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Neil DeGrasse Tyson: Just Trust Me On Those Things I Said, OK?


Popular scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson responded publicly to an email sent by Sean Davis of The Federalist. You can read it in its entirety on Facebook.

To quickly review the situation that’s been unfolding in recent weeks, Sean found significant problems in various claims that Tyson makes as part of his public presentations on science. A newspaper headline touted for years by Tyson likely doesn’t exist. The exact quote he uses to bash members of Congress as being stupid also doesn’t exist. The details within one of Tyson’s favorite anecdotes — a story of how he bravely confronted a judge about his mathematical illiteracy while serving on jury duty — seem to change with various tellings.

And perhaps most oddly, given how easy it is to check out, Tyson frequently shared a quote that he attributed to President George W. Bush despite no record of this quote existing elsewhere.

According to Tyson, in the days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Bush uttered the phrase, “Our God is the God who named the stars.” According to Tyson, the president made that claim as a way of segregating radical Islam from religions like Christianity or Judaism. You can watch it here.

OK, so Tyson responded and while it seems to be going over well with many of his devoted fanboys inside and particularly outside the media (seriously, don’t read the comments to the Facebook post if you want to have good feelings about your fellow man), it’s the most bizarre statement ever.

For the unverifiable newspaper headline about “half the schools in the district being below average,” he says he is completely unable to provide verifiable substantiation for it ever having existed in reality. And yet he doesn’t say he’s made it up. He says it’s drawn from “a second-tier headline” he saw in “the New York Post” in the “early-to-mid-1990s.” So if it’s there, I’m sure we’ll find it in no time.

For the unverifiable quote of a Member of Congress saying “I’ve changed my views 360 degrees on that issue” he is unable to respond to Sean’s request for the name of the member of Congress who said it, his or her exact quote, when it was said, where it was said, the name of the publication that recorded and published the quote or the date of said publication.

That’s because he says this: “I’ve actually heard this quote several times in my life, but only once (in person) with a member of Congress. Again, as with the NYPost, names don’t matter here.”

Oh dear. Let’s move on to the Bush quote, which is where things get really bad. To Sean’s request that Tyson verify the quote he’s been using against the former president, Tyson notes that September 11th affected him “deeply” and adds:

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.

It is odd. Very odd. As is this response. So the basis of his claim for this Bush quote is his own personal notes. But he can’t help any of the rest of us with any of this? What about how drastically this public-quote-heard-only-by-Tyson conflicts with all the public statements of Bush?

No matter. Take this bizarre collection of words:

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.

Wait, he’s “more likely” to forget something than “remember” something that didn’t happen. And because of this self-reported likelihood, he can “assure” us that the quote is somewhere? In addition to Sean’s efforts to verify the quote — which include speaking with all of Bush’s major speechwriters — Tyson’s fanboys have been desperately trying to find any evidence of same.

But what about the end where he suggests that the problem with everyone’s inability to verify his claims about reality lies outside himself. Note that he subtly suggests Sean has the problem for spending “time” trying to verify what Tyson has spoken. Or that the onus is on Sean to verify something instead of the person making the claim.

Word to the wise: When rational people strongly suspect you’ve made something up to make yourself look better and to make one of the most recorded people in human history look bad and there’s no evidence of your claim, the onus is actually on you to clear your name. Don’t get me wrong, Sean Davis is a thorough guy. I mean, the very first few claims of yours he looked into he was able to show serious problems with. I know he’s sat on a bunch of other problems people have pointed out to him as well — so you probably don’t want him looking any further into anything you’ve written. Your saving grace right now is that the media — rather than looking into your various claims — is instead writing stories with headlines like this one from The Daily Beast: “The Right’s War on Neil deGrasse Tyson: The Cosmos host is widely despised by conservatives. Do they have a point, or are their complaints just anti-intellectualism run amok?” That’s a real headline. Check it out for yourself (you don’t have to just trust me that I saw it at some point!).

Not all journalists operate this way. To show you the range of opinion from journalists who do believe quotes should be verified and those who think the problem is with people who think quotes should be verified, I offer these two sample Tweets:


You can kind of judge how much to trust various media by whether they defend quote fabrication and think fact claims should be verifiable to non-Gnostics or try to go after people who are worried about the quote fabrication. We’ve seen more of the latter than is in any way journalistically defensible, particularly at this stage of the story.

Or as Sean notes:

Tyson’s non-defense goes on to discuss why he has used different numbers to describe the amount of cocaine a defendant was accused of having in a jury trial he was kicked off of. In this case his defense is his strongest — which is to say the numbers don’t match because he’s not as precise in public speaking as he is in print. Precision is truly a challenge for public speakers and this is the least problematic of Sean’s charges, in my view.

What is bizarre in his explanation of how he has been imprecise in this story is that he tells Sean that if he could talk to others in the courtroom, “Perhaps one of them will remember and come forward for you, serving as an eyewitness. But the underlying fact here is that I am probably a better eyewitness than any of them because the incident involved me.”

Eyewitnesses are a good thing. And if you believe Neil deGrasse Tyson is your lord and savior, his eyewitness testimony is of course sufficient for verifying, for instance, that George W. Bush quote.

But what about those of us who are not in the Tyson faith-based community? Are we “anti-intellectuals” to not trust in his unverified claims? I suppose that will be the continued approach by many in the media, some folks in the Wikipedia community (whose trust in Tyson puts the most devout religious piety to absolute shame), and the other fanboys.

He notes and fully concedes the problems with eyewitness testimony and the fact that it’s basically all he offered.

Me telling you “I said it. I saw it. I read It. I heard it.” So I admire your skepticism. We all share this in the scientific community. The difference is that our urge to run and verify a statement is proportional to how extraordinary the claim is. If my colleague tells me it was cloudy at the telescope last night, I’m not compelled to mount an investigation of its truth. But if my colleague declared that an alien saucer flew over the observatory last night, my need for evidence beyond his eyewitness account increases greatly.

First this:

I know from much of our reader correspondence on this issue that those actually in the scientific community aren’t willing to go down on this anti-scientific boat Tyson’s in right now. In fact, they sent us other examples of him getting science wrong. Yes, in the media’s eyes, Tyson is the high priest of science. In some fanboy communities on the internet, the same. But let’s not confuse actual science with making up quotes nobody can verify to make a point about how stars were named.

But the thing is that the newspaper headline, the member of Congress quote and especially the quote-that-contradicts-everything-we-know-of-Bush-on-interfaith-relations are outlandish claims. That’s why he uses them in his speeches. They look simply like examples but they sound bizarre — memorable and outlandish, even. They call into question journalism, politics, and George W. Bush — which is why they were able to be used for so long. Who does not love making fun of our presidents, our media or our other politicians?

In any case, I’m glad that Tyson has acknowledged that there is no evidence beyond the testimony of one suddenly questionable eyewitness for the claims he’s repeatedly and publicly made over the years.

I couldn’t be more disappointed at his continued defensiveness and excuse-making. And the media should know that Sean’s initial — even casual — look into just a few claims made by Tyson is not exhaustive by a long shot. They happened to simply be the first few things he looked into. If they don’t dig further and instead dig in, that’s telling as well.