If We Can’t Trust Neil deGrasse Tyson, Who Can We Trust?

Anyone who visits this site or our Facebook page knows how much we love Neil deGrasse Tyson. He may not be a proud vocal atheist, but he’s a purveyor of science and reason and critical thinking and truth.

Gotta love that, right?

But Sean Davis of the Federalist has been closely examining some of the examples Tyson uses in his most popular speeches and has found several holes in them.

As skeptics, we should all be interested in what Davis says.

So let’s start with this talk that Tyson gave at The Amazing Meeting in 2011 (and several other places). Jump to the 1:38 mark:

You hear Tyson make two claims: That a member of Congress said “I’ve changed my views 360 degrees on that issue” and that a newspaper headline in New York City read “Half the schools in the district are below average” (both in quotation marks, no less!)…

These aren’t jokes. These are supposed to document examples of innumeracy in our society.

Davis says he can’t find any documentation of either quotation. If you do a Google search, the only places they appear are… references to speeches made by Neil deGrasse Tyson:

The Nexis and Google results are the same for his exact quote about members of Congress: nada from Nexis, and a mere two pages of Google links that only reference Tyson, rather than a single original source. Now, journalists may be bad at math, and members of Congress may be stupid, but if a journalist poorly plagiarized a joke and then fabricated a quote about a member of Congress, that journalist would likely be out of a job. What happens when a scientist does it?

It turns out, as Davis later found, a member of Congress did say something similar to what Tyson quoted. But it wasn’t the exact line. It was Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) speaking to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-IL) during his impeachment hearing in 1998:

“You have done a 360-degree turn,” Waters told Hyde. “I’m a little disappointed. Never in my wildest imagination did I think that you would have such a conflict in views about perjury and lying.”

Waters is usually a supporter of good science, so this might just be a little slip-up on her part and it’s possible Tyson didn’t want to call her out as an example of Congressional ignorance because of that, but the point is she didn’t say the words between the quotation marks.

Did anyone? Doesn’t look like it.

Meanwhile, there’s still no proof of the newspaper headline.

Maybe Tyson was tipped off to Davis’ article because he (or at least someone pretending to be him) commented on Davis’ post. Far from apologizing or admitting the mistakes, Tyson dismissed the post altogether:

Thanks for your interest in my work. Just some background: When I am invited to give a talk, especially to an audience that is not the general public, but to a specific gathering of people within a trade, I tune the contents for that audience, for that time, and for that place. So tone and flavor and context and intent are all key elements to any message I convey — all missing to anyone who was not present at the time.

I have enough defenders in this thread that I need not rehash already-cited comments. But if this article contains the entire critique of my presentation to Tableau Software — the contents of 2 out of 60 slides — then I consider the talk to be a success, even to eavesdroppers.

But in the clip above, you can see and hear his tone and flavor and context and intent. It’s clear he highlights those quotations because he believes they’re real. And if 2 out of 60 slides are wrong, it may be harmless… but then fix it! Especially if you’re giving the same speech in the future.

Davis wasn’t done yet. He also highlighted this passage from one of Tyson’s books about why he was kicked out of jury duty:

Compare the numbers in that passage to a 2012 tweet from Tyson explaining how he was heading to jury duty again:

The point’s the same, but the numbers are slightly different. No biggie. But then Davis mentions two other examples of Tyson retelling that story — both with completely different numbers.

Davis writes:

Now, either Tyson has a terrible memory about events that he specifically wrote about barely two years ago, or those events, much like the quotes he uses in his presentations, didn’t actually happen in the way that he described them, if they happened at all. The details constantly change, yet the only constant in this jury duty story he tells is that he’s way smarter than that stupid judge.

So that’s weird…

Then we get to the most serious example of Tyson’s alleged quotation negligence. At a different TAM event, Tyson spoke about 9/11 and President George W. Bush‘s response (beginning at 1:35):

… 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.”

To be clear, according to Tyson, a week after 9/11, Bush said “Our God is the God who named the stars” in order to distinguish us (the good guys) from the fundamentalist Muslims (the bad guys).

The points he’s making is that two-thirds of the stars that have names have Arabic names (cue audience laughter). Still, if Bush said that, there would be videotape, don’t you think?

There is videotape. But it’s from 2003, after the explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia, as a phrase intended to unite us all… not from 2001, after 9/11, to separate “we” from “they.” Watch the 2:45 mark:

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.

Here’s the point: None of this impugns Tyson’s excellent science writing or expertise. But when he gives a presentation, his audience expects to hear the truth. That’s what Tyson banks on. If he wants to explain our society’s mathematical ignorance by showing examples from Congress and journalism, it shouldn’t be hard. If you want to make George W. Bush look like an idiot, it *really* shouldn’t be hard. If you’re telling a story involving numbers, the numbers shouldn’t change every time.

A lot of Davis’ commenters see all this as Tyson-bashing (and many support that), but I don’t see it that way at all. I think these are all relevant points. When American Atheists misquoted Sarah Palin on a billboard, they fixed their mistake despite the embarrassment.

I give similar speeches at different places. Believe me, I’ve made mistakes in my talks before. But if and when someone points them out to me, I do my best to fix them. I would expect no less from Dr. Tyson.

Considering that Tyson is speaking at Apostacon on Friday night — to an audience full of skeptics — it would behoove them all to be on the lookout for these quotations or others like them. Do some fact-checking while you’re listening to him. Challenge him if you can’t verify what he says.

If a pastor or right-wing conservative did it, we’d be calling them out on it immediately. Tyson doesn’t deserve a free pass just because his intentions are pure. It certainly wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) get by in an academic setting, and just because he often speaks to a lay audience doesn’t mean he should make up quotations or fail to cite them if they’re real.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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