Friday, October 03, 2014

The Misstatements of Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson is famous. He has a TV show. He writes books. He gives speeches on science. The problem, as reported in the Federalist, is that he gets some things wrong. Four specific errors have been noted. So far I have not seen anyone actually analyze these errors and put them into perspective so I'll do it.

Error #1 - the drugs and the coins
According to Tyson, he was on jury duty and had to explain to a judge that what sounded like a large amount of drugs was comparable to the weight of a coin. The amount of the drugs and the comparable coin vary from one telling to another.

This one is harmless.

Error #2 - 50% of students are below average.
Tyson quotes a newspaper headline as saying that 50% of the students are below average.

On the face of it, Tyson has a point. Assuming that the average is close to the mean, then you would expect half the students to be above that point and half to be below it. The problem is that this is a bad assumption when talking about students. "Average" for students usually means ones who earn a C. Below average means students earning a D or F. Any school district where half the students are earning a D or F has a problem.

Unless Tyson can produce the article and show that in the context, "average" means "mean" rather than "C" he should stop using this one.

Error #3 - a Congress member doing a 360 degree turn
Tyson says that a member of Congress said, "I've done a 360 degree turn on this." Since that's a full circle, this was probably a misstatement for a 180 degree turn.

Tyson does not name the member of Congress who said this. Instead he uses the quote to belittle all current and past members of Congress. Given that the quote is years old and Congress has a lot of turn-over, he's tarring hundreds of people with this quote. Worse, the person who said it probably knows the difference and misspoke (as President Obama did when he implied that there are more than 50 states).

This is a cheap shot and Tyson should stop using this one.

Error #4 - The same god who named the stars...
This is the most troubling error. When giving the eulogy for the astronauts who died on the space shuttle Columbia, President Bush said, "The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today."

Tyson wanted to use this as a springboard for talking about the fact that 2/3s of the stars have Arabic names because of the contributions of Arabic astronomers. The problem is that Tyson also wanted to belittle President Bush so he misrepresented the quote. He said that it was given right after 9/11/2001 and meant to divide "us" and "them". He also asserted that the Old Testament god is the same god as Allah, an assertion that would get him executed in many Muslim countries.

The fact is that Bush went to lengths to say the exact opposite. The memorial service that Tyson attributed the quote to was very inclusive. Bush made it clear that we were not at war with Islam, just with a small, violent subset that does not represent the true version.

Tyson brushes this off as a minor issue but it isn't. It is a deliberate misrepresentation of Bush that Tyson gives in order to make himself look smarter. Listen to the clip here. Tyson spends four minutes running down Bush and making himself look smarter.

This is not a simple error. This is a deliberate falsehood and Tyson should apologize for ever using it.

All of these fit a pattern. They are meant to show that Tyson is smarter than anyone else - judges, reporters, members of Congress, or the President and, by extension, people who listen to Tyson are also smarter because he has shared his vast knowledge with them.

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