The Right’s War on Neil deGrasse Tyson

The Cosmos host is widely despised by conservatives. Do they have a point, or are their complaints just anti-intellectualism run amok?

09.19.14 9:45 AM ET

Celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has long been a despised figure among conservatives—and now the right is accusing him of being a “fabulist” and making up quotes.

The conservative website The Federalist ran a story last week saying Tyson had used a nonexistent newspaper headline and a fake quote from a member of Congress in a presentation. Tyson had been trying to argue that journalists and politicians don’t understand data.

In another post, the website’s Sean Davis pointed out inconsistencies in a story that Tyson has told at varying points about jury duty. A third post by Davis then took apart an anecdote Tyson told about George W. Bush, showing it to be false.

“The more I dug into it, the more I found a history of fabrication—to make points that he didn’t need fabrication to make,” Davis told The Daily Beast. “As someone who writes and publishes for a living, I take exception to people who go out and make money based on fabrication.”

Conservatives were quick to jump on the charges: websites like Twitchy and FrontPage Mag soon joined the anti-Tyson charge. Meanwhile, PJ Media’s Ed Driscoll found that Tyson repeated a myth about NASA developing a million-dollar space pen while the Soviets used a pencil.

Tyson hasn’t directly responded to the charges of inaccuracy, and his agent had no comment for this story. Aubrey Miller, a spokeswoman with the Hayden Planetarium, of which Tyson is the head, pointed to a short post he made in the comments section of The Federalist’s original story.

“[T]one and flavor and context and intent are all key elements to any message I convey—all missing to anyone who was not present at the time,” he wrote.

But why do conservatives dislike Tyson so much to begin with?

The answers thus far have been unsatisfying. Amanda Marcotte, a Beast contributor, blamed the right’s “anti-intellectual paranoia” in a story for Alternet, while a piece in the L.A. Times blamed political ignorance. One progressive blog said racism was to blame.

Charles C.W. Cooke laid out the right-wing case against Tyson this year in the conservative movement’s flagship magazine, the National Review. It was a takedown of nerds—not of intelligence or wonkiness itself, but of the condescension of modern nerd-dom, and the bandwagon nerds who like Tyson not primarily because they like science, but because they like the intellectual superiority they think liking Tyson signifies.

Perhaps the philosophical difference between left and right on the nature of knowledge is key to understanding the disdain for Tyson.

“Conservatives tend to take the view that you can’t plan too much for a society, you can’t know enough to make central planning worthwhile. That’s not a great concern on the left,” Cooke told the Beast. “The conflation of science and politics is a generally left-wing phenomenon, because the left thinks you can answer these questions and make plans from the center, which the right doesn’t.”

Cooke, himself an atheist, said that Tyson had also come to represent among the right the “annoying” Bill Maher-style atheists who frequent Internet posting hubs like Reddit.

“I’m just irritated by that movement,” Cooke said. “It’s divisive. There’s a tendency among the Reddit atheists of the world to consider everyone who isn’t of their particular political or religious views … as being somehow dumb.”

Daniel Greenfield, who wrote a critical piece on Tyson in Frontpage Mag, said he didn’t so much dislike the scientist as much as what he has come to represent.

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“People on the right have the sense that there’s something cultish about [Tyson], that his popularity is based on the image of being seen to like him,” said Greenfield. “It’s supposed to be about the ideas, when you have this kind of hero worship, people are refusing to discuss the merits of [The Federalist’s report]. It becomes unreasoning, which is the opposite of science.”

The Internet reaction to The Federalist’s articles has been deeply negative, senior editor Mollie Hemingway said, and overwhelmingly dismissive of its conclusions.

“The reaction that Sean Davis has been gotten… it’s cult-like. It is to me the kind of attention Sarah Palin and Ron Paul receives. Neil deGrasse Tyson attracts the same sort of attention—you just can’t criticize him,” Cooke said.

The conservative blogosphere’s latest allegations aren’t deeply damning, and certainly don’t discredit a lifetime’s worth of work in science and education. But Tyson hasn’t been eager to discuss the topic or correct his mistakes.

The fact that the casual anecdotes he makes are frequently wrong, Davis said, is disconcerting—especially coming from a man whose work is based on facts and evidence.

“I think it’s more indicting that he’s making stuff up to prove minor, tangential things,” Davis said.