[UPDATE: Early this morning, in a discussion thread about whether references to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s history of quote fabrication should be added to Tyson’s Wikipedia page, an editor stated that “no version of this event will be allowed into the article.”]
Religious fanatics have an odd habit of overreacting when people have the audacity to question their fanaticism. In Iraq, radical Islamic jihadists are systemically murdering and beheading Christians, Jews, and even Muslims who do not pledge fealty to ISIS’s religious tenets. Hundreds of years ago, church authorities and Aristotelian acolytes placed Galileo under house arrest for having the audacity to reject geocentrism in favor of heliocentrism. The Bible recounts how Christians were persecuted and stoned, and Jesus himself was crucified for contradicting the religious dogma of the day.
You will bow to the religious zealots, or you will pay the price.
Which brings us to l’affaire de Tyson. Neil Tyson, a prominent popularizer of science (he even has his own television show) was recently found to have repeatedly fabricated multiple quotes over several years. The fabrications were not a one-off thing. They were deliberate and calculated, crafted with one goal in mind: to elevate Tyson, and by extension his audience, at the expense of know-nothing, knuckle-dragging nutjobs who hate science. Tyson targeted journalists, members of Congress, even former President George W. Bush. And what was their crime? They were guilty of rejecting science, according to Tyson.
There’s only one problem. None of the straw man quotes that Tyson uses to tear them down are real. The quote about the numerically illiterate newspaper headline? Fabricated. The quote about a member of Congress who said he had changed his views 360 degrees? It doesn’t exist. That time a U.S. president said “Our God is the God who named the stars” as a way of dividing Judeo-Christian beliefs from Islamic beliefs? It never happened.
These are not ticky-tack fouls. In the world of publishing and public speaking, quotes are evidence. Quotes are to journalism what data are to science. If they’re not real, they’re irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how juicy and revealing they are if they never happened. Fabrication is the cardinal sin of publishing. Just ask Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass, who to this day is prohibited from practicing law in the state of California because of his history of fabrication.
Judging by many of the responses to the three pieces I wrote detailing Neil Tyson’s history of fabricating quotes and embellishing stories (part 1, part 2, and part 3), you’d think I had defamed somebody’s god. It turns out that fanatical cultists do not appreciate being shown evidence that the object of their worship may not, in fact, be infallible.
Which brings us to Wikipedia. Oh, Wikipedia. After I published my piece about Neil Tyson’s fabrication of the George W. Bush quote, several users edited Neil Tyson’s wiki page to include details of the quote fabrication controversy. The fact-loving, evidence-weighing, ever-objective editors of the online encyclopedia did not appreciate the inclusion of the evidence of Tyson’s fabrication. Not at all.
According to a review of the edit history of Tyson’s page, one long-time Wikipedia editor deleted an entire pending section summarizing the issue of Tyson’s fabricated quotes. Another editor attempted to insert a brief mention of Tyson’s fabrication of the George W. Bush quote. That mention was also deleted. When it was reinserted, it was deleted yet again by an editor who describes himself as a childless progressive and an apostle of Daily Kos (h/t @kerpen). Here are just a few of that user’s political ramblings, in case you were curious about the motivation behind the scrubbing of Tyson’s wiki.
Literally every single mention of Tyson’s history of fabricating quotes has been removed from Tyson’s Wikipedia page.
And then there are the comments about my most recent piece from the very open-minded, tolerant, and not-at-all-religiously-fanatical readers of the website Fark.com, which are incredibly illustrative (content warning).
One commenter posted my picture and said I was “punchable” (probably true). Another asked where the line to punch me formed (please let me know when you find it so I can avoid it). One commenter, the esteemed “LoneWolf343” said, “I would be punched in the face a thousand times just so I can punch that face.”
Then there’s this hefty defense of Tyson’s fabrication by Fark commenter “nekom,” who apparently struggles mightily with the complexities of modern English:
Yet another commenter felt compelled to photoshop my face, as if I’m not goofy-looking enough already. One suggested my critique of Tyson was due entirely to racism. Then came the bizarre accusations of homosexuality (I’m still incredibly confused as to why that’s supposed to be an insult, especially coming from a very liberal community that professes open-minded tolerance), which were of course followed by the violent sexual fantasies of several Fark commenters.
All in all, it was exactly what I expected from a group of hopelessly misguided religious zealots who will not tolerate the slander of their savior. There’s a word for people who fantasize about using sexual violence to force their will upon dissenters, but it’s not “scientist.”
It was renowned Internet intellectual “CheapEngineer,” however, who had the courage to verbalize what the rest of the fanatics were really thinking about the whole affair:
At this point I don’t have a problem with *any* slandering of GWB.
Exactly. And that’s what’s so valuable about the hysterical responses to my research on Tyson. These lovers of science don’t actually love science, because science requires you to go where the evidence takes you, even if it goes against your original hypothesis. What many of Tyson’s cultists really like is the notion that one can become more intelligent via osmosis — that you can become as smart and as credentialed as Tyson by merely clapping like a seal at whatever he says, as long as what he says fits the political worldview of your average progressive liberal.
Tyson may be a great scientist, but what he’s selling at a price of $70 per ticket isn’t science. He’s selling the self satisfaction that comes from moral preening. Neil Tyson is adored by people who want the sweet feeling of smug, intellectual superiority without all the baggage of actually being intellectually superior in any way. They love math and science up to the point at which one of them needs to figure out a restaurant tip, and then out comes the iPhone calculator. The more self-aware ones will just round up to the nearest dollar and then pretend it’s because they’re generous. But overall, we’re dealing with people who love science so much that they picked college majors just to avoid the subject they allegedly love so dearly.
If you doubt me, then just scan through the Fark comments to get a sense of the soaring intellect of Tyson’s most ardent defenders. I’ve got bad news for you “science lovers” out there: clicking “like” on a Facebook meme is not science, and spending all day looking at pictures on the Internet does not make you a scientist.
Thankfully, not all fans of Neil Tyson’s work are eager to shut their eyes and stick their fingers in their ears to avoid acknowledging the rather obvious faults of their faith leader. Hemant Mehta, a writer for Patheos who describes himself as the “Friendly Atheist,” wrote a very honest and introspective review of the fabrication evidence against Tyson. Unlike many of Tyson’s unhinged followers, Mehta allowed the evidence to be his guide:
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.
Mehta is right: if a right-wing conservative — if a skeptic of climate alarmism, for example — were accused of wholesale fabrication of evidence, he would have already been run out of town. But not Tyson. Why the disparity? That’s easy: because Tyson’s sins were committed out of a pure desire to further the common good. He believes the “right” things, which means his rather serious iniquities can be forgiven. A little fabrication can be swept under the rug so long as it’s in service of a higher agenda.
That is not the kind of attitude that is supposed to form the actual foundation of science, which consists of following the facts and the evidence wherever it takes you, no matter how unpleasant. Science is supposed to be the search for truth, not the search for stuff that just happens to support your political agenda. Science certainly isn’t the creation of bogus evidence out of thin air — the intelligent design of quotes ex nihilo, if you will — in order to support a political agenda.
Fabrication isn’t science. Ignoring inconvenient evidence isn’t science. And faithfully nodding your head whenever somebody says something you go agree with doesn’t make you a scientist. It makes you a parrot, and a religiously zealous one at that.