Neil deGrasse Tyson Doesn’t Want to Talk About Those Allegations: ‘You’re Not the Investigator’
The famed astrophysicist sat down with Marlow Stern to discuss the coronavirus, his divisive Twitter presence, and the sexual-misconduct allegations against him.
For decades, Neil deGrasse Tyson has cultivated an image of himself as a lovable, culturally-fluent dork—Bill Nye the Science Guy-meets-Sinbad for Gen Y. Following his tenure in the George W. Bush administration, the astrophysicist penned a number of essays and bestselling books; hosted popular podcasts and television shows; and followed in his idol Carl Sagan’s footsteps as the host of Cosmos, a docuseries exploring the many mysteries of the universe. Impressionable youths ate up his amusing appearances on virtually every late-night program, from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report to Conan and Maddow, as well as his tweetstorms debunking the science of Hollywood movies. He was not only the most recognizable scientist in America but a breath of fresh air, and a living example of science being, well, fun.
Then, in late 2018, a number of disturbing allegations came to light against Tyson. Thchiya Amet El Maat accused him of drugging and raping her while the two were grad students at the University of Texas in the ‘80s (she’d spoken publicly about her story since 2014, though it had largely fallen on deaf ears). Katelyn Allers, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at Bucknell, claimed that Tyson touched her inappropriately at an event in 2009. Ashley Watson, Tyson’s assistant on Cosmos, said Tyson made inappropriate sexual advances toward her during production in 2018, including putting his hands on her shoulders and saying he wanted to hug her but if he did he’d “just want more” (she reported the incident and resigned from her post). A fourth anonymous woman came forward alleging that Tyson had made inappropriate comments to her at a party in 2010.
That season of Cosmos was set to air in 2019, but was delayed while Fox, National Geographic, and the Museum of Natural History—where Tyson has served as director of the Hayden Planetarium for over two decades—conducted investigations into his conduct. All three eventually said that they’d completed their investigations and reinstated Tyson, but would not issue any further comment (including to The Daily Beast). Meanwhile, Tyson denied the allegations in a lengthy Facebook post, saying his sexual-assault accuser had created “a false memory;” that he was merely “giddy” whilst conducting “a search” of Allers’ planetary tattoos with his hand; and that, while he did make the comments to Watson, his intent was “to express restrained but genuine affection.”
The delayed third season of Cosmos, which Watson worked on, will finally air March 9 on NatGeo. And The Daily Beast sat down with Neil deGrasse Tyson in his office at the Museum of Natural History to discuss everything from the coronavirus to the sexual-misconduct allegations.
I know the coronavirus doesn’t exactly fall in your area of expertise, but the country is on pretty high alert right now. What do you make of this pandemic? It seems to be fairly unprecedented for people of my generation.
I see it as an exercise in whether the public will actually listen to scientists—in this case, medical professionals.
Or the administration, for the matter.
That can come and go but the administration is not who carries the expertise, it’s the scientists.
Oh no, that’s what I meant—whether the administration will actually listen to scientists.
Oh! I care more about the public and their relationship to scientists than I care about administrations and their relationship. In a free democracy, the public votes for who represents them, so as an educator, I care about the public—always. So, here would be an interesting scenario, if it played out: everyone does heed the warnings of scientists, and we do wash our hands, do the elbow-bump, fist-bump, this sort of thing, and the coronavirus can’t take root, and then it lightly washes over the country and then disappears. And we would’ve kicked its ass. Why? Because people actually heeded the warnings of scientists.
You may be underestimating mankind’s selfishness and negligence.
Well, except the warning is imminent. It’s not like “in climate change, we will have this in twenty years,” it’s that this could happen in a matter of weeks. And let me remind people: “virus” is how we got the word “viral,” which has become a cultural meme. Where do you think that word came from? It came from viruses!
Right. You’d mentioned the importance of the public being properly informed about coronavirus, and when you have a White House coronavirus task force comprised of people like Mike Pence and Trump’s economic advisers in Steven Mnuchin and Larry Kudlow, and you have those people front and center at press conferences addressing the public—with more visibility than scientists, such as those in the CDC, who can properly inform people about what precautionary measures to take—that’s a pretty serious problem. The scientists should be front and center, regularly addressing the public and keeping them abreast of both what’s going on, and what they should be doing.
It is always a problem if you’re getting your scientific advice from a politician. We live in an era when you have unlimited access to all sources—to all bases of knowledge. It’s called the internet. There’s a lot of crap on the internet, but there’s a lot of meaningful, objectively true content. While you can’t always guarantee, you can do better than average by handpicking where you go to get your information. Do you put on a White House press conference, or do you turn to the pages of the Centers for Disease Control? A part of the challenge as an educator is not only teaching people what to know but how to think, and how to ask questions, and how to go from where you are to where you want to be—which is, enlightened by some knowledge that you can turn into action. So I’d be worried if our only source of information was political press conferences, but it’s not. That’s why I return to my point: Are you going to be listening to scientists, or not?
It still muddies the water though. And a lot of people are getting their information from the people running the country.
If your waters are what politicians tells you, then yeah, they’re muddy, but if your waters are what experts tell you, then they’re not muddied at all. It’s a sideshow!
“Sideshow” is a good way of putting it. So Cosmos is coming back and I’m curious what your areas of exploration are this season.
That’s a good way of putting it. So, the subtitle “Possible Worlds,” for me, I’m very moved by that because it’s so hopeful. We’re living in a time when every place you turn it’s “we’re gonna die,” either from this virus, or the climate, or this, or that. My point is, we’re confronted by so many apocalyptic scenarios. Has anyone paused to ask, “Wait a minute, we have some control—and power—over our future. We have some wisdom that we can apply, or we’re still acquiring wisdom that we’d be delighted to invoke, to take us from where we are to where we want to be.” Cosmos is filled with such pathways, in part told by scientists who were martyred. These were people who made discoveries that conflicted with prevailing politics, or culture, or societal norms, and they were ostracized for it.
To release a season of Cosmos focusing on scientific martyrs when we’re dealing with the least science-friendly—or rather, most science-rejecting—presidential administration in modern history feels like a choice.
2020 is a good year. First, it’s a nice, round number. Professionally—and personally—I don’t distract myself with the things politicians say or do. In a free society, at least as we tell ourselves we are in, whatever you say about Donald Trump, whatever criticisms you have, just remember: 60 million people voted for him! So, you can hit him over the head as often as you want, you can yell, “Get rid of the bum!” over and over, but there’s still the 60 million people who voted for him. I’m an educator, and I speak to everyone, so if you have a scientifically illiterate person in an elected office, that probably meant that the people who elected that person are scientifically illiterate in the same way. That’s what representative government means, on some level. So, I address the public in whatever I do. You don’t see me badmouthing elected officials. I’m more pragmatic than that.
I’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss why Cosmos was delayed—which was the accusations of sexual misconduct against you, and subsequent investigations by the networks. I read your response to the allegations. Have you thought about how you framed that response?
I have nothing to add or subtract to that.
The allegation of sexual harassment from the Cosmos production assistant seemed to be one that many fans of yours, myself included, found troubling. I’m curious if, with that incident, you had any regrets about the way you handled it—both the incident itself, and your response to it.
We should all be glad that there is such a thing as due process in this world.
And you feel you’ve received that.
That was the entire point of the investigations—to bring due process. Otherwise, we could just up- and- down-vote whatever we want to be true in this world, and you wouldn’t need any investigations, or courts, or anything else. I suppose you could do that but I don’t know what world that is, if you did away with it. There’s that Seth MacFarlane show, The Orville, that had an episode about how all justice was meted out by up-votes or down-votes and it was an exploration of what that world might be like—it was a planet somewhere where that was the case. So we should remind ourselves of the value of due process.
But I’m asking if you had any regrets over the way you handled the episode with your assistant on Cosmos, because from an outsider’s perspective, the hug line and some of those overtures seemed to cross a line. There’s a lot of confusion over what exactly happened here, and I’m sure you’re asked about this a bunch on Twitter and elsewhere.
There’s not confusion among those who did the investigation.
But internal investigations…
…They weren’t “internal.” There were three investigations.
OK, but investigations conducted by companies—I know how these work, and they only really tend to investigate the incidents within that company itself and not outside it. But again, with that incident with the Cosmos assistant, I’m curious if you regret the way you acted toward her.
You just claim you believe you know how these investigations were conducted, and you don’t, so you can’t then claim, presume, that what you say afterwards has any meaning at all.
I am still curious though about…
…So were the investigators! That’s why there was an investigation!
Right. But I’m here asking you how you feel…
…but you’re not the investigator!
I know I’m not the investigator.
I get that. But I’m still curious about this, because look, I’m a fan of yours going back a number of years, I’ve watched your shows, we’ve done a number of interviews together, and I’m asking questions that a lot of people who follow you have about these things.
That’s odd because I haven’t been asked that. So maybe you’re wrong in that as well.
Wrong about what?
You said you believe you’re asking questions that a lot of people have, but that is the first [time].
At this point the publicist intervenes, saying the conversation is getting too “sidetracked” and imploring me to wrap things up.
OK, just going back to this then…
…I’m not as convinced as you that people are as curious about it as you. I monitor my social media daily, and the investigation is a year old. We’re on to other things. That’s the whole point of the investigation.
Right. But I don’t think the public has been really informed about the nature of this investigation, and the results of it.
Not everyone is always cleared in investigations.
Yes, that is true. Let’s talk about your Twitter presence, because you seem to get a lot of crap on Twitter from people for your attempts to, I guess, put things in perspective when it comes to the totality of the universe.
That is correct, but my first thought is I’m more thick-skinned, although that’s not the right word… I’m an educator, and I care how you think about what I tell you, and I want to have some sense in advance about how you’re going to receive what I present to you, because if I get that wrong, then I’m not really communicating with you. Then I have failed in that effort, and that exercise. So if I post a tweet and the reaction is different than what I expect, that’s highly illuminating to me. I’m like, “Where did I miss that?” I value knowing how people react, and if they react negatively, that’s valuable to me to know. In other words, it’s not whether or not there’s a negative reaction; it’s whether I expected the negative reaction.
You’re trying to keep your finger on the pulse, so to speak.
Yes, that’s a good way to describe it. I just had a discussion with a SiriusXM host about Twitter, and she asked me if I ever block anyone.
The mute button is your friend.
[Laughs] So I said, the trolls are a reminder. If you keep blocking trolls, you’re left with a false view of the totality of what people are thinking out there.
They also wear it as a badge of honor, sometimes.
You don’t have to like what a troll says, but the fact that they exist, and live, and walk among us? That’s information. I don’t want to lose that information. So it’s not a matter of thick skin, it’s a matter for me of what’s out there, and if I want to communicate with what’s out there, I want to know exactly what’s out there.