Over the past few weeks, Neil deGrasse Tyson has found himself in the crosshairs of the conservative media— and, surprisingly, not without reason.
The controversy revolves around a quote used by Tyson in many of his public speaking engagements, which for years he has been misattributing to former President George W. Bush. According to Tyson, Bush made the following statement in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks:
“Our God is the God who named the stars.”
The implication here, made explicit by Tyson, is that born-again Bush was using the events of 9/11 to malign what he saw as the false god of Islam -- when, in actuality, Tyson notes, Muslims and Christians worship the exact same deity. Not to mention that the majority of the aforementioned stars are actually named in Arabic.
The problem, as The Federalist first pointed out last month, is that both the quotation itself and its context were continually misstated by Tyson. Bush's actual words -- which were not delivered shortly after 9/11, but in 2003, following the Columbia space shuttle disaster -- were thus:
“The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today.”
Obviously, this is not just a minor factual quibble.
Since The Federalist first reported on the discrepancy last month, Tyson has rightly taken a lot of grief, and even grudgingly admitted that he was wrong. It's an embarrassing admission for a man who just this year became a mainstream progressive hero in the aftermath of his successful "Cosmos" reboot. At the same time, it's hard to complain that Tyson is getting a raw deal, or that he's unfairly being maligned by right-wing journalists champing at the bit to defame a liberal icon. (They certainly are, but that doesn't mean they're wrong.) In truth, Tyson actually kind of deserves the dressing down -- especially when it would have been so easy to find actual examples of harebrained Islamophobia in American politics.
But, lest you think this controversy has been met exclusively with fair-minded analysis, the National Review's Rich Lowry has published a piece in Politico Magazine that draws some hilariously sweeping conclusions from Tyson's snafus.
Titled "The Cult of Neil deGrasse Tyson," Lowry's article is actually pretty unremarkable most of the the way through. He spends much of it recapitulating the reporting already done by The Federalist, and criticizing Tyson for being so cagey throughout the episode. On page two, however, one gets the sense of Lowry trying to go in for the kill -- and that's where things begin to go ever-so-subtly off the rails.
You see, Lowry explains, it isn't just that Tyson was sloppy and wrong and weirdly obdurate in the face of criticism; it's that this controversy is somehow emblematic of "progressive secularism" at large, and of the "high priests of rationality" who arrogantly insist that there is a scientific explanation for everything.
To be clear, it isn’t Tyson’s science that is the point of contention here. Who doesn’t want to listen to him talk about supernovas and the large magellanic cloud?
The problem is the belief of his fans—encouraged by him—that science has all the answers; that anyone who believes in physics must adhere to a progressive secularism; that anyone not on board is—to borrow from the accusations of Tyson's defenders—guilty of anti-intellectualism, climate “denial” and racism.
There's a lot going on in this passage, but unpacking it is illuminating: First, Lowry goes to some length to point out that he's not casting aspersions on "Tyson's science," per se. (And, to be fair, Lowry doesn't appear to have qualms with the theoretical astrophysics that Tyson specializes in.) But blink and you might miss the part where, mere sentences later, Lowry all but scoffs at the mention of "climate 'denial'," as if the very idea of it were somehow ridiculous now that Tyson has made a (completely unrelated) mistake.
So much for not contending with science!
Lowry's piece is nominally about how fans of Neil deGrasse Tyson treat what he says as scripture, while unfairly imputing the worst of motives to Tyson's ideological opponents. It's a familiar refrain to anyone who pays attention to conservative narrative-making -- "See! It's the liberals who are really the zealots!" -- and one that Lowry uses in his Politico article to casually introduce, and then just as quickly dismiss, progressive charges of climate denial, without ever addressing the subject head-on. Which is clever, not to mention incredibly sneaky. (A Trojan hobbyhorse, if you will.)
However, if you were curious what Lowry thinks on the matter of climate denial, you could start with this 2013 post at The National Review, in which he writes the following:
There are few things sadder than the “climate denier.” He ignores the data and neglects the latest science. His rhetoric and policy proposals are dangerously disconnected from reality. He can’t recalibrate to take account of the latest evidence because, well, he’s a denier.
The new climate deniers are the liberals who, despite their obsession with climate change, have managed to miss the biggest story in climate science, which is that there hasn’t been any global warming for about a decade and a half.
Ahh, the "global warming pause"!
Parroted often by members of the conservative press, this argument contends that theories of man-made climate change are provably fictitious, because data reveal that global warming has stopped in its tracks over the past two decades. However, as Salon's Lindsay Abrams has pointed out, this is just another "climate denier myth that refuses to die."
As McGill University physics professor Shaun Lovejoy wrote in a study published earlier this year:
As data and models have improved, the thesis of anthropogenic warming has become increasingly convincing[...]
Since 1998, the warming has noticeably slowed down -- and due to a lack of a convincing model based explanation -- the IPCC AR5 resorted to the vague: “Due to natural variability, trends based on short records are very sensitive to the beginning and end dates and do not in general reflect long-term climate trends.” In this paper, we have shown that the pause has a short return time and that it follows an equal magnitude pre-pause warming event: the pause thus has a convincing statistical explanation.
Translation: Natural short-term climate variations more than ably describe what skeptics term "the climate change pause," without discrediting the long-term observations of dangerous man-made climate change. It is happening. And it is our fault.
Of course, Lowry has a compelling counter-argument to such findings: Neil deGrasse Tyson made up a quote one time.