Neil deGrasse Tyson: Troll of the Year

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The “War on Christmas” was muted this year, perhaps because so much actual armed conflict is happening around the world, but there were a few skirmishes. Under the heading of cognitive dissonance, it was hard to top the Palestinian protester in a Santa suit throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers. Apparently he didn’t get the word from University of Maine officials who sent an email warning campus employees to avoid such subversive symbols as wreaths, candy canes, or lighted trees. They did this in the name of “diversity,” apparently with no sense of irony.

The Unredeemed Ebenezer Scrooge Award for 2014 went to the Dallas-bound American Airlines passenger who threw a tantrum when a gate agent wished him happy Christmas. His meltdown onboard when a flight attendant committed the same faux pas resulted in him being escorted from the plane — to the applause of the other passengers.

Perhaps the most gratuitous display of holiday season boorishness came from the Twitter account of religion-baiting scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson. The ubiquitous astrophysicist spent Christmas Day mocking those who celebrate the birth of Jesus.

“QUESTION: This year what do all the world’s Muslims and Jews call December 25th,” he tweeted. “ANSWER: Thursday.”

Eight minutes later Tyson sent another epistle from his @neiltyson Twitter account: “On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642.”

Tysons’ tweeps tend to worship the man, but some found his Christmas snark unappealing. “Hi @neiltyson, trolling Christians on Dec. 25 is so EDGY,” wrote one. “Please let me know when you troll Muslims on Ramadan. Merry Christmas!”

Once upon a time, Tyson’s frequent attacks on Christianity would have been considered blasphemy. Today, it’s called Internet trolling. In the Middle Ages, he might have been burned at the stake. In the 21st century, he has a television show. I suppose that’s progress, although distinguishing yourself for boorish behavior in an election year is an accomplishment in itself.

Iowa Republican Joni Ernst, running for Senate in a state that had never sent a woman to Washington, was compared to a farmyard “chick” by her male opponent. Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor accused his Republican opponent, Tom Cotton, of voting “against preparing America for pandemics like Ebola.” Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan was accused by incumbent Sen. Mark Begich of releasing from prison a sex offender who murdered an elderly couple and brutalized their infant granddaughter.

Meanwhile, David Perdue, a Georgia Republican, aired TV spots accusing Democrat Michelle Nunn of running a foundation that “gave money to organizations linked to terrorists.” The organization she headed was George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light Foundation. The National Rifle Association ran an attack ad against Sen. Mary Landrieu depicting a home invasion in which a young mother cannot protect herself or her newborn baby because Landrieu “voted to take away your gun rights.”

As I said, being conspicuous for duplicity and incivility in 2014 required a special kind of talent, the very type possessed by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Early in the year, Tyson began hosting Fox TV’s “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” a reprise of Carl Sagan’s 1980 PBS tour de force “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.” Tyson seemed the perfect choice to moderate, and not merely because of his Ivy League academic degrees in astrophysics and his extensive writing, teaching, and consulting on space policy. Tyson reports a momentous encounter as a teenager with Sagan. One assumes that to be true, but given the whoppers Tyson told about George W. Bush — a man who directly elevated Tyson’s career — the empiricist’s mind wonders.

The first episode of the new “Cosmos,” which aired in March, included a touching tribute to the famed astronomer before veering into Tyson’s personal gravitational field: bashing Christianity.  He invoked 16th-century Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, whom Tyson describes as a “martyr for science,” supposedly because he was executed for embracing Copernicus’ sun-centered solar system and believing that the universe was infinite.

This is mangled history. Bruno was indeed burnt at the stake, but not over astronomy. A theologian, not a scientist, the friar arrived at his notions of outer space via faith and was accused in the Inquisition of eight charges, all but one relating to church doctrine. He was executed, in other words, for practicing magic, denying the divinity of Christ and the virgin birth. He also picked political fights everywhere he went. He was, in other words, Neil Tyson’s kind of guy.

In his crusade against religion, Tyson is willing to inflict collateral damage. His standard stump speech includes an invented newspaper headline (“Half the schools in the district are below average”); conjures up a fake quote from an unnamed congressman (“I have changed my views 360 degrees on that issue”); and dismisses U.S. physicians as “idiots” in a convoluted story ridiculing those who pray when they find they have cancer. He gets laughs from his audiences for this stuff, which is apparently his aim, and he’s not above slandering actual people. This is how he thanked George W. Bush, in fact, for appointing him to a prestigious White House panel to study the future of U.S. space exploration.

Let’s put it in Tyson’s own words:

“Here’s what happens. George Bush, within a week of [the 9/11 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.”

That’s quite a story: completely wrong in all of its particulars and in its larger point. Tyson mangles Genesis and misquotes Bush, not once but twice. He puts Bush’s (misquoted) comment in the wrong year and the wrong context. It actually comes from one of the most poignant speeches of his presidency. Bush was not talking about 9/11; he was eulogizing the seven astronauts who lost their lives on the space shuttle Columbia — a subject that Tyson supposedly cares about. And Bush never said “Our God.” He said: “The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today.”

As for Tyson’s statement “Allah of the Muslims is the same God as the God of the Old Testament,” that’s theology, not science. It may or may not be good theology, but it was George W. Bush who said this before Neil Tyson — and he took heat from some evangelicals for it. Also, it was Bush, not Tyson, who went around proclaiming Islam to be a “religion of peace” after 9/11. In other words, the moral of Tyson’s snarky little story is the exact opposite of what really happened. It’s a lie, or rather a series of lies, on a scale rare even for Washington.

When called on his prevarications by The Federalist, Tyson dissembled for months, accused his critics of “eavesdropping,” and called on his acolytes to find the quote for him — crowd-sourcing his research, after the fact. An odd example of the scientific method, one might say. When all that failed, his minions scrubbed the controversy from Wikipedia and plotted how to remove The Federalist from Wikipedia as well.

So that was the context of Tyson’s nasty little Christmas tweets (also unmentioned on Wikipedia). It can be noted — because you’re never sure of anything Neil Tyson says — that Isaac Newton was indeed born on December 25, at least in the old Julian calendar.

But Sir Isaac Newton would have been appalled at being used as a foil to attack people of faith — as Newton was a believer himself. “We account the Scriptures of God to be the most sublime philosophy,” he wrote in 1704. “I find more sure marks of authenticity in the Bible than in any profane history whatsoever.”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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