How Not to Respond to Criticism. Or, Why Accuracy Matters

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.

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • alanb

    I don’t find Neil’s response to be terribly problematic — just human. The real test will be to see if he continues to use that quote (and others) in his presentations.

  • Leo Buzalsky

    In my case, from life experience…

    That is perhaps what I find most troubling. Has he been keeping a daily journal his whole life and any time he “remembers” some event does he consult this journal to verify that his memory was correct? I doubt it. So how, then, does he think he can use his life experience as justification? He unlikely has any way of showing that this claim about his life experience is correct and therefore can’t be using it as a premise in his argument.

  • muadib

    So he has a newer response. He posted a statement on facebook that included this.

    A Case Study: Quoting George W. Bush

    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.

  • eric

    Take a few days, Neil. Let the adrenaline associated with being publicly called wrong subside. Breathe. Relax. Mull it over. Then respond.

    This is (IMO) one of the downsides with our modern habit/desire for instant communication – tweeting, etc. We expect people to respond both rationally and instantly, but often those two things don’t go together well. The old business adage of “fast, cheap, and good – you can only pick two” sort of applies to public communication. Fast or well-thought-out – expect only one, because few of us can do both.

  • gshelley

    I saw this and was disappointed.

    If admitting his memory was false was too much, he didn’t even need to go that far. He could just have said that he remembers the incident, but can’t find verification elsewhere and as he knows the mind can create false memories, he agrees it is best not to use it.

  • frankniddy

    Thank you, Neil, for admitting your mistake, as quoted in comment no. 3. Everyone makes mistakes, and our mistakes are so much more visible in the era of instant communication. Admitting them is, sadly, less common than it should be, and people don’t like to do it, no matter how small their ego.

  • dhall

    Thanks, #3 Muadib, for sharing that. He did come back to say the right thing, and eloquently.

  • Michael Heath

    The troll at American Creation has been using Tyson as a red herring when others at that site refer to David Barton or his ilk. A Barton/Tyson equivalency is an idiotic conflation for a number of reasons; but still, Tyson harms science by making [false] assertions he can’t validate are true.

  • Michael Heath

    Tyson digs the hole even deeper:

    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.”

    Here’s what I remember, as lame I thought President Bush was, he was instrumental in mostly checking American conservatives from extending their bigotry towards all Muslims after 9/11. Under President Bush’s leadership, conservatives mostly resisted until he became a lame-duck President. When the 2008 campaign began he left a vacuum no conservative really tried to fill. I do recall McCain having one mere moment in a town hall meeting.

    Now I know there are bits of evidence of the president acting differently in small venues, but on the national and global stage he was consistent and effective at differentiating Muslim extremists from Muslims in general. So from this context, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. So I do not see any reason to defer to Neil Tyson’s memory alone given President Bush mostly acted in a manner opposite of Tyson’s representation of him.

    Disclaimer: I am of course cognizant of how the president tortured detainees, nearly all of whom were Muslims. And while some Muslims took that as proof of a Christian crusade, buttressed later by some PowerPoint slides running around the DoD that used some Old Testament rhetoric, the predominant rhetoric and actions taken by the Bush Administration wasn’t promoting a war on Islam but instead premised on other factors.

  • jws1

    Ok. Now skip down to the part where any of this has anything to do at all with the truth value of his argument.

  • guychapman

    But you must admit, it has truthiness.

  • Ed Brayton

    His argument — or his claim, rather — was that George W. Bush used religion to distinguish us (Christians, of course) from them (Muslims) after 9/11. That claim was absolutely false — sorry, I mean it had no “truth value.” I’m glad he’s now admitted that, after initially making a very defensive and absurd argument (that his memory was correct despite the lack of evidence that must be there for it and his ludicrous reference to an absence of evidence). If he’d done that the first time, I would never have bothered writing this.

  • jws1

    So climate science is wrong now?

  • jws1

    And putting title term truth value in quotes is essentially advertising ignorance of at least one term from logic. And then you demonstrate ignorance of the term by claiming Tyson’s statement regarding W and Islam has no truth value. Yes it does – it’s false. No tell me why this means his statements regarding science are effected at all by this. And yes, that is exactly how this scenario is going to play out.

  • Athywren

    @jws1, 13

    So climate science is wrong now?

    Sorry, maybe I’m skimming over something here… how does that follow from anything else that’s been said?

  • Jackson

    Deep breath jsw1, nobody here thinks this makes what he has to say about science wrong. So far you are the only one to bring that up.

  • jws1

    Jackson: no I’m not. I’m reporting memes already put forward by all the usual suspects – climate deniers. It has not escaped my attention that they are quite adept at smearing those who tell them they are wrong, just as it has not escaped my attention that the common idiot routinely falls hook, line and sinker for such tactics.

  • Alex

    For a moment my heart sunk when I saw the first line of the post. I’m just relieved that he’s not involved in some sort of sexual harrassment scandal. Who cares whether he’s misquoting the president 😀

  • Jackson

    Jws1 @16

    Ok, who here are you accusing of being a climate change denier? Who in the OP or in the comments is a “common idiot”?

  • Michael Heath

    I didn’t read jws1’s rhetorical question as an indictment of any commenter here.

    Instead I think he’s wryly pointing out the motivation to criticize Tyson. That’s to point to Tyson lying to buttress the argument that climate science findings are mere opinions no more valid than your typical denialist opinion. If Tyson lies, then we can’t believe climate change is true, related to global warming can’t be happening as long as Al Gores flies in jet planes. It’s also similar to the reason the troll at American Creation has pointed to Neil Tyson when David Barton’s lies were exposed; to claim tour side is no better than the denialist/propaganda side.

    It’s ironic because such arguments have the trolls conceding their side is fundamentally dishonest.

  • Jackson

    Michael @20

    I didn’t read jws1’s rhetorical question as an indictment of any commenter here. Instead I think he’s wryly pointing out the motivation to criticize Tyson.

    If that is indeed the case then I have misread the comments by jws1, and I agree wholeheartedly.

    It was the comment at 14 which lead me to read both @14 and @13 as accusatory, rather than sarcastic.

    No tell me why this means his statements regarding science are effected at all by this.

    At any rate, the point I was attempting reinforce was that it’s perfectly OK to point out minor points that someone has gotten wrong while still respecting the wider body of work.

  • jws1

    Mr. Heath has expressed what I wanted to say better than I have.

  • jws1

    Jackson: I guess I suck at sarcasm.

    Your final point I regard as a basic truism.