The Cult of Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson is a very famous and popular scientist. He even has a TV show. And wears a cool astronomical vest. Only he's not infallible.

This rather basic truth has been established over the past couple weeks, over much resistance and at the cost of much abuse, by Sean Davis of the lively new conservative website, the Federalist.

Davis dug into a handful of just-so stories repeated by Tyson in his public lectures, the point of which is to make himself — and by extension, his audience — feel superior to the dolts who aren't nearly as scientific as he is.

The controversy centered on an erroneous Bush quote that Tyson made a staple of his public presentations, and has come to settle on the head-scratching question: Why is it so hard for a scientist committed to evidence and rationality to admit that he got something wrong?

You can see Tyson using the Bush quote in a talk at something called The Amazing Meeting, which describes itself as "the leading conference in the world focused on scientific skepticism." This scientific skepticism is, judging from the reaction to Tyson, to be distinguished from skepticism about people who cloak themselves in science.

When Tyson puts up a slide with George W. Bush's name on it, the audience laughs, prepared to have its prejudices confirmed, and Tyson obliges with his bogus quote.

Tyson says that right after Sept. 11, Bush asserted the superiority of "we" to "they" (i.e., Muslim fundamentalists) by saying, "Our God is the God who named the stars."

Tyson can't even begin to catalog all that's wrong with this quote. He says that the God of Islam, Judaism and Christianity is the same God (a theologically contested claim, but put it aside).

He also says the passage is in Genesis, instead of Isaiah (but also put that aside).

Then, Tyson drops the hammer: Two-thirds of the named stars have Arabic names!

Get it? Bush wanted to denigrate Muslims for their God not excelling at naming stars, when it was really the opposite. It is the English-speaking Christian God who failed to keep up.

How stupid can one Bible-thumping, war-mongering, Muslim-hating president get? Tyson magnanimously allows that Bush didn't know him yet, so he couldn't call the astronomer to get word on just how idiotic this celestial put-down of Islam was.

This is an entertaining story, especially if you're really tickled by how much smarter Tyson is than lesser mortals who don't host TV shows popularizing science.

Evidently, no one yucking it up over this story knew enough to wonder how it possibly could be true. It's only remotely believable if you are completely ignorant of Bush's posture in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11.

He famously went out of his way to vouch for Islam and to call for tolerance. Here is part of his statement at an Islamic Center in Washington, a few days after the attacks:

The English translation is not as eloquent as the original Arabic, but let me quote from the Koran, itself: "In the long run, evil in the extreme will be the end of those who do evil. For that they rejected the signs of Allah and held them up to ridicule."

The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war.

Note the absence of any taunts about the Muslim God not logging enough names of stars.

As Sean Davis pointed out in his initial piece on the dubious quote, it really came from a poetic tribute to the astronauts who died in the Columbia disaster in 2003. After quoting from Isaiah, Bush said, "The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today."

In fairness to Tyson, it's always easy to fall for quotes that are too good to check and to rely on fuzzy material in speeches, especially when you are playing for laughs. But when you are assuming a position of intellectual superiority based on your rigor, it's especially important to resist these tendencies (which should be resisted, regardless).

Rich Lowry is editor of National Review.