Neil deGrasse Tyson has been taking some heat lately over a handful of “quotes” that can’t be verified. Hemant writes about the controversy and I agree completely with his take on it. Unfortunately, Tyson is doing what so many often do (and I’ve done myself, as I’m sure you have as well) and doubling down in a defensive posture. I think the strongest problem is with a quote he likes to use from George W. Bush.
… Here’s what happens. George Bush, within a week of [the 9/11 terrorist attacks] gave us a speech attempting to distinguish we from they. And who are they? These were sort of the Muslim fundamentalists. And he wants to distinguish we from they. And how does he do it?
… He says, “Our God” — of course, it’s actually the same God, but that’s a detail. Let’s hold that minor fact aside for the moment. Allah of the Muslims is the same God as the God of the Old Testament. So, but let’s hold that aside. He says, “Our God is the God” — he’s loosely quoting Genesis, biblical Genesis — “Our God is the God who named the stars.”
Sean Davis, in an article criticizing Tyson for using unsubstantiated quotes in his talks, pointed out that there is no evidence that Bush said anything like this at all after 9/11. The only thing even close is a statement from 2003 after the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia, when he said, “The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home.”
Tyson has now responded to the criticism he’s received and on a couple of the quotes, I’m okay with his response. But on this Bush quote, he does exactly what you shouldn’t do:
I have explicit memory of those words being spoken by the President. I reacted on the spot, making note for possible later reference in my public discourse. Odd that nobody seems to be able to find the quote anywhere — surely every word publicly uttered by a President gets logged.
FYI: There are two kinds of failures of memory. One is remembering that which has never happened and the other is forgetting that which did. In my case, from life experience, I’m vastly more likely to forget an incident than to remember an incident that never happened. So I assure you, the quote is there somewhere. When you find it, tell me. Then I can offer it to others who have taken as much time as you to explore these things.One of our mantras in science is that the absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence.
No, Neil. No, no, no, no, no. In this case, absence of evidence IS evidence of absence, for the very reason he cites, because every word publicly uttered by a president gets logged. If he’d said it, there would be a record of it. The internet knows all. Yet he stubbornly insists that his confidence in his memory trumps that fact and he expects other people to do his research for him. It isn’t the job of others to provide citations for his quotes, it’s his job to document them or stop using them.
One of the things that any self-respecting skeptic surely understands is the faulty nature of human memory. Our memories are not perfect reproductions. When we tell and retell a story, those memories are often altered by mixing with other memories and with statements by others that relate to them. There is a huge amount of evidence to support this understanding and I’d be very surprised if Tyson were completely unfamiliar with it, which makes his doubling down here even more frustrating.
Look, just admit that your memory was false. That’s not some admission of failure, it’s just being a human being. Do this because it’s both the right thing and the rational, scientific thing to do. Failing to do that only undermines your credibility as a voice of reason. We’ve all done this, of course. We’ve all reacted defensively rather than rationally when criticized. But you’re in an exalted position as a spokesperson for the cause of critical thinking and that makes it far more important that you don’t do this kind of thing. You are hurting the cause you’ve fought so hard for.