Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson seems like an unlikely candidate for celebrity, but he’s hawking something liberal America desperately wants: the sense of satisfaction that comes from pretending you’re smarter than others, without actually thinking too hard. Tyson, the driving force behind the recent Cosmos reboot on network TV, regularly sells out auditoriums at $70 a ticket to lecture people on how a lack of scientific rigor is degrading our culture. Perhaps not surprisingly, Tyson is an obnoxious atheist and a political totem. In July, Bill Maher claimed that Republicans dislike Tyson simply because he is a black scientist (nothing to do with his baseless attacks on faith and climate-change credulity).
The devotion to Tyson is so great that America’s other dubious pop scientist, Bill Nye the Science Guy, recently announced he was running for president with Tyson on his ticket. Nye was joking, but the idea received many a sincere endorsement from their fans.
Well, it turns out that Tyson’s condescending shtick doesn’t hold up too well when subjected to peer review. At the Federalist, writer Sean Davis has been chronicling a number of ways in which Tyson’s lectures and anecdotes are more truthy than true. The most egregious is this anecdote about George W. Bush, which has been a staple of Tyson’s lectures:
George Bush, within a week of [the 9/11 terrorist attacks] gave us a speech attempting to distinguish we from they. And who are they? These were sort of the Muslim fundamentalists. And he wants to distinguish we from they. And how does he do it? He says, “Our God”—of course it’s actually the same God, but that’s a detail, let’s hold that minor fact aside for the moment. Allah of the Muslims is the same God as the God of the Old Testament. So, let’s hold that aside. He says, “Our God is the God”—he’s loosely quoting Genesis, biblical Genesis—“Our God is the God who named the stars.” . . . The problem is that two-thirds of all stars that have names have Arabic names. I don’t think he knew this. That would confound the point that he was making.
You really have to watch Tyson deliver the lecture on YouTube to see how emphatic and patronizing he is. But here’s the real problem—nothing about this anecdote is true. George W. Bush did make a remark that bears a resemblance to this, but it was two years later, in his speech following the Columbia space shuttle disaster, a context that had nothing to do with 9/11 or with Islam. “The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today,” Bush said. What’s more, there are two biblical references to naming the stars—in Psalms and Isaiah, but not in Genesis. But why let truth and literacy get in the way of bashing George W. Bush and his crazy sky-God?
Odds are good this is the first you’ve heard of the story, despite Tyson’s celebrity. After Davis reported this falsehood, not a single mainstream outlet picked up on the story of one of America’s most famous scientists fabricating this anecdote and recycling it for years. Moreover, after several behind-the-scenes debates, Wikipedia editors have rigorously deleted anything less than flattering from Tyson’s bio.
On the few websites that have deigned to cover the story, the reaction has been mostly shrieking about how the right-wing is out to get Tyson and attacking the messenger. Tyson, however, is not entitled to his own facts. It will be interesting to see if he drops the Bush bit from his spiel. Based on the media silence and legions of Tyson defenders who prefer his made-up facts to honest inquiry, we’re guessing he won’t.