Neil deGrasse Tyson may well be America’s most prominent scientist. He is the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space, and a research associate in the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History, both in New York. He was the host for Fox’s “Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey” and PBS’s “NOVA ScienceNow.” He is a prominent lecturer and public intellectual, and may be more well known than Bill Nye, the Science Guy. He is a noted authority on science and current affairs — and yet, according to at least one critic, he may have a habit of making up some of the tales he tells in his speeches. In a series of articles for The Federalist, a right-leaning Web magazine, Sean Davis makes a strong case that Tyson has a habit of telling tall tales. The details of one personal story — what happened when Tyson was called for jury duty — vary with each telling. Other tales, such as quotes attributed to members of Congress and unnamed journalists, seem too good to be true, and prove difficult to verify. Most significantly, Tyson attributes a quote to a September 2001 speech by former President George W. Bush that no one can seem to find. Here’s Davis:
According to Tyson, in the days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Bush uttered the phrase, “Our God is the God who named the stars.” According to Tyson, the president made that claim as a way of segregating radical Islam from religions like Christianity or Judaism.
TYSON: Here’s what happens. 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, but 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.”
[Link to video] Neil deGrasse Tyson’s story has three central claims: 1) Bush uttered that precise phrase, 2) in the days immediately after 9/11, 3) in order to distance American religion from that practiced by radical Muslims. As you have probably already guessed, every single claim is false. Every one! Then there’s Tyson’s aside that Bush’s quote was a “loose quote” of the book of Genesis. Yep, that’s false, too.
Davis could not find any account of Bush having said anything remotely resembling the quote in the days following 9/11, and Bush’s speechwriters deny this is something the president said. I checked the WhiteHouse.gov archive of Bush speeches, too, and it’s not there. (There is, however, a short speech on Islam as a religion of peace, which takes a very different tack than that which Tyson suggests.) The closest thing Davis could find to the quote Tyson attributes to Bush is from remarks the president gave in 2003.
The only similar quote came in February of 2003 after the crash of the space shuttle Columbia, when the president said, “The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today.” However, contrary to what Tyson has repeatedly claimed, the Columbia space shuttle comment — which was wholly different in purpose, content, and timing than the alleged 9/11 quote cited by Tyson — was meant to unite the nation following a horrible tragedy, not divide it based on religion. And contrary to Tyson’s claim that the alleged quote was loosely taken from Genesis, the actual quote was taken from the book of Isaiah. A similar verse can also be found in Psalm 147.
Note that the claims Davis contests are not casual remarks in conversation or responses to questions, but planned and repeated accounts. The various stories Davis challenges are regularly repeated in Tyson’s lectures, and the Bush anecdote is highlighted on the Hayden planetarium Web site. They are the sorts of claims someone of Tyson’s stature should not be making in public lectures unless they are, in fact, true. Politicians are routinely flayed for less — and we know Tyson is much smarter than the average politician. He should not be held to a lower standard. It is possible that all of the claims Tyson has made are accurate (save for all the variations of his jury duty tale). The various quotes, including that by Bush, may well exist. If so, I would think Tyson can provide citations. If not, Tyson should acknowledge his errors. If the quotes are verified, by Tyson or someone else, I will update this post accordingly. I will also post any response I receive from Tyson, and link to any response from him published elsewhere. Tyson’s agent had no response to this Daily Beast story, though a representative of the Hayden Planetarium apparently verified the Tyson comment referenced here.
[Note: Fixed a typo above – 2001 not 2011]
UPDATE: On his Facebook page, Neil deGrasse Tyson responds to the allegations and, in the process, did not do himself any favors. On the alleged bush quote, he initially insists it was based upon his own memory:
I have explicit memory of those words being spoken by the President. I reacted on the spot, making note for possible later reference in my public discourse. Odd that nobody seems to be able to find the quote anywhere — surely every word publicly uttered by a President gets logged.
FYI: There are two kinds of failures of memory. One is remembering that which has never happened and the other is forgetting that which did. In my case, from life experience, I’m vastly more likely to forget an incident than to remember an incident that never happened. So I assure you, the quote is there somewhere. When you find it, tell me. Then I can offer it to others who have taken as much time as you to explore these things.
One of our mantras in science is that the absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence.
So, initially, Tyson insisted that he was correct in his account of what Bush said and the context in which Bush said it.
Then, in response to comments, Tyson confesses that he must have made an error.
Good to see that the Bush quote was found. Thanks to all who did the searching. I transposed one disaster with another (both occurring within 18 months of one another) in my assigning his quote. Perhaps that’s a measure of how upset I was in both cases. The mind is surely the next mysterious universe to be plumbed.
What is really so “mysterious” is why Tyson finds it so difficult to confess error and pretends that bush’s 2003 remarks were only just-now discovered. As noted above, Sean Davis had pointed to this quote as a potential source from the beginning. Yet if this is the source of the quote, then nearly everything else Tyson claimed about it and its significance is false (as is his initial account of the source of the quote).
Tyson claims to be a man of science who follows the evidence where it leads. The evidence here clearly shows Tyson screwed up. Whether knowingly or not, he regularly repeated a false account in order to cast aspersions on another public figure. The only proper thing to do is recant and apologize.
P.S. I am sure some of Tyson’s political adversaries would like to use this episode as a basis for attacking climate science or evolution. No dice. It does not work that way. That Tyson told tall tales here tells us nothing about these other matters.