Politics & Policy

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Text-Burning Followers

What happens when you love science so much that you have to make war on facts?

Somebody is trying to destroy evidence that celebrity scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson fabricated evidence.

The esteemed director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium and star of the remade Cosmos television show is going through an ion storm of criticism from the Federalist’s Sean Davis, who has so far presented persuasive cases that Tyson fabricated a newspaper headline and a quote from an unnamed member of Congress, along with a starry-eyed religious statement from former president George W. Bush. Davis also claims Tyson tells several slippery versions of a jury-duty anecdote in which Tyson outwits an unnamed judge.

Readers of Charlie Cooke’s National Review article “Smarter than Thou” will not be surprised to learn that these undocumented quotations and tall tales serve to increase Tyson’s relative share of status at the expense of a named or unnamed other. Tyson’s extremely zealous followers, meanwhile, have taken their hero’s misuse of the facts (which may have been merely careless) to an even more disturbing level: willful suppression of information.

Criticizing Tyson is not recommended for any person desiring a peaceful life. The astronomer’s acolytes are fiery, tireless, and enormously self-satisfied, capable of supernova reactions to quark-sized provocations. Since Davis began cataloging Tyson’s misstatements, the Tysonians have subjected him to a Puppis A–class flaming. Per Davis:

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 . . . 

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.

In Wikipedia’s free-ranging editorial process, it’s not unusual to see disputed claims come and go. But after a week in which nobody has presented evidence that the quotes Tyson passed around actually exist, the site has been stripped of even a “citation needed” reference to the issue.

“I noticed this morning that there was a simple sentence saying the [George W. Bush] quote was not real,” Davis tells National Review Online. “So I thought, that’s great that they’re leaving that up. Within the last hour [mid-afternoon Monday] it was pushed down the memory hole.”

Davis notes that the discussion of the edits on Wikipedia has been the opposite of scientific. “There is no evidence that the quotes Tyson made exist,” he says. “But the thrust of it is that there is a burden on me to produce a negative. The conversation among the Wikipedia editors has included comments to the effect that it hasn’t been proven that the statement doesn’t exist. It’s Kafkaesque. It’s just bonkers.”

This being 2014, there is a Right/Left political dimension: The Daily Beast’s Tim Mak wrote Friday that Davis’s revelations are part of “the right’s war on Neil deGrasse Tyson.” While Mak’s reporting is quite fair, his emphasis is strange: If America’s leading public scientist is playing loose with facts, that — and not the politics of the self-deprecating schmo who points it out — is the story.

It should be said that Tyson, though he has devoted a large amount of Cosmos screen time to hot-button issues, is not necessarily a more politicized figure than his predecessor at the helm of the Ship of the Imagination. Carl Sagan lives in our memories as a monument of unaging intellect, but he was quite eager to devote PBS production value to ribbing creationists and lamenting the inevitability of global warming and/or cooling. An entire episode of the original series, bearing the plangent title “Who Speaks for Earth,” was devoted to the then-fashionable terror of nuclear winter, complete with a mathematical chart purporting to show how the probability of a world-ending atomic war gets closer to one with each passing year. (More news the right-wing cabal is keeping from you: According to the chart, Planet Earth was destroyed by nukes a few years back. That’s why you can’t get decent legroom on a plane anymore.)

There is also, maybe, a fair argument to be made that a scientist so committed to truth above earthly loyalties that he joined the hue and cry to demote the only planet discovered by an American should be forgiven if he passes along the occasional as-seen-in-memes factoid or last-memory-of-the-cocktail-party quotation. After all, he is not acting as a scientist but merely tailoring a speech to a gathering of software salesmen. Without admitting wrongdoing, Tyson has begun to distance himself from what he calls “the contents of 2 out of 60 slides” during a speech to Tableau Software.

Should standards change when a respected expert speaks outside his area? The world of punditry is low and unsavory, but one of its generally agreed-upon guidelines is that you should strive for accuracy in speech. Neil deGrasse Tyson is America’s preeminent celebrity scientist; but without the scientist part, the celebrity doesn’t happen. Tyson projects robust and approachable charisma, but he’s more than just a motivational speaker. A scientist does not fabricate facts or (as is probably the case here) carelessly pass them along. There is also a hint of defensiveness in saying untrue things in order to make yourself look more right-thinking. Do the wonders of the universe get less impressive, or does the prestige of being a leading astronomer diminish, because Tyson doesn’t have somebody playing Watson to his Holmes?

For his part, the dogged Davis is continuing his effort to prove the negative. In an article Monday, Bush’s former chief of staff and several of his speechwriters refute the claim that the 43rd president said “Our God is the God who named the stars” after the 9/11 attacks. And just for balance, here is a fabricated deGrasse Tyson quote:

Tyson’s carelessness, and the suppressive inclinations of his followers, raise another troubling concern about the role of the de facto Scientist Laureate during a period that Thomas Kuhn defined as “normal science.” The idea of the scientific “consensus” is a popular one these days. Indeed, the shorthand that there is “90 percent agreement” on anthropogenic global warming is too modest; by this point at least 150 percent or 300 percent of scientists agree. But the real world is not Family Feud. It doesn’t matter what the survey says. It matters what is true. Upholders of the consensus urge openness and scientific rigor while working furiously to narrow the range of discussion, exclude contradictory evidence, and demean dissenters. Sometimes, as with the voluminous and never-settled data collections around every acre of earth from the top of Mount Everest to the center of the Pacific Ocean, the debates are weighty and fraught. Sometimes, as with Tyson’s fabrications, they are comical. Tyson will, and maybe should, get a pass on his made-up quotes. But for the good of celebrity scientists everywhere, he should take a lesson from it: One minute you’re this generation’s hero of sweet reason; the next you’re leading a torch-bearing mob bent on wiping out heterodoxy.

— Tim Cavanaugh is news editor of National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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