of The Federalist has become the go-to guy for puncturing the tall tales of celebrity scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson.  Davis began noticing that several stories Tyson routinely tells during public appearances don’t add up.  More specifically, Tyson appears to be fond of manufacturing quotes that make other people look stupid.

In the first few instances, Tyson’s suspicious quotes were attributed generally – he’d pick up something an unnamed politician or journalist supposedly said, and build a little sermon around it to prove that politicians and journalists lack the knowledge and intellectual rigor of top-shelf scientists like Tyson himself.  Davis noticed that Tyson could not source these quotes, so he dug into Google and Lexis/Nexus to learn their origins, and could find no record of anyone making the utterances that supposedly proved the people Tyson looks down upon are dumb.  As Internet wags observed, it’s pretty sad when you have to invent quotes that make politicians look bad as a class.  

As for journalists… well, if Tyson had the right combination of humor and humility, he’d update his presentation to use his own story as evidence that journalists lack curiosity.  After all, he threw out these whoppers for years without anyone in the media bothering to research them and find out if they’re true.

Another Tyson story that came under scrutiny is a personal anecdote in which he attended jury duty and supposedly jumped all over the judge during the Q&A session, because the judge described the amount of cocaine allegedly possessed by the defendant in milligrams, when he should have used grams.  (The implication is that milligrams were used because the smaller unit of measure made the amount of cocaine sound larger – 1,700 milligrams sounds like a bigger deal than 1.7 grams.)  The amount of cocaine involved in this story has changed frequently over the years as Tyson repeated the anecdote, which is not the kind of meticulous fact-based attention to detail Tyson is fond of criticizing other people for lacking.

Other critics joined in the fun once the holes in Tyson’s rhetoric started adding up, with a particularly tasty find coming from PJ Media, where Ed Driscoll and David Steinberg caught Tyson falling for an urban legend about NASA paying a million dollars to develop a pen that could be used in space, while the wise and clever Russians just used pencils.  In truth, the space pen was privately developed and essentially donated to NASA, and there are very good reasons not to use pencils aboard spacecraft.  Sixty seconds of online research would have revealed the former to Tyson, while you’d expect a brilliant scientist to know the latter without having to look it up on the Internet.

But it looks like Tyson might have finally gotten himself in real trouble by fabricating an anecdote about President George W. Bush, and it’s a nasty little bit of slander, a whole order of magnitude different than a blowhard tailoring generic stories and personal memories to spice up lectures that make essentially valid points.  (There are, however, some chuckles to be had from Sean Davis pointing out that one of the points Tyson attempts to make about statistical analysis with a suspicious anecdote is wrong.)  

In this case, Tyson claims President Bush sought to drive a wedge between Christians and Muslims in the days after September 11 by claiming “our God is the God who named the stars.”  And by “our God,” the bigoted, divisive, close-minded cowboy theocrat Bush didn’t mean Allah, if you get Tyson’s drift. 

That’s going to immediately sound fishy to anyone old enough to remember Bush’s actual pronouncements after the September 11 attacks – the whole “Islam is a religion of peace” meme dates from those uncertain times, and is still the official attitude of the U.S. government to this day.  Sure enough, Sean Davis dug around and could find no reference to Bush saying any such thing, and now a number of Bush’s aides and speechwriters have come forward to dispute Tyson’s account.  What appears to have happened is that Tyson lazily appropriated an entirely different speech Bush made years after 9/11, in which he mourned the crash of the space shuttle Columbia by saying, “The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today.”  The speech had nothing to do with Islam, and was not in any sense intended to divide anyone based on religion – quite the opposite.

Tyson’s now on the mainstream-media radar screen, with stories about the controversy appearing at the Washington Post and Daily Beast.  Both of those articles go to great lengths to extend Tyson the benefit of the doubt, with the Daily Beast making a game effort to imply that Tyson might be the victim of a right-wing witch hunt… but even there, when you get past the ideologically-loaded headline, amateur psychoanalysis, and backhanded slams at Tyson’s critics, the point buried under all the Daily Beast’s defensive blather is that they can’t dispute any of the actual criticisms leveled against the politically correct celebrity scientist.

This all matters, ironically enough, because Tyson himself has become an example of precisely what he denounces in his public appearances: careless with the facts, unwilling to do basic research, and comfortable with bending the truth to make his points.  He’s done it often enough to make it a chronic problem, not a single accident, and what he did with that Bush quote is fairly monstrous – he’s completely inverted the meaning of the former President’s words to make him look guilty of something our culture considers a serious crime.  (And in the instance Davis initially quoted, Tyson is even wrong about which book of the Bible inspired Bush’s language about the Creator naming the stars – a detail Tyson needed only a few moments of Google research to get right.)

That’s politicized science in a nutshell: conclusions carved in stone, facts manipulated or suppressed until they fit the conclusion.  Tyson’s defenders are reduced to claiming that merely noticing his errors or distortions is, itself, a political act – the implication being that only right-wingers care about the accurate attribution of quotes, only conservatives are hung up on establishing whether a juicy little story actually happened.  That’s why this is important.  Far too much of our political culture rests on appeals to supposedly unimpeachable authorities.  It matters a great deal whether they are, in fact, impeachable.  

At a minimum, Tyson needs to source his Bush quote, or else admit that he got it wrong and apologize to the former President.  You’d think that would be obvious enough to a gentleman scholar… but then he’d have to explain how he got that explosive quote wrong, and deal with the opprobrium of energetic liberal supporters who would never forgive him for apologizing to Chimpy McHitlerburton.

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