Earth to climate-change deniers: Neil deGrasse Tyson's errors won't help you
Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the most recognizable scientists and advocates for the public understanding of science in the world.
That means that when he speaks, the world listens. Carefully. And recently, his critics have found errors in some of his public statements.
Sean Davis, former economic adviser to Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) and co-founder of the conservative blog The Federalist, has discovered a few holes in some of Tyson's recent presentations. He found Tyson using the term "average" to mean "median" in a lecture on popular misconceptions of data and statistics. He nailed Tyson for misquoting Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). He called Tyson out for attributing a quote to George W. Bush that Bush probably didn't say. And he found that Tyson changes the details of a popular anecdote about jury duty every time he tells it.
Tyson has brushed aside the accusations of quote fabrication, arguing that the "tone 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."
To be sure, science is about facts, and a public advocate for science shouldn't play fast and loose with the facts, even in the interests of a snappy presentation. This will inevitably invite criticism. Tyson needs to check carefully, in the future, that the quotes in his anecdotes are factual and not a figment of his imagination. And he should apologize to those who he has misquoted.
But at the same time, it should be said that none of Tyson's errors amount to methodological or factual errors in published scientific papers.
A much bigger problem is that climate deniers have latched on to this controversy to make a case against climate change. After all, they say, Tyson is a prominent public spokesman on the issue of global warming. He has pointed out that humans are the cause of it, and called for policies to curb its disastrous effects. Perhaps he's lying about that as well.
If Tyson seems bemused about criticism of his fabrications and doesn't take it seriously, he's telling us that he sees himself as a showman. We're not supposed to ask whether the events he talks about are real, fictional, or embellished, we're just supposed to enjoy the show. [The Federalist]
Tracinski goes on to deliver a critique of "claims that mankind's industrial production is causing the planet to heat up," arguing that Tyson's attitude is emblematic of modern climate science's style: presenting scientific theory "in crudely oversimplified form," "omitting any uncertainties or counter-arguments," and "dismiss[ing] any skepticism as the resentment of the primitive, ignorant, unscienced masses against their enlightened betters."
Here's one important fact climate deniers hopping on the bandwagon would be wise to remember: Neil deGrasse Tyson has absolutely nothing to do with the facts of climate science. He may be a public advocate for science, but he's not a climate scientist.
So this is really scraping the bottom of the barrel. Worse, actually: To insist against the massive preponderance of evidence that humans are not changing the climate is dangerous and irresponsible.
Even for those who reject the conclusions of the 97 percent of climate scientists who hold humans to be responsible for recent observed warming, dumping billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is, at the very least, extremely risky. These gases are known, not hypothesized, to heat the atmosphere. Yes, as the climate deniers argue, nobody knows exactly how climate change will play out. There is no mathematical model that can fully represent how Earth will respond to the additional billions of tons of greenhouse gases burnt into the atmosphere. But that's why anthropogenic climate change is so scary. Why mess with such a delicate, complex system as our climate? Humanity and human civilization evolved to function in a pre-industrial climate with far lower greenhouse-gas levels. This kind of denialism is playing Russian roulette with our entire civilization.
If you're going to engage in that, you need more evidence than some embellished anecdotes told by a popular television host. You need hard, cold scientific evidence. And if the climate deniers had scientific evidence sufficient to overturn the current paradigm, you can bet your bottom dollar they would be talking about it, instead of Neil deGrasse Tyson.