A curious thing happened in a recent New York Times op-ed about planetarium director Neil Tyson and the failings of memory: the paper of record completely forgot to tell the truth about the circumstances surrounding Tyson’s many fabrications and fake apologies.
The op-ed piece, which was written by psychology professors Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, purported to explain why our memories are so fickle and used Tyson’s fabrications as the article’s main case study. According to the op-ed, Tyson didn’t fabricate anything. He just forgot that a bunch of stuff he talked about for years never actually happened. The writers then used the Tyson/memory hook to…reprise 9/11 Truther claims against former president George W. Bush, as if the rock solid claims about Tyson’s repeated quoted fabrications are even remotely analogous to claims that George W. Bush knew the 9/11 attacks were coming and did nothing to stop them (or, that he helped orchestrate the attacks since 9/11 was an inside job). And, contrary to the claims of Chabris and Simons, Tyson never actually apologized for what he did: repeatedly fabricate quotes for effect.
To top it all off, the New York Times just plum forgot to credit the source of the voluminous research about Tyson’s willful and repeated quote fabrications. The piece noted that “critics” pointed out that Tyson fabricated an alleged quote by George W. Bush shortly after 9/11 which, in Tyson’s telling, was meant to divide Americans based on religion. To be clear, “critics” did not point that out. Sean Davis of The Federalist pointed it out, along with several other instances of Tyson fabricating quotes for effect. There was only one critic and one publication conducting original research about Tyson’s fabulism: The Federalist. Somehow, the New York Times op-ed page forgot to include that fact.
The Federalist‘s research wasn’t just limited to a single Tyson fabrication about George W. Bush, though. There were numerous instances, which the New York Times piece also forgot to mention.
There was the newspaper headline about statistics and school district grades that never appeared as a headline in a single newspaper.
There was the quote from a member of Congress about changing his mind on an issue that was never actually uttered by a member of Congress.
There was the story about jury duty that seemed to change with every telling (there’s also zero evidence aside from Tyson’s assertions that this event ever actually happened).
Then there was the blatantly fabricated George W. Bush quote that Tyson peddled for years. Contrary to the claims in the New York Times op-ed, Tyson didn’t “forget” the real quote. He fabricated every single aspect of his anecdote, right down to George W. Bush’s inflection when he allegedly uttered the fake quote. As The Federalist wrote at the time:
Tyson butchered the quote — Bush simply never said what Tyson said he said. Tyson butchered the timing of the quote — it happened in 2003, not in the week after 9/11. Tyson butchered the reason for the quote — not 9/11, but the Columbia tragedy. Tyson butchered the implication — Bush never tried to divide people based on religion. Tyson even fabricated Bush’s inflection when he uttered the fake quote. In short, literally every possible thing that one could’ve gotten wrong about Bush’s Columbia quote, Tyson managed to get wrong.
The Federalist didn’t just make assertions about Tyson’s fabricated George W. Bush quote, it also went out of its way to try and determine what Tyson could possibly have been referring to. It wasn’t Neil Tyson who found the authentic 2003 quote about the Columbia disaster. It was The Federalist. It wasn’t the New York Times that contacted every 9/11-era White House speechwriter to discuss Tyson’s mischaracterization of Bush. It was The Federalist. And it wasn’t generic “critics” who faced obscene and personal threats as a result of their research, it was The Federalist and its writers. It’s a shame that the NYT op-ed writers forget why, exactly, they even know about the Tyson imbroglio in the first place.
And then there were the fake apologies. So many fake apologies. There was this one. And this one. And this one. The op-ed’s claims that Tyson “[s]top[ped] stonewalling, admit error, note[d] that such things happen, apologize[d] and move[d] on,” are quite laughable in light of what actually happened. Tyson stonewalled and obfuscated to the very end, refusing to plainly apologize and take actual responsibility for his repeated fabrications.
Even though The Federalist made the connection on September 16 between Tyson’s fake George W. Bush quote and the president’s actual words about the Columbia disaster, Tyson was still claiming the quote was real nearly two weeks later, despite all evidence to the contrary. In addition to forgetting to use Google to check the authenticity of quotes before peddling them for years, he apparently forgot to even read the critiques of his work.
Tyson was certainly sorry he got caught, but to say he sincerely apologized for the numerous instances of obvious quote fabrication strains credulity. “My bad,” as Tyson wrote on his Facebook page in his third and final attempt to make the story go away, is not an apology. It is unfortunate that Chabris and Simons forgot that “apology” and “rationalization” are not synonyms.
I understand the need for brevity and I sympathize with the New York Times and the authors of this particular op-ed. It’s not practical to include every aspect of a detailed event in a summary. Some facts, though, deserve to be included. When only one publication and one writer were responsible for a story of particular importance, it’s only appropriate to give them credit. To do otherwise looks petty. When combined with other omissions, the lack of disclosure could appear to some readers to be a deliberate attempt to prevent them reading the original research for themselves.
But perhaps I’m being too harsh. Maybe this op-ed was a brilliant demonstration of the assertion that “we are all fabulists” with hopelessly fallible memories, bereft of any tools — things like Google or Lexis or the Internet — that could be used to confirm or reject our memories. Perhaps, by omitting so many relevant facts about the affair, the New York Times wanted to show its readers that no one — not even the esteemed psychology professoriate or the paper of record — is exempt from simple errors of memory.
Or maybe it was something even more simple. Maybe the New York Times just forgot.