The Corner

The Perils of Being Neil deGrasse Tyson

A great deal has been written about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s peculiar non-apology to George W. Bush and the Federalist’s Sean Davis, and I have no great interest in adding to it directly. With the exception of one significant disagreement as to how important and inevitable philosophy is — a disagreement, I have noticed subsequently, that other less polemical writers appear to have noted, too — my original critique was of the cult that surrounds the man and of the way he is used as a totem and fetish; not of the man himself. That cult, by the furious and devastated manner in which it has reacted to each and every quibble that Tyson’s critics have expressed, has proved my point beautifully of late. To be among the staunchest of deGrasse Tyson’s fans, it seems, one has to be both a know-nothing and a zealot, one has to live in the desperate and pathetic hope that another person’s intelligence and eloquence will somehow rub off on oneself, and one has to make a highly public show of positioning oneself in relation to others so that strangers will know where to place one within the nation’s moral and intellectual hierarchy. If you want to see some examples of how these traits play out in the real world, read any of the hilarious reactions to Sean Davis, to Rich Lowry, to Jonathan Adler, or to myself; or, for that matter, to anyone else who has exhibited the temerity to write about the man in a less than reverent manner. At least in the devotion that he inspires in his supporters, Tyson really is more akin to a Ron Paul or a Sarah Palin than he is to your average scientist. And, at times, the consequences are downright alarming. Is this Tyson’s fault? Almost certainly not, no. Still, that does not mean that it is not ridiculous, and it does not mean that it’s not true. Many a great man has been blighted by terrible acolytes.

That having been said, Tyson himself has not come out of this imbroglio well. He may not have actively assembled his clique, but, as the fake George W. Bush quotation demonstrates, he does play to it at least a little. Whatever he may claim now, the intention of his tale was absolutely clear: to demonstrate for his audience who in the world was stupid and who in the world was smart, truth be damned. Unsurprisingly enough, those who had paid to come and see him speak were classed firmly in the latter category — and they loved every second of being so praised. And who wouldn’t? The world is full of performers whose sole role is to flatter their customers. That’s why we have cable news.

Now, lest I be willfully misunderstood, I should say for the record that Tyson is an excellent astronomer and that his work popularizing science is extremely valuable. As an atheist who takes an interest in such things myself, I am delighted that people care about matters scientific, even if I do think that the vast majority of those who claim to do so are unfailingly shallow and irritating in their engagement. But, however good he may be at his job, it is inescapably true that he has also become a cultural figure who plays a cultural role and who is fetishized by a subculture. Why is this so hard for his admirers to admit? Why, too, I wonder, do we find it so difficult to concede that, even for scientists, there is a real danger in becoming so loved? As we have learned over the years from musicians, movie stars, politicians, and so forth, to acquire an expectant and ardent fanbase is to run the risk of becoming a pastiche of oneself. Has Tyson? Perhaps so, yes. He’s hardly exempt.

Consider, by way of example, the text of his non-apology. Had I been charged with parodying the man, I honestly couldn’t have done a better job. Before he even gets to the issue at hand, Tyson writes:

I own a half-dozen cosmically themed vests and another 100+ cosmically themed ties. Among them, I’m more likely to be seen in only two of the vests and about a dozen of the ties, they being my favorites. In large theater performance venues, I often remove my shoes. I can move more nimbly on the stage, but I also do so as a matter of silent respect for the countless performers — singers, dancers, musicians – who have previously sanctified the stage with their artistic talents.

Later, he explains that he doesn’t really like talking to adoring crowds for fame and fortune, but that, “knowing what I know about the physical universe – and our place within it – I’d be socially irresponsible if I did not.” Okay, then!

What would he rather be doing instead?

Doing scientific research.  Writing books.  Playing with my kids.  Having a play-date with my wife. Eating homemade very-buttery popcorn while watching a movie curled up on the couch with the family. Reading antiquarian science books. Taking notes for my next book with quill and fountain pens by candlelight. Attending Broadway plays and musicals.  Listening to jazz and classical music. Drinking malted milkshakes. Cooking dinners that are fancier than the day of the week deserves.  Drinking a bottle of wine that is just a little more expensive than can be realistically justified. And cooking & eating waffles for breakfast. e.g.

That the final suggestion was illustrated with a link to a fan post on Reddit is almost too perfect for words. As for “taking notes for my next book with quill and fountain pens by candlelight,” this strikes me as a level of self-indulgence that even Ron Burgundy would have considered unseemly.

Since the contretemps broke, I have been a little confused as to why Tyson didn’t quickly regain the moral high ground by saying, flatly:

I misremembered a George W. Bush quotation. In science we are always ready to be corrected and evidence is paramount. I apologize for having got this wrong, and I’ll stop using it in my public presentations. Thank you for pointing it out.

Today, though, I am less bewildered, for the nature of the apology seems to tell us exactly why he did not just own up and move on. He can’t. He’s trapped, having become responsible for the self-esteem and self-identity of millions of adoring followers. Deep down, I bet Tyson wished he could just say, “my mistake.” Instead, he had to embed his note in an avalanche of superfluous pseudo-context; to insist that the whole affair “fascinated me greatly”; to enter into peculiar digressions about the nature of evidence and of memory; and, rather than admitting that a critic was right, to propose extraneously that “the mind is surely the next mysterious universe to be plumbed.” I find this all rather sad, I must say. I like Neil deGrasse Tyson. I’m sure he’s a nice, smart, interesting guy. His most ardent followers, however, are not. And, if his behavior over the past month is any indication, he’s been captured by them.


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