Friday, September 19, 2014

My Cousin the Banana

Prior to about a week ago, I don't think I had ever heard of Neil deGrasse Tyson, who I gather is a popular television personality, but he is now a central figure in two different controversies, both of which have showed up online and so come to my notice.

One of them grows out of the claim, apparently true, that Tyson has repeatedly invented quotes, claimed that other people had said things they had not said. I believe it is true because, in the long comment thread to a G+ post, many people defended Tyson heatedly but none of them offered any evidence that the charge wasn't true. As in some other cases I have seen, practically everyone treated it as an issue of loyalty not of truth. Tyson is, from the standpoint of his supporters, an admirable person, a defender of scientific truth, hence pointing out that he is also a liar is an attack on truth and science.

The second controversy comes from Tyson having given a talk defending GMO foods. Here the outrage comes from betrayed supporters, people who thought Tyson was a good guy on their side and discovered that he was instead defending the forces of evil, aka Monsanto. An entertaining and persuasive defense of Tyson's position points out that people who "don't want to eat a tomato that has fish DNA" are coming to the issue a little late. "... tomatoes and fish share around 60% of their DNA already, so it’s too late to avoid that mashup. ... Would you eat grapes with human DNA? Too late. Humans share around 25% of our DNA with grapes. We share 50% of our DNA with a banana."

The piece does a good job of responding to other arguments against GMO crops as well, but that was the line that struck me, hence the title of this post.


Power Child said...

My wholly unsolicited opinion on NGT:

1. He doesn't actually do much science. He has about a dozen research publications to his name (none less than about 15 years old too, I think), but most actual scientists his age have hundreds. He also doesn't mentor grad students or teach grad-level classes like real scientists do. Plus, grants he's pursued have been for broadcasting, not research.

His current work, so far as I know, is doing popular writing and broadcasting as well as being director of the Hayden Planetarium. (The mission of the Hayden Planetarium is geared towards popularizing astrophysics rather than astrophysics research.)

So, he's more a popularizer of science than a scientist.

Now, there's nothing wrong with that, though it'd be nice if people were able to make the same distinction between him and actual scientists that they are able to make between, say, Michael Crichton and actual doctors or Rachael Ray and actual chefs.

2. He's childishly disrespectful of religion, and grossly distorts religious history to serve his annoyingly trendy "secular humanist" agenda. I wouldn't care that much if he was just some movie star (in fact, then I'd expect it), but he's a guy with a scientific background who has the ear of a lot of smart, thoughtful people. (It’s also a sad sign of the times that none of them call him out on it.)

That he has failed to think harder and more broadly about the importance of religion in society than your average angsty teenager, and that he is happy to jump aboard the religion-slandering bandwagon, is unbecoming of someone who claims to value ideas, truth, and detached inquiry.

3. To that last point, he's said things about science itself that should trouble anyone who's interested in science. I can't remember the exact quote, but he basically said it's stupid to think about deeper philosophical questions in science. I do remember he said "I don't have time for that."

In fact, he has criticized fields like philosophy for being overly speculative. This is part of a big trend among writers and media personalities, in which they disparage speculation itself as "un-scientific," which I think is ignorant and foolish.

It overlooks the whole POINT of science. Science is nothing without speculation. Darwin had to speculate that we evolved from less complex organisms before he could develop a hypothesis about natural selection. James Hutton had to speculate that the earth was millions of years old before he could develop a hypothesis about the formation of sedimentary rock strata. Without speculation you don’t have hypotheses, and without hypotheses you have nothing to put through the scientific method sausage grinder, out of the other end of which comes what we call "the body of scientific knowledge".

Philosophy CONTAINS science, and basically everything else. It is the parent of science, which was first called “natural philosophy.” The further up the family tree of knowledge and truth that you go, the more speculation you should expect to encounter and engage in. Speculation is not only healthy but critical for any advancement of human thought.

So, NGT is a smug, ideological popularizer of science who inadvertently is destroying science. I wouldn't be surprised if he made up some quotes knowing what I know about him, and I'm amused at his fanbase's reaction to his defense of GMOs because of what it says about them.

August said...

I used to watch NOVA on pbs, and he would narrate. Then I got online and started researching at my own pace. One day someone linked to some clips of his on epigenetics. It was the neurological equivalent of having to go back to dial up. Very little real information and he talks very slow.

The leftist love him, especially the young ones who grew up with him. They don't like GMO. I don't like GMO either- they generally don't make better food for people, but food that can handle more pesticides, so that they can bathe the whole field in pesticides. We will get more pesticides in our foods. The biological processes that these pesticides disrupt can sometimes be found in us, and are often found in our gut flora.

Let's hope Tyson's internet fame fades away. I could stand a world where there are less gifs of him up to some anti-theistic nonsense.

Benjamin. said...

I thought one of the problems with changing food is that we have been using the food we have now for a LONG time. Even if the changes are only small, couldn't they have side effects that we could not predict since it has not been done before?

Rohan said...

I think the first controversy is overblown a bit. If you look at the very first post the Federalist came up with, the quote is something like:

"'50% of all schools are below average!' - Newspaper Headline"

It's obviously not a real quote, but a generic construct meant to illustrate the media's attitude towards statistics.

But the Federalist writer got upset because:
1) The quote isn't sourced to a real newspaper;
2) in some distributions the mean and median are different, and therefore it is possible that this quote is wrong mathematically.

(My take on 2 is that school quality probably follows a normal distribution, and then the quote is accurate.)

After that, they started scouring NGT's history and managed to find a few quotes that aren't right, and so are trying to drum it up into a full fledged controversy.

Personally, I think it's the difference between journalists and non-journalists. Misquoting someone is a sin for journalists, but it's a trivial error for non-journalists.

Daublin said...

NGT has led to a lot of soul searching for me.

He has become the face of science, and that's part of why I've become less comfortable saying I like science. I feel like something has been stolen from me. When I hear people talk about science, nowadays, I get a feeling of dread, and I don't ask any followup questions. I get this strong suspicion that I'll be inundated with overbearing political and/or cultural commentary that I can't really reply to in polite company.

@Rohan, I think you are understating what the articles claim. If the linked articles are correct, then NGT just made up that headline and then used it to go around saying he's brilliant and everyone else is a moron. He did similarly for G.W. Bush. If this is correct, then he really is making stuff up. Such behavior shouldn't be excusable just because he's on the right side of the issues.

For me, the straw that broke the camel's back was the first episode of his T.V. show. He spent an inordinate amount of time attacking the 16th and 17th century Catholic church. I found this unpleasantly negative for a show that is supposed to be showing us the wonders of scientific knowledge. Worse, I looked it up, and many of his facts were misleading, and some downright wrong.

Galileo was never in jail, despite being depicted on the show in chains in a jail cell with bars on the window. He was not the first to openly claim heliocentrism; he was beat to that by Copernicus, who had a life-long stipend from the church to support his research. Galileo wasn't persecuted over his beliefs, any more than Al Capone was persecuted by the FBI because of his tax practices. NGT got all of these wrong, and they aren't small details.

Anonymous said...

I went to high school, (Bronx Science) with Tyson. He's a smart guy, but Bronx Science was full of lots of very smart guys, including lots of people much smarter than him. I suspect he's gone far and is popular because PC people like the fact that he fills a "diversity" niche. To paraphrase Aristotle, "Tyson is dear, but truth is dearer still."

David Friedman said...

"Misquoting someone is a sin for journalists, but it's a trivial error for non-journalists."

It's a pretty serious sin for scientists, which is what he claims to be. And if you go through the examples, it isn't misquoting in the sense of getting a word wrong. It's either an invention from whole cloth or, in the case of the Bush quote, taking something close to what he really said and putting it in an entirely different context.

Power Child said...


I'd say it's a much more serious sin for scientists, since scientists are trying to find the truth. In their everyday work this truth relates to the natural world, but to find it requires a reverential attitude towards all truth.

Journalists, on the other hand, are merely practicing the studied art of concealing their bias about topics which they have convinced their audience are important.

RKN said...


Curious to hear if, given your measures for how to identify a real scientist, you think Richard Dawkins is one.

A search at pubmed for papers with him as a contributing author turned up just a few, all pretty dated, and none of which from my quick assessment appear to be basic zoological research papers. According to his wiki page he's mentored only two grad students, and I suspect his days of teaching academic classes and writing for grants are long over.

In any case you raise an interesting point. Should we be generally more wary of what "popularizers" of science have to say about a particular scientific matter, compared to what an actual practitioner of the science, i.e. a "real" scientist, has to say?

Russ Nelson said...

@Power Child: "I can't remember the actual quote". When did that ever stop NGT??

Russ Nelson said...

@Power Child: "Speculation is not only healthy but critical for any advancement of human thought". True, but only when speculation is marked as such rather than posed as the result of research. In an environment where mastery of the subject is the coin of the realm, it's easy to inflate the currency by carrying your knowledge into the realm of speculation.

David Friedman said...

I suspect popularizers vary a lot. Part of my hostility to Gould comes from my impression that he took advantage of the fact that most of the people who read his work would not read responses, letting him misrepresent the views he criticized. My one realspace encounter with him reinforced that impression.

I don't know if the same was true of Galbraith or not—my reservation there is that I don't think he did much scholarly work, and his popular work was his own rather ideosyncratic ideas, unsupported, so far as I can tell, by either theory or evidence.

Krugman did real work, but at this point he seems to be a polemicist rather than an honest presenter of one side of a controversy.

Who else comes to mind as a popularizer? Willy Ley for an older generation, and as far as I know he was reliable.

Will McLean said...

Sagan, Clarke and Asimov were popularizers. As far as I can tell they were pretty sound on their science.

Will McLean said...

I would count von Braun as a popularizer that grossly underestimated the technical and economic challenges of manned space flight.

Power Child said...


Just to be clear, I wasn't laying out hard and fast rules for how I define a scientist, I was only listing facts to support my observation that NGT doesn't seem to actually be one.

I don't know enough about Dawkins to say whether he's really a scientist, but isn't he known more as a science popularizer and evangelist for atheism?

My point was about people who go the other way, like NGT: they're known as scientists but are really only popularizers.

I don't have any problem with popularizers who aren't scientists, as long as they are recognized as such.

@Russ Nelson:

I typically think of speculation as the thing that guides the formation of hypotheses to be tested. But to go a little further, in the proper scientific way of seeing things, even the results of research are speculative to some degree, since there is an infinite number of untested hypotheses to explain any given phenomenon.

Nancy Lebovitz said...


"When I hear people talk about science, nowadays, I get a feeling of dread, and I don't ask any followup questions"

Possibly you should ask those followup questions-- things might be better than you think, or worse, or different.

It might even make sense for you to keep notes on the answers you get, so that you don't fixate on the worst answers.

Shawn Decker said...

It strikes me that David’s observations of NGT may have some notable relationship to an element of his recent post entitled “A Modern Conceit”. Namely, our (human beings’) tendency towards self-perceived superiority. In this case, an intellectual one.

Having witnessed / watched NGT on a number of TV programs over the past few years, my perception of him is that a notable part of why he chose to pursue a degree in science was not because of a curiosity about investigating the world in which we live … he did so because, to his mind, he perceives scientists as superior to others .. at least with respect to the qualities and characteristics that society generally attributes to scientists (such as enhanced ability toward ratiocination, an unbiased approach to investigation and discussion, knowledge of how the world works, and access and use of factual information). Since he is a scientist, then he must possess these characteristics himself. He values these characteristics and perceives that people that hold these characteristics are superior to other people.

Having pursued a academic education in the natural / physical sciences myself, I recognize that there a many motivating factors that a person will use in deciding to become a scientist. But one of the things that has always struck me as odd is the degree to which this (it seems) perception of intellectual superiority factors into many professional scientists’ decision to become a scientist in the first place. During a recent discussion with my wife, I spent some time reflecting on a number of fellow scientist that I know and estimated the “weight” that self-perceived “intellectual superiority” had on their decision to become a scientist. It was a rather interesting exercise and I have to admit that this something that I am susceptible to myself.

At any rate, when I listen to NGT during interviews and other programming, I very much get the impression from him of not only “A Modern Conceit” (a self-perceived intellectual superiority), but also of F. A. Hayek’s notion of “A Fatal Conceit” … that of not recognizing one’s own limitations with respect to knowledge, but taking things one step further and, in spite of one’s own limited knowledge, going ahead and trying to influence the actions / beliefs of other people through claims of being a so-called expert.

NGT strikes me as more of a “priest” of the technocratic state than a popularizer of science.

Richard Ober Hammer said...

@David Friedman asks: "Who else comes to mind as a popularizer?"
I guess from your examples of Galbraith and Krugman that we are naming popularizers from social science as well as physical science. So how about Milton and Rose Friedman, with Free to Choose?
Aside: Milton Friedman was like an uncle to a whole generation of us. I have long thought of him as "Uncle Milton". Then I can claim to be David's cousin — closer kin than even the banana.

While adopting uncles, but back on the subject of popularizers, how about Uncle Freddy (Friedrich Hayek)? Freddy advised his followers to reach out to the secondhand dealers of ideas (intellectuals, journalists, teachers) (reference). Freddy had that conversation with Antony Fisher which led to the IEA (and arguably to the rise of Margaret Thatcher) and Atlas Network (and arguably 400 free-market think tanks). Reason magazine co-founder Bob Poole was guided by this advice of Freddy's (as Poole described to me in correspondence).

@Power Child
Richard Dawkins' 1976 book The Selfish Gene taught me important things. I suppose some of that was his own development of science.

Also, thank you for your few sentences about philosophy of science in your first comment above. I learn from your justification of speculation as a necessary step in progress toward testable empirical knowledge

Power Child said...

@Richard O. Hammer:

Thanks. To be fair, I owe Steve Sailer for a lot of my thinking on the importance of speculation in science, and I owe Robert Pirsig for a lot of my thinking on philosophy as an umbrella field over other areas, including science.

Joseph said...

My favorite argument in favor of GMOs is the fact that beans have hemoglobin genes.

David Friedman said...

I believe Hayek was usually known as "Fritz" not "Freddy." I think of him as more academic than popularizer, although _Road to Serfdom_ did sell a lot of copies.

Richard Ober Hammer said...

@ Power Child: Thank you for the references.

@ David: Before I had learned that Hayek was known as "Fritz", I nonetheless fell into thinking of him as "Freddy". Twenty years ago when I was trying to think of a business I could start, a business which would serve as a gathering point for my libertarian friends, I considered starting a bar (or a coffee shop) named "Freddy's". The interior decorations would have been mostly Hayek pictures and memorabilia. I find amusement in the contrast between the sternness of Hayek's prose and the flippancy of "Freddy". I hope Hayek would chuckle too.

Will McLean said...

David Friedman said...


Thanks for the link. I think it's further evidence of the willingness of Tyson's fans to bend over backwards in trying to defend him.

There is a large difference between distinguishing our (Christian) god from their (Muslim) god, which is what Tyson claimed Bush said, and distinguishing us from them by saying that God is on the side of good not evil and we are the good guys, which is essentially what the post you link to quotes Bush as saying.

And there is no equivalence between political rhetoric about our all believing in a divine creator, a subject on which Bush knows nothing his audience doesn't, and a false statement about what someone else said.

Still, I was glad to see the post pointing out the logical fallacy in Tyson's argument about naming the stars.

Will McLean said...

Tyson has now conceded that he conflated President Bush's speech after the Columbia disaster with what he said after 9/11:

"Good to see that the Bush quote was found. Thanks to all who did the searching. I transposed one disaster with another (both occurring within 18 months of one another) in my assigning his quote. Perhaps that’s a measure of how upset I was in both cases. The mind is surely the next mysterious universe to be plumbed."

Will McLean said...


Your paraphrase of Tyson is not true. He did not actually say that Bush was "distinguishing our (Christian) god from their (Muslim) god" but "distinguishing the U.S. from the Muslim fundamentalists" who believed Allah wanted them to kill innocents. That would put good Muslims and even Atheists on the "we" side and the fundamentalist evildoers on the "them" side.

David Friedman said...

Tyson seems to have offered versions of the anecdote repeatedly—you quoted one. Here is another:

TYSON: Here’s what happens. George Bush, within a week of [the 9/11 terrorist attacks] gave us a speech attempting to distinguish we from they. And who are they? These were sort of the Muslim fundamentalists. And he wants to distinguish we from they. And how does he do it?

He says, “Our God” — of course it’s actually the same God, but that’s a detail, let’s hold that minor fact aside for the moment. Allah of the Muslims is the same God as the God of the Old Testament. So, but let’s hold that aside. He says, “Our God is the God” — he’s loosely quoting Genesis, biblical Genesis — “Our God is the God who named the stars.”

Tyson is making a point about "our God" vs "their God"—that Bush thought such a distinction existed when it really didn't, since they were the same God. It isn't all in the particular version of the quote you cited, but you can find it here:

David Friedman said...

Further, note that Tyson has Bush saying "our God," and emphasizes the fact. The real Bush quote simply refers to the Creator. No hint of "our God" vs "their God," which is what Tyson is clearly implying Bush was saying. Read the quote I just posted—Tyson says:

"He says 'Our God'"

Which is not true. And that's central to the argument Tyson is making.