Neil deGrasse Tyson: Saint of Scientism

2014-09-22 NDT
Doesn’t this look like it could be a screen shot of a televangelist?


The overtly religious behavior of supposedly secular, anti-religious opponents is becoming increasingly obvious, but the reaction to revelations of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s plagiarism are surprising even to me. This, my friends, is what happens when you tip a sacred cow.

The story comes from Sean Davis by way of The Federalist. Davis has done some digging and has found that many of the punchiest and most perfect quotes Tyson uses to excoriate religious believers who don’t grasp the magnificence of science are punchy and perfect because he made them up.

The fabrications were not a one-off thing. They were deliberate and calculated, crafted with one goal in mind: to elevate Tyson, and by extension his audience, at the expense of know-nothing, knuckle-dragging nutjobs who hate science. Tyson targeted journalists, members of Congress, even former President George W. Bush. And what was their crime? They were guilty of rejecting science, according to Tyson.

There’s only one problem. None of the straw man quotes that Tyson uses to tear them down are real. The quote about the numerically illiterate newspaper headline? Fabricated. The quote about a member of Congress who said he had changed his views 360 degrees? It doesn’t exist. That time a U.S. president said “Our God is the God who named the stars” as a way of dividing Judeo-Christian beliefs from Islamic beliefs? It never happened.

That’s already a pretty interesting story, but before I had a chance to write about the other shoe dropped. Folks, naturally enough, started adding this information to Tyson’s Wikipedia page. This is pretty standard fare: whenever a person with a Wikipedia entry gets connected to some major controversy, there’s usually a section in their entry dedicated to discussing the charges. But, in this case, Wikipedia editors did not take kindly to anyone besmirching the honor of their patron saint!

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)… Literally every single mention of Tyson’s history of fabricating quotes has been removed from Tyson’s Wikipedia page.

The only thing possibly worse than the fanatical desire to protect Tyson’s image from reality is the viciousness with which Davis, for daring his sacrilege, is pilloried by his opponents. It is, as he describes, overtly religious.

These lovers of science don’t actually love science, because science requires you to go where the evidence takes you, even if it goes against your original hypothesis. What many of Tyson’s cultists really like is the notion that one can become more intelligent via osmosis — that you can become as smart and as credentialed as Tyson by merely clapping like a seal at whatever he says, as long as what he says fits the political worldview of your average progressive liberal.

Davis’s analysis is particular interesting from a Mormon perspective, because the Book of Mormon closely identifies false prophets with flattery. Examples:

  • And he [Sherem] preached many things which were flattering unto the people; and this he did that he might overthrow the doctrine of Christ. – Jacob 7:2
  • Yea, and [the people] also became idolatrous, because they were deceived by the vain and flattering words of the king and priests; for they did speak flattering things unto them. – Mosiah 11:5
  • And [Nehor]  had gone about among the people, preaching to them that which he termed to be the word of God, bearing down against the church; declaring unto the people that every priest and teacher ought to become popular; – Alma 1:1
  • But behold, it is better that thy soul should be lost than that thou shouldst be the means of bringing many souls down to destruction, by thy lying and by thy flattering words; – Alma 30:47 (This is Alma speaking to Korihor, another false prophet)

It’s not just a generally religious template that Tyson is enacting. It’s some of the worst religion has to offer: the promise that if you give a prophet loyalty this means you are superior to your neighbors. It’s a message seductive as it is sinister.

7 thoughts on “Neil deGrasse Tyson: Saint of Scientism”

  1. It’s interesting to see the reactions. On facebook, Tracy Hickman linked to the Federalist article. In response, several of his fellow fantasy authors attacked him for daring to link to a Koch/Monsanto/Neocon/Emmanuel Goldstein/whatever funded website that is full of lies. No attempts to argue that Tyson was right or misconstrued – just that evil right-wingers are attacking their sainted saint.

  2. Well, two things: first, I believe that he’s fudged some of his anecdotes/quotes, and that this is genuinely a problem. I’m sad about that, though I confess he’s long seemed more like a popularizer of science than a practicing scientist (also an important role, but one which reflects little on science).

    But, second, here’s something odd: I Googled “neil degrasse tyson quotes fabricated” and got about 494,000 results. But I noticed the first several were from a single source. So I tried it again with them, “neil degrasse tyson quotes fabricated -federalist -sean”, and got only about 34,500. When over 90% of the instances of a particular accusation explicitly reference a single source (and I checked the first hit without them, and it references the same source without using those words, so presumably it’s even an even higher proportion than it seems), there is does seem to be room to wonder about the legitimacy of the accusation.

    NDT worship is as troubling as worship of any living individual, and, though I find most of his messages agreeable, it’s quite plausible that, in the service of his message, he’s been sloppily improving stories. But that doesn’t mean that his accusers are innocent. While the assumption that evil right-wingers are at fault is likely pure invention, it might be accurate. The fact that Mr. Davis infers that NDT is lying about a Congressional representative saying something because it wasn’t on Google or the Congressional record, for example, reflects very poorly on his scholarship, and the paucity of corroboration other sources should raise a red flag. This issue seems to be the most famous thing he’s written about, and by his own admission NDT has no need to fabricate his quotes, but attacking NDT is presumably driving substantial traffic to The Federalist.

    None of this means he’s wrong. But the willingness to accept his accusations uncritically is concerning.

  3. That’s an interesting bit of obfuscation. You’ve basically engaged in an ad homenim attack. The question should be: “are the criticisms accurate?” Not “is Mr. Davis trying to drive traffic to his website.”

    You’re basically willing to give Tyson the benefit of the doubt, but not willing to give Davis any breaks (you attack his use of Google as inadequate, but then do the same thing to attack him).

    This guy has the right (though not right-wing!) attitude:
    “If a pastor or right-wing conservative did it, we’d be calling them out on it immediately. Tyson doesn’t deserve a free pass just because his intentions are pure.”

  4. His series “Cosmos” is really good for the most part, but so far, in the first three episodes, the program seems to go out of its way to show how foolish religion is. It’s also amusing how the writers re-purpose religious language to apply to science. He refers to Jan Oort and Edmond Halley as “prophets” because of the predictions they made in calculating celestial events and features.

    There is a weird moment when Tyson speaks reverently of Carl Sagan as the kind of human being we should emulate.

    There’s also a very odd bit in the Halley episode where Tyson mentions Halley’s experimentation with cannabis and how it made him happy. It really didn’t have any place in the episode other than to score another point for normalizing weed.

    They continually conflate superstition with religion and seem to miss the point that though religion might have a poor track record of explaining how the natural world works, that’s not really its job.

    You should check it out for yourself if you haven’t yet. It’s on Netflix and definitely worth watching if you can get past its political bent.

  5. Ivan, I agreed with Sean Davis’s accusations, and claimed that they were a genuine problem. An ad hominem attack is an attempt to undermine a conclusion by making claims about the person making the argument. Since I agree with the conclusion, that can’t be what I’m doing here.

    What I am doing is making the related point that we ought to be as skeptical of Mr. Davis’s accusations as we are of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s. When NDT says that someone said something (but cites no record), while Mr. Davis says they didn’t because he can find no record, I am in doubt. I don’t assume that the comment happened, nor do I assume it didn’t; I don’t know. I think it’s problematic to assume either position on the basis of this evidence.

    The bit about the changing value of the amount of cocaine seems much stronger, and gives me the impression that NDT is principally interested in the value of an anecdote for popularizing scientific literacy rather than strict accuracy. I can understand that, but I also think popularizers of science ought not fudge even a little–it would be easy enough to insert a hedge about his memory of the exact amount while still making his point that I think he ought to have. Similarly, I’d prefer he rely on verifiable examples of Congressional scientific illiteracy, because they are so plentiful.

    But I’m basically pretty chilled-out about all this. NDT does some things I don’t like, and the adoration of him strikes me as unseemly, but I don’t care that much. Similarly, and quite contrary to the atheist author you’ve cited, I think pastors commit far worse intellectual sins literally every day (and often claim they’re virtues!). Mostly, I try to see these people as having good intentions and working for their communities, and appreciate that. The intellectual sloppiness rarely comes up. So, while I think it’s worth mentioning that uncritical acceptance of Mr. Davis’s accusations is troubling, that has to come in the context of my belief that Nathaniel is a pretty awesome thinker and writer, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to read and comment on his work.

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