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Did Neil deGrasse Tyson Just Try To Justify Blatant Quote Fabrication?


My post from last week on Neil deGrasse Tyson’s habit of using bad math and fabricated quotes in his presentations generated a great deal of commentary, much of it negative. If you peruse the comments to that post, you’ll see that some argued that “average” is totally the same thing as “median,” which is a great argument to make if you want people to know that you have no clue what you’re talking about. Others argued that it’s okay to fabricate quotes as long as they’re illustrative of a larger point, which is a great argument to make if you want people to know that you’re a dishonest hack who should never be trusted.

Later on in this post, you’ll be tasked with determining whether a story about jury duty told by Tyson — a story where the base facts have changed at least four times during the course of him telling it — ever actually happened. But first, we’ll need to tackle what appears to be Neil deGrasse Tyson’s response to my original post:

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.

-Neil deGrasse Tyson, New York City (writing from Walla Walla).

So much to unpack in that response. First off: is that really Tyson? It seems so, judging by the tone of the response and various other comments made from the same neiltyson Disqus account, all of which are related to critiques or mentions of Tyson. Ironically enough, given Tyson’s highly questionable use of quotes, one of the comments posted from the neiltyson account complains that Tyson was misquoted.

Assuming that the above comment did, in fact, come from the actual Neil deGrasse Tyson (this entire post is premised on that assumption), it raises all kinds of pretty troubling questions about how he conducts himself. Did Tyson really refuse to provide any sort of citation whatsoever? Isn’t providing data to back up assertions kind of a requirement in the field of science which Tyson purports to practice?

Tyson seems to suggest that the slides I originally cited were taken out of context (how does one take the only quote presented out of context?). Maybe. But I cited specific slides, with specific quotes, which we know were quotes because they contained quotation marks and attributions, even if the attributions were atrocious and almost certainly incorrect. Now, if those quotes were meant to be generally demonstrative of a type of ignorance, rather than examples of specific ignorance, that’s fine, I suppose. But why use actual quotation marks and bogus attributions? Why not just disclose that you weren’t actually quoting anybody?

Now, Tyson is right about one thing: I wasn’t present for that specific presentation to the Tableau Conference. Thankfully, it wasn’t the first time he’s used those two specific slides and quotes to make his apparently groundbreaking point that journalists and politicians are stupid. He’s been using those exact same slides for years, so we have a lot more than a single presentation to go on.

For example, here is Tyson using those same quotes and slides in a 2011 presentation:

Here we have Tyson addressing the 175th commencement ceremony of Mount Holyoke College in 2012:

Tyson said:

I need help when I see newspaper headlines lamenting the state of the school system and they complain half the schools are below average. I’m thinking, that’s kind of what an average is, sort of, you need about half below! I can’t keep doing this!

Giving the exact same presentation over and over again, year after year, suggests that he most certainly has kept doing this.

In his defense, though, I’d also need help if I kept imagining newspaper headlines that simply didn’t exist. In this version of his story, we don’t just have one headline, we magically have multiple “newspaper headlines” making claims about averages and data distributions. As I noted in my original critique of Tyson’s presentation: no, Neil, that’s not what an average is. At all. That’s what a median is. Yes, averages and medians and modes are all measures of central tendency, but they most certainly are not the same thing, any more than a house’s square footage is equal to its property’s acreage. Entirely different formulas are used to calculate each, for good reason.

It’s true that in any normal or perfectly symmetrical unimodal distribution (where skewness, the third statistical moment, is equal to 0), the mean will match the median, and the percentage of data points below the average will match the percentage of data points above the average (this can also happen in distributions with non-zero skewnesses and wildly different tails, but it’s atypical). BUT NOT ALL DISTRIBUTIONS are perfectly normal or symmetrical, and it’s both absurd and anti-science to ever assume that any distribution will be perfectly normal. Heck, even distributions that look normal generally aren’t; they merely approximate a normal distribution.

Anyhow, this is all a long way of saying that this fake example of numerical ignorance he keeps parroting indicts himself and his audience — who almost certainly would be too stupid to get the joke if he correctly used median instead of incorrectly using average — not the fake journalists he invents for effect.

In that very same Mount Holyoke speech, Tyson also used the same manufactured quote from a member of Congress that doesn’t appear to have ever been uttered by an actual member of Congress:

I need help when a member of Congress said “I have changed my views 360 degrees on that issue.” I need help!

Yes, you do need help. Thankfully you have me. For starters, as far as Google and Nexis and the Congressional Record are concerned, that quote doesn’t exist. But a similar quote does exist, and it wasn’t uttered by some right-wing nutjob anti-science kook who hates math: it was said by U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA). She wasn’t referencing her own views, though. She was criticizing Republican Rep. Henry Hyde in 1998. From the Los Angeles Times (see what I did there? I quoted an actual newspaper, with a link to the original source):

“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, by the way, shares Tyson’s alarmist views on global warming, views which are endorsed by climate models but summarily rejected by reality. No wonder he’s so hesitant to specifically cite her as his example of how politicians are terrible at math and science.

So, contrary to what Tyson claimed about how nuanced and subtle and unique and contextual his presentation last week was, we have evidence that he’s been recycling the same tired trope and same non-existent quotes for years. Like this one, or this one, or this one, or this one, or this one, or this one, or this one. The most baffling aspect of the whole thing, though, is why he feels the need to manufacture proof of how journalists and politicians are bad at math. Of course they’re bad at math. Of course they’re not very bright at a whole host of things.

Proving that water is wet, however, should not be this difficult. All you need to do to prove that politicians are stupid is pay attention. Or, if that’s too hard, you can spend 5 seconds on Google. Likely fewer if you know what you’re doing.

Here, for example, is a politician claiming that the island of Guam might tip over if too many people visit it. No, seriously, that’s what he said (that’s another source citation for those of you keeping score at home). A member of Congress actually expressed fear that an island might tip over if too many people were on it:

Here we have the vice president of the United States demonstrating his inability to count to four. Then there’s the president who forgot how many U.S. states there were.

I could go on, but I’ll stop for now. The point is that it’s not hard at all to prove that politicians, as a class, are some of the dimmest, dullest, and least inspiring group of people you could possibly imagine. It takes a special brand of lazy hack to feel compelled to manufacture evidence to that effect.

The worst part of Tyson’s apparent response, though, is his justification for quotes that he doesn’t deny he fabricated:

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.

If two out of two slides that I examined contained non-existent quotes, I’m at a bit of a loss as to why I should care about the other 58 slides. If a journalist blatantly fabricated two quotes in a 60-paragraph article (or fabricated one in order to mask his theft of a much better constructed joke), he would likely be out of a job, regardless of how awesome his 58 other paragraphs might have been. If you doubt this assertion of mine, feel free to Google “Jayson Blair.”

Case in point as to why I don’t care all that much about his other 58 slides: in his book, “Space Chronicles: Facing The Ultimate Frontier,” Tyson recounts an alleged instance of jury duty service. You can probably guess what happened: somebody said something dumb, and Tyson said something really smart to set that person straight. Your guess would be correct. Here’s the passage from that book:

Tyson Book Jury Duty

Compare that passage to this tweet by Tyson, in which he tells us that the drug amount at issue was 3,000 milligrams of cocaine, not 1,700 milligrams as his book alleged.

He uses the same 3,000 milligram figure in this presentation.

Or you could compare it to this presentation, in which he told the crowd that the real amount was 6,000 milligrams, neither 3,000 milligrams, nor 1,700 milligrams, as he alleged in his book, which was published all the way back in 2012.

Or you could compare it to this presentation, in which Tyson told the crowd that the real amount was 2,000 milligrams, not 6,000 milligrams, or 3,000 milligrams, or 1,700 milligrams, as he wrote in his 2012 book..

In the book version of his story, Tyson lectured the judge that the weight of the drugs confiscated were roughly equal to the weight of a dime. In the video presentation linked above, Tyson said he compared the weight to that of a penny. I’ll let you do the math on what percentage of this jury duty story is comprised of total garbage.

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.

It’s also interesting to me that in his final comment in his response to my initial post, Tyson seems to suggest fabrication is acceptable (“I consider the talk to be a success”) so long as people end up talking about the things that were fabricated:

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.

-Neil deGrasse Tyson, New York City (writing from Walla Walla).

Weird. I guess I always thought science was the search for truth, not the search for attention.

Sean is the co-founder of The Federalist. Follow him on Twitter.