The New Tyson Fight

Neil deGrasse Tyson
One of the interesting aftermaths of the Scottish Referendum debate was that I have seen a number of people saying 'A lesson to learn is don't trust the traditional media, get your information from social media.' I know where they were coming from, but there are two dangers here - one is that (even more than watching, say, Fox News) you won't get information you will get propaganda, and the other is that even when you aren't being told what you want to hear by your friends and political allies, a lot of internet sources are unreliable. The Tyson story I want to tell you illustrates this doubly.

The Tyson in question is not Mike, but science populariser and astronomer, Neil deGrasse Tyson. I was surprised the other day to hear that Tyson was being pilloried for making up quotes to support an argument. The argument in question is that a lot of people (including many in the media and our elected representatives) are extremely ignorant about science and so (I presume) aren't well equipped to make decisions about science teaching and science funding. This is an argument I strongly support - but clearly not by making up data.

There seem to be three quotes that have caused the furore. Tyson claims that:
  • George Bush made a speech after 9/11 distinguishing 'we from they' by saying 'Our God is the God who named the stars.' Yet lots of named stars have Arabic names - Bush made a silly argument, claimed Tyson.
  • A congressman uttered the sentence 'I've changed my views 360 degrees on that issue.' Which showed basic ignorance of what 360 degrees is.
  • A newspaper headline in New York City: 'Half the schools in the district are below average.' - Tyson claims 'we have to re-think the foundations of mathematics if this were false.'
There is video evidence of Tyson's use of these quotes, so that much is pretty definitively true. But the furore is over whether any of these allegations are true, or Tyson just made up the quotes to suit his message.

Tyson's detractors claim the following:
  • The Bush quote was not made after 9/11, but after the Columbia disaster and he actually said 'The same Creator who names the stars also knowns the names of the seven souls we mourn today.' This had nothing to do with Christians versus Muslims and was simple consoling rhetoric.
  • There is no evidence of the 360 degree comment being made as quoted, though Representative Maxine Waters did say 'You have done a 360 degree turn' to someone.
  • The information on schools below average in the headline, which no one can find, could well be false, so Tyson misunderstood statistics by claiming that you would have re-think the foundations of mathematics if it were false.
Others have weighed in claiming that this is a anti-intellectual right wing campaign against Tyson, some even suggesting that it is because he is black.

What really applies? As far as the basic facts go, the detractors mostly have it right. The Bush quote was misapplied and misquoted. The 360 degree 'quote' was not word for word. And in principle the headline could be reasonable and can't be found in a New York City newspaper headline (online, at least). This last is the least obvious, but the reason the headline could be reasonable is that it is not true that exactly half a population will be below average, as Tyson seemed to imply. Take for instance a room full of ordinary people and Bill Gates. Look at the average net worth of the people in that room. Chances are everyone except Bill is below the average. The number that is in the middle of the grouping is not the average, it's the median.

So what have we established? Tyson's use of the Bush quote was a real, and unpleasant error in the way he misused it. The 360 degree quote was mis-worded, probably typed from memory - he should really have checked, but frankly it's close enough. And no one can find the 'below average' quote, but if it were true, we needed more information to criticize it, as it isn't stupid in its own right. It's still quite likely the newspaper was misreading the information (apart from anything else, the media often call a median an average because they think the readers don't understand 'median' - see my article on this happening over 'average house prices'.) So Tyson could have been making a worthwhile point, but it would have needed a lot more unpacking than he actually did to be sure.

To be honest, I don't like Tyson's approach to public speaking - it tends to the pompous and bombastic (perhaps this is just a US/UK style thing), belittling those who don't agree, which I don't think is a great way to make an argument, even if they are wrong. He made a clear mistake on the Bush quote and messed up with the the 'below average' business. So he ought to clean his act up, and admit this. But frankly these errors have nothing to do with a serious and important message. So by all means consider Tyson reprimanded - but don't confuse the message and the messenger. What he was saying about the media and the political class being dangerously ignorant of science is still true.

However, those who defend Tyson saying this is a fuss over nothing are also wrong. He is not a gutter press journalist, he's a scientist. And he knows perfectly well that two of the biggest failures for a scientist are to make up data, and to rely on anecdotal evidence. And he has clearly done at least one of these here. It was a serious error of judgement, hence the need to apologise.

The reason I said at the beginning that this is a double error of trusting unverified online sources is that firstly people have been coming out pro and anti Tyson based on reports that take one or the other extreme view on what happened, and secondly because I suspect the reason Tyson got the quotes wrong in the first place was that he too relied on a dubious internet source. We all slip this way occasionally. I certainly have. But it's a good reason for taking a step back from that 'get your information from social media' suggestion.

"Neil deGrasse Tyson August 3, 2014 (cropped)" by Mingle Media TV - Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons