Monday, September 22, 2014

Expecting more of Neil deGrasse Tyson [updated]

I'm a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson and plan to be in the audience watching him speak at a conference in November. In the conflict of "conservatives vs.nerds," in which he is an extremely high-profile representative of the latter, I have stated my overall sympathy for the nerds. With regard to many of the recent complaints, mainly emanating from The Federalist, about inaccuracies by Tyson, I find most of the allegations of minor significance (about headlines involving averages, or exact numbers of grams discussed in some jury duty). But Tyson's evidently fake story about a supposed George W. Bush quote in 9/11's aftermath requires an explanation and, if it is fake as it strongly seems to be, an apology. Tyson's silence on this matter so far should be discouraging to anyone who admires him.

UPDATE: The video of the Bush story.

UPDATE 9/25: A crock of a piece by John Aziz at The Week: "Earth to climate-change deniers: Neil deGrasse Tyson's errors won't help you." Includes this gem of a "to be sure" statement:
To be sure, science is about facts, and a public advocate for science shouldn't play fast and loose with the facts, even in the interests of a snappy presentation. This will inevitably invite criticism. Tyson needs to check carefully, in the future, that the quotes in his anecdotes are factual and not a figment of his imagination. And he should apologize to those who he has misquoted.
Me: How nice. Followed immediately by this:
But at the same time, it should be said that none of Tyson's errors amount to methodological or factual errors in published scientific papers.
Me: It should be said! And what a fantastically low standard for well-known scientists to follow! And how does Aziz know that Tyson's Bush story was an "error" as opposed to a deliberate fabrication, especially when Tyson won't address it? A defense like this makes the defended look worse.

UPDATE 1:06 PM: And I just noticed this tweet from Aziz:

Which accentuates my view that Aziz's article is disingenuous posturing. When you "concede" something by wrapping it in an attack on the critics you're supposedly conceding to, and trying to downplay the significance of what you're conceding, you are engaging in the empty tribalism that passes for so much of political discourse these days.

UPDATE 9/28: An admission of error, to a degree, by Tyson, made in the comments of two Facebook posts. He says he "transposed" the quote from just after 9/11 to after the shuttle Columbia disaster. He doesn't mention that he changed the wording of the quote as well as its context and gave it a meaning it did not have. But it looks like this is far as he's going to go. A disappointing performance. Case closed.

UPDATE 10/2: Tyson's statement on this matter. While it still seems like an attempt to downplay it, there is an apology in there. It'll do.


Ray Haupt said...

I too am a fan of Tyson and find myself a bit dismayed by this as I expect better behavior from him than I do blatantly partian political pundits. He too is entitled to mistakes in speaking as all people are, but acknowledgement of error is something we can levy as the price for error with maintained credibility.

The Federalist article has a bit about a court case where the amout of cocain was 1700 mg vs 1.7 grams ... or some other numbers. It may well be that the tale is entirely concocted as a teaching tool and is harmless. The Bush misquotes have an air of partisanship unbecoming a scientist and especially unbecoming when the misquotes are oft repeated and remain unsourced.

Kenneth Silber said...

I agree. Looking at the video of Tyson telling the Bush tale is quite off-putting--and there it is at the planetarium's website.
If the controversy were just about the other anecdotes (1.7 grams or 3 grams etc.) I'd see it as pretty minor.