In his speeches, Neil deGrasse Tyson often recounts statements made by President Bush in the wake of 9/11. As I noted here, Sean Davis of The Federalist has made a fairly compelling case that Tyson’s account is wrong in almost every way. Bush did not say those precise words, did not make any such comments in the wake of 9/11, and did not make them so as to distinguish Muslims from the rest of us (“they” from “we”).
Tyson initially failed to comment on the allegations, but his acolytes sought to dismiss the charges (even on Wikipedia). Now, however, it seems clear that Davis was right all along.
Last night, Tyson responded to e-mailed inquiries from Davis in a post on his Facebook page. On many of the issues Davis raised, Tyson essentially claims that the precise details of his stories don’t matter, because he’s making broader points. I’d accept this response from many folks, but from a self-professed man of science, it’s a bit disconcerting.
On the Bush quote, Tyson decided to dig a bit further before confessing error. Initially he insisted his account was correct and 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, to be clear, Tyson insisted that he was correct in his account of what Bush said and the context in which Bush said it. Given all of the scientific research on the fallibility of human memory, I would have thought Tyson would be a bit more circumspect here, but so be it.
Then, in a further response to comments posted today, Tyson confessed that he must have made an error after all. Responding to several posters who had noted somewhat similar remarks Bush made in 2003 after the Columbia space shuttle disaster, Tyson wrote the following.
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 in my prior post on this controversy, 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 the account of the quote’s provenance he gave last night).
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. That is what a person of integrity does.
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. And, for what it’s worth, Tyson is basically correct on these other matters anyway.
UPDATE: On Sunday morning, Tyson tweeted that he plans to make some sort of apology once he finds “a good medium & occasion.”
SECOND UPDATE: “My bad,” commented Tyson in a new post to his Facebook page. No word whether this is the planned apology mentioned earlier. As of October 2, however, there is no mention of the error accompanying the relevant video on the Hayden Planetarium site. More from Sean Davis here.