The War Against Uppity Lying Liar Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Astrophysicist and Cosmos star Neil deGrasse Tyson was already a target of the anti-intellectual right, but a raft of new charges against the nerd-tastic Tyson add lying liarhood to his prior convictions on numerous counts of uppitiness, and they’re trying to get normal people to play along.

I know, the term “uppity” carries a lot of baggage with it, and of you want to argue that right-wing antipathy for Tyson has nothing to do with race, be my guest, but if you doubt that he stands accused of being uppity, with not knowing his place, racial or not, take a look at the art that accompanies the latest attacks on him:

If you believe the caricature that The National Review ran on their cover, in lieu of a photograph, he’s also kinda fat.

So, this guy, who just happens to coincidentally be black, thinks he’s smarter than you, which makes you mad, but not because he’s black. Let’s just get that out of the way. These people would all be equally offended if a white astrophysicist thought he was smarter than them, too, because “blogger” and “astrophysicist” are basically lateral professions, intellectually speaking. No racism is at work here, let’s just get that out of the way.

Neil deGrasse Tyson now also faces a slew of attacks alleging that he is a serial fabricator, and therefore, not to be trusted. The evidence presented in support of this is two powerpoint slides, one apocryphal anecdote, and one completely true statement. From years and years of lectures, hours of television, and reams of printed works, this is the dossier that the right has accumulated against Tyson. I hate to break it to you, but there are more insect parts in your half-empty peanut butter jar than this, as Tyson himself has pointed out.

This flimsy case barely merits the response that Tyson gave it, but more mainstream outlets like The Daily Beast are giving this absurdity the “he said, she said” treatment, and a battle is raging among the nerds at Wikipedia, where a section on the great Quote Fabrication Controversies was added, then deleted and folded into another section. Hence, a brief examination appears to be in order.

It all started with The Federalist‘s blistering exposé of two slides from an NDT lecture, slides about which they admit they knew nothing of the context. In one of the slides, Tyson attributes the following as a “Newspaper Headline”:

Half the schools in the district are below average.

An exhaustive search by The Federalist‘s Sean Davis turnied up only a quote from the body of an Associated Press article. Now, it’s possible that the headline. self-evidently presented as something that Tyson saw somewhere, wasn’t actually a headline, but one of those pull-quotes that’s presented in bold, or a sub-headline. Maybe the AP headline was changed by a local print syndicator, which is fairly common and not necessarily cataloged online. Or maybe he’s just a big, fat liar. He is uppity and arrogant, remember?

This slide is evidence that NDT doesn’t understand statistics, because it is entirely possible for an unequal percentage to be below average in a given set, so what’s funny about that headline? As Tyson himself explains, it’s not that half being below average is a mathematical certainty, but that it isn’t news. You wouldn’t make “Baseball player fails 70% of the time in batter’s box” your sports headline, either. The Federalist missed out on another hot scoop, Tyson’s anti-science insistence that it is not possible to park on the parkway, or to drive on a driveway:

I’m thinking, that’s kind of what an average is, sort of, you need about half below! I can’t keep doing this! Why do we drive on a parkway, and park on a driveway?

Either Tyson doesn’t understand statistics, or Davis doesn’t understand humor. Tyson’s homage to George Carlin underscores the fact that Tyson, in these instances, wasn’t speaking as a journalist or a scientist, but as a guy going a bit.

That clip also features the other alleged “fabrication.” a quote from a “member of congress” who says “I have changed my views 360 degrees on that issue,” which The Federalist initially insisted had never happened, before later discovering that an actual member of congress had said something very similar, accusing someone else of changing their view 360 degrees. Is it possible that no other member of congress had ever made that same gaffe? Is Rep. Maxine Waters’ quote close enough? I don’t know, but I look forward to Davis’ next exposé, in which he becomes the first journalist to ever survey a representative sampling of firemen on the coloring of their suspenders. Maybe he can get to the bottom of all this butter being thrown out of windows, too.

Then, there’s the accusation that Tyson messed up the story of the Space Pen, but his anecdote was 100% accurate, yet constructed in order to use misdirection to make a humorous point. The Space Pendid cost $1 million to develop, and the Soviets did use pencils in space.

Finally, Tyson paraphrased a Gorge W. Bush quote, and misattributed the timing and intent of the quote. Truth be told, there’s not really any defending this one on its own. As I noted recently, Bush was actually a vocal booster of Islam as a religion, but  Tyson twisted a quote about our Creator naming the stars, delivered following the Columbia space shuttle disaster, into a divisive comparison of fundamentalist Islam to Christianity. In reality, Bush readily acknowledged the shared theology and values of Christianity and Islam. At best, this is probably an apocryphal story he picked up on some blog during the Bush administration, and the result of a confirmation bias that ‘s shared by many in this country.

But even this, as unkind as it is, doesn’t shred an ounce of Tyson’s scientific cred, since this, apparently his one and only significant error ever, has fuck-all to do with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s wheelhouse, which is astrophysics. When he says Mars has the same climate as Earth, wake me up. By contrast, one of Tyson’s most vocal critics thinks it’s a “cheap shot” to talk about slavery as a critique of the American Revolution.

That’s not really the point, though. The point is to put Neil deGrasse Tyson back in his place, which is definitely not smarter than right-wing bloggers. It’s not racial, though. They parse every scientist’s lecturing career with microscopic precision, don’t they?