Sunday, January 17, 2016

Fact checking Neil deGrasse Tyson

Tyson is well known for fact checking movies, comics and other pop culture stuff. Here's giving Tyson a taste of his own medicine.

17 GMOs

Some of the above might be called pedantic nitpicks. Much like Tyson's pedantic nitpick when he calls out the stars in the movie Titanic. However some are serious errors and I've bolded these.

"Bush and star names" is an attack on an individual and the story is false. "Idiot doctors" is an attack on doctors and the American Medical Association. This unfounded attack is based on Tyson's ignorance on how a prognosis is delivered.

Items 1 through 4 were all parts of Tyson's keynote address at the TAM6 meeting. TAM was an annual conference for skeptics. It is revealing the self proclaimed skeptics accepted Tyson's falsehoods without question.

Ghazali's supposed demonization of math and the supposed Christian belief in a flat earth are part of Tyson's argument that religious belief is a destructive force that hinders progress.  As is Tyson's argument that Newton's belief in the God of The Gaps stopped him dead in his tracks. Tyson is free to argue religion is bad but his arguments should be based on fact.

Why did I bold Tyson's trailer for The Martian? If you peruse my blog you will see I'm a space enthusiast. And there are different camps within space enthusiasts. I happen to believe the moon and near earth asteroids will play important roles in opening a new frontier. Infrastructure in the earth-moon neighborhood would make access to the rest of the solar system much less difficult. Maybe Zubrin and various flavors of Mars Firsters have a better plan. But it is fair for me to point out it's physically impossible for Hermes to depart Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and arrive in Mars orbit 124 days later. Had the Hermes departed from EML2, the 124 day trip Tyson describes would be physically possible.

I'm sometimes asked "Why are you tearing Tyson down?" That's not what I'm trying to do. Tyson's work as a science evangelist is important and I want him to succeed. I want Tyson to step up his game.

Tyson on "idiot doctors"

The first half of the video Tyson argues surviving cancer doesn't demonstrate divine intervention. I'm fine with that.

But the second half of the video is a clueless rant against idiot doctors, the American Medical Association and Pre-Med students.

So a patient lives longer than predicted. Does this make the doctor an idiot? No. Typically a doctor will give his patient statistics for people in a similar condition. If someone lives longer than the norm, it demonstrates there are statistical outliers on a bell curve. It is..... astonishing. Astonishing that Tyson and the physics 101 prof are unfamiliar with entry level statistics.

Also Tyson as well as the physics prof seem to believe someone who's failed freshman physics would go on to med school. There are idiot physicists, I assure you!

Well known skeptic Dr. Novella called Tyson out on this (scroll to Those Darn Physicists). Novella noted this was part of the keynote speech at TAM6, a 2008 conference for skeptics. Dr. Novella thought it was an excellent lecture except for the idiot doctor part. Which goes to show he wasn't paying close attention to the rest of the lecture.

President Bush and Star Names

Tyson tells us President Bush attempted to "distinguish we from they" in the wake of the 9-11 attack. This routine was also included in the TAM6 keynote address.

Stands to reason right? We all know a Republican would seize this emotionally charged moment to stir up hatred against Arabs.

However Bush's actual 9-11 speech called Islam the religion of peace. Bush was calling for inclusion and tolerance. Exactly the opposite of the xenophobic demagogue Tyson falsely portrays.

In fact Bush and his administration have repeatedly condemned anti-Muslim rhetoric. Colin Powell was one of the first to bring Corporal Kareem Kahn's sacrifice to public attention:

Tyson's shallow stereotype may apply to some Republicans, but not all.

Tyson eventually admitted his story was false and apologized to President Bush. However Tyson qualifies his apology with these words:

"Of course very little changes in that particular talk. I will still mention Islamic Extremists flying planes into buildings in the 21st century. I will still contrast it with the Golden Age of Islam a millennium earlier..."
Well, the rest of that particular talk is just as wrong Tyson's Bush and Star Names fantasy.

Ghazali ended the Islamic Golden Age

The Bush quote fabrication segues into a Hamid Al-Ghazali quote fabrication. Hamid Al Ghazali was a muslim cleric that supposedly ended the Islamic Golden Age. According to Tyson, Ghazali wrote that math was the work of the devil. Tyson  would make that claim in other talks besides the TAM6 keynote speech. Tyson claims Islamic progress came to a screeching halt and hasn't recovered since.

Ghazali would praise the disciplines of science and mathematics saying they are necessary for a prosperous society. So I very much doubt that Ghazali ever demonized math. When challenged Tyson replied:
"As for Al Ghazali, a more accurate representation of his views is that the manipulation of numbers was an earthly rather than a divine pursuit. And it was divine thoughts and conduct that were widely promoted -- to the exclusion of earthly conduct. Earthly conduct became associated with being anti-God, which I characterized as the devil. In later speeches (over the past year or so) I leave it as a simple split between earthly and divine pursuits, realizing that I was misleading some people by mentioning the devil at all."
This quote is from Tyson's comment below. In other words he admits there was no Ghazali text containing the assertion that math is the work of the devil.

Did Islamic innovation end with Ghazali? No. There were many Islamic scientists and mathematicians who came later. Abu al-Hasan was born three centuries after Ghazali died. Hasan was the father of symbolic algebra.

The Golden Age of Islam ended more in the 1600s when the mideast ceased to be a trading hub where diverse cultures would meet and exchange ideas.

Tyson claims the once innovative civilization would surely have rebounded if not for Ghazali. He notes that the 1.3 billion Muslims alive today don't earn that many Nobel science prizes. Well, neither do the 1.3 billion people living in China. Nor the 1.3 billion people living in India. And these civilizations has periods of innovation. In fact our zero and numbering system comes from India, not the Arabs as Tyson falsely claims. Is Neil going to blame the Chinese lack of Nobel science prizes on Ghazali?

Newton Invented Calculus On A Dare

About an hour into his TAM6 lecture, Tyson portrays Newton as a super human saying Newton invented calculus on a dare. Tyson frequently makes this claim and usually says it took Newton a month or two to establish this branch of mathematics.

 Well, no.

Two thousand years before Newton Eudoxus was slicing stuff into small bits to get more accurate approximations of volume and area. Cavalieri was doing this prior to Newton. These methods were well known when Descartes and Fermat invented analytic geometry (also known as graph paper with an x and y axis). With this invention y=x2 became a parabola. x2 + y2 = 1 became a circle with radius one. Descartes’ way of looking at things enabled us to scrutinize conic sections and other curves with symbolic algebra.

After Descartes and Fermat invented analytic geometry, it was only a matter of time before someone used Eudoxus like methods to get good approximations of the slope of a curve or the area under a curve. Which was done by Fermat among others. There is also Cavalieri's Quadrature Formula.
Fermat was the father of calculus. After Fermat the discoveries of Newton were inevitable as evidenced that Leibniz made them at the same time. Rick Stryker paints a more accurate picture -- The development of calculus was the collaborative effort of many. And it didn't take two months.

After thinking he had established Newton’s super powers Tyson flatly asserts Newton could have knocked out perturbation theory in an afternoon. “You know this!” Tyson shouts to his enthusiastic audience. Well, no. I don’t. And neither does Tyson or his credulous audience.

Euler took a crack at perturbation theory and n-body mechanics. As did Lagrange. Both these men were giants in their own right but did not make satisfactory models. 100 years after Newton, Laplace built on the work of Euler, Lagrange and Newton. To say Newton could have done it in an afternoon is disrespecting Laplace, Euler and Lagrange. It is also profoundly ignorant.

In Tyson’s alternate history Newton would have easily done Laplace’s n-body work had he not been stopped by his belief in the “God of The Gaps”. Tyson states this as a flat out fact. But an alternate history is not a testable hypothesis. We can’t rewind history and see what happens with different parameters.

Here’s another alternate history: An agnostic Newton would have been a normal young man who spent his spare time in taverns chasing women. No splitting of light, no laws of motion, and no contributions to calculus. His accomplishments would have been zip, zero, nada. Like Tyson’s alternate history this is nothing more than idle speculation.

Five Centuries Regressed

Is the earth flat or round? This silly argument between Tyson and rapper B.o.B. generated a great deal of publicity for B.o.B., Tyson, and Tyson's nephew.

Part of the exchange: "@bobati Duude — to be clear: Being five centuries regressed in your reasoning doesn't mean we all can't still like your music."

Supposedly folks during the dark ages thought the earth was flat. Sadly Tyson is perpetuating this myth.

Tyson's misperception of the dark ages is a common error. Well summarized in "The Chart":

"The Chart" What Tim O'Neill calls

In the August 1991 issue of History Today Jeffrey Russel effectively argues people knew the earth was round during and before the time of Columbus. In his comment reply (below Russel's article) Tyson perpetuates the myth that knowledge of a spherical earth was lost in the "Dark Ages". Historian Tim O'Neill explains where this myth comes from. O'Neill also documents prominent scholars from that period that knew the earth was spherical.

The above links as well as more interesting reading can be found in this reddit badhistory thread on Tyson's battle with B.o.B.

More Transcendentals than Irrationals

In an interview with Joe Rogan, Tyson asserts there are more transcendental numbers than irrationals. He also tells Joe there are five cardinalities when it comes to infinite sets.

Was this a fluke? Maybe Neil just mispoke. But Tyson gives a similarly confused account in an interview with Dazed and Confused Magazine:

You know how numbers, you can count them forever? Well how about fractions? The infinity of fractions is bigger than the infinity of numbers; and then there are transcendental numbers, like Pi. There are more transcendental numbers than pure irrational numbers, and there are more irrational numbers than counting numbers. And more fractions than all of them. 
It's appropriate the above rambling passage comes from Dazed and Confused Magazine. Tyson's assertions earned him a mention in the badmathematics subreddit.

A Rainbow Forms Only Broadside
To Your Line Of Sight

What does he mean by "line of sight"? A line of sight could be any line passing through the viewer's iris and hitting the retina. There are a multitude of such lines. If the rainbow is broadside to one line of sight, it is at an oblique angle to another line of sight.

I'm guessing Neil means rainbows can only form directly in front of the viewer. And he says as much  in this video:

It can only be a rainbow that is exactly face on to you. You've never seen a rainbow that was like at an oblique angle.
Which is rubbish, of course. On rainy days it common to see rainbows in the afternoon in the western sky. A viewer can turn and face southwest and the rainbow still remains in the western sky at an oblique angle to his or her view.

A rainbow forms perpendicular to the line extending from the sun through the viewer's head. The center of the rainbow lies at the shadow.

The "line of sight" can be any line from an obect passing through the viewer's pupil to the retinae.

Lines of sight from the edge of the rainbow to the viewers eye intersect the rainbow plane at 48º. Not perpendicular.

Again, there is one line through the viewer's pupil that is perpendicular to the plane. The line that passes through the sun as well as the viewer's head. Also lying on this line is the shadow of the viewer's head. The shadow of the head occupies the rainbow's center. I'll call this line the center line.

Now the viewer turns his head to the right. The rainbow remains perpendicular to the center line. However now the center line lies outside of the viewer's cone of vision. In this case there are zero lines of sight perpendicular to the plane.

The rainbow does remain perpendicular to the line passing through the sun, the viewer's head and the shadow of the viewer's head. To reach the Pot of Gold, the viewer would have to detach himself from his shadow and walk to the rainbow's end. Clearly impossible. But calling this line "line of sight" is a sloppy, inaccurate label.

Blind As A Bat

This common misconception is addressed in  Christie Wilcox's Discover article Actually, Bats See Just Fine, Neil.

Tyson's trailer for The Martian

Hermes' impossible trajectory

Above is a link to Neil deGrasse Tyson's trailer for The Martian. At 1:15 of the vid, Tyson has the space ship Hermes departing from Low Earth Orbit (LEO). 124 days later he has Hermes arriving at Mars orbit (2:17 of the video).

Hermes is propelled with low thrust ion engines. In the book when Hermes is about to rendezvous with Watney's Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), Lewis says Hermes can do up to 2 mm/s2. This acceleration is also given online:

Two millimeters per second squared would require an extremely good alpha. But it's possible future power sources will deliver more watts per kilogram. So 2 mm/s2 is only medium implausible. I'll let this slide.

Problem is, low thrust ion engines really suck at climbing in and out of planetary gravity wells. From low earth orbit, it would take Hermes about 40 days to spiral out of earth's gravity well and about 20 days to spiral from the edge of Mars' gravity well to low Mars orbit. Two months spent climbing in and out of gravity wells destroys Andy Weirs' 124 day trajectory.

Given 2 mm/s2, the trajectory Tyson describes is flat out impossible.

A slow ride through the Van Allen belts.

At 1:50 of Tyson's video he talks about the danger of solar flares and how astronauts are vulnerable to radiation. Well, departing from LEO means a month long spiral through the Van Allen Belts. Not only does the long spiral wreck Weir's 124 day trajectory, it also cooks the astronauts.

Tyson enjoys some notoriety for fact checking fantasies like Star Wars or The Good Dinosaur. This leaves me scratching my head. Many of the shows he fact checks make no pretense at being scientifically accurate. However The Martian was an effort at scientifically plausible hard science fiction and thus is fair game. Same goes for Tyson's trailer.

A physically impossible trajectory along with cooking the astronauts? Tyson's effort at hard science fiction isn't any better than Gravity or Interstellar.

Neil's Five Points of Lagrange Essay

The Five Points of Lagrange was a Neil deGrasse Tyson article published in the April, 2002 issue of Natural History Magazine. A few excerpts:

Gravity falls exponentially with distance

Popular usage has made "exponential" a general term for dramatic change. But a physicist should know the more specific mathematical meaning of the this word. Gravity falls with inverse square of distance, not exponentially.

Arthur C. Clarke was first to calculate altitude of geosynchronous orbits

Wrong. Clarke's contribution was suggesting communication satellites be placed in geosynchronous orbit (GSO). A fantastic idea with tremendous impact. But Clarke wasn't the first to calculate the altitude of GSOs.

Herman Potočnik calculated the altitude of GSO in 1928.  It's possible this altitude was calculated even earlier. Newton might have done it.

Unhackable Systems

The solution is so simple, just make unhackable systems. Oh my gosh, why didn't the cyber security folks ever think of that?

Twitchy published some good responses.

The Coriolis Force in Naval Battles

The Coriolis Force was a Tyson article published in the March 1995 issue of Natural History. In the article Neil has this to say about the 1914 Falklands battle:
But in 1914, from the annals of embarrassing military moments, there was a World War I naval battle between the English and the Germans near the Falklands Islands off Argentina (52 degrees south latitude). The English battle cruisers Invincible and Inflexible engaged the German war ships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst at a range of nearly ten miles. Among other gunnery problems encountered, the English forgot to reverse the direction of their Coriolis correction. Their tables had been calculated for northern hemisphere projectiles, so they missed their targets by even more than if no correction had been applied. They ultimately won the battle against the Germans with about sixty direct hits, but it was not before over a thousand missile shells had fallen in the ocean.
However the role of Coriolis correction in this battle is a an urban legend.

Coriolis Force in Football

Tyson likes to say the Coriolis force would deflect a 50 yard field goal half an inch to the right.

He repeats this fairly often. More recently for the Houston stadium. He seems unaware different  latitudes feel different Coriolis accelerations.

Coriolis force felt by a football would depend on the velocity and direction of the football as well as the latitude of stadium.

Coriolis acceleration = -2 Ω X v

Metlife is about at latitude 40.8 degrees. Metlife tilts about 11º from the north. I will go with the horizontal speed of the ball of 23 meters/second.

We can choose our coordinates so the x axis runs west to east, the y axis runs south to north and the z axis is the local vertical going up...

Ω = (0, 5.52e-5, 4.76e-5) 1/sec
v = (4.39, 22.58, 0) meters/sec
a = -2 Ω v = (.0021, -0004, .0005) meters/sec2,

Deflection from uniform acceleration is 1/2 a t2,
where t is time of flight. For a ball with a 23 meter/sec horizontal speed, it takes a little less than 2 seconds to traverse 50 yards.

1/2 a t2 = (.0043, =.0008, .00096) meters = (.167, -.032, .037) inches.

Of that displacement, the component displacement to the right is .17 inches. Tyson's half inch is off by a factor of three.

Field goal kickers don't have the level of precision where 1/6 of an inch vs 1/2 an inch makes much difference. However I wouldn't want Dr. Tyson to be calculating Coriolis in situations where it's important, like naval battles.

2001 Space Odyssey station rotates too fast

In an interview with Dan Le Batard, Tyson tells Batard:

… by the way I calculated the rotation rate of their space station which gives you artificial gravity on the outer rim. And it turns out it's rotating three times too fast. So if you weigh 150 pounds you'd weight 450 pounds on that space station (hee hee).
Tyson is wrong on several counts.

2001 A Space Odyssey's Space Station V has a radius of about 150 meters and a spin rate of about 1 revolution per minute. The spin gravity comes out to about one sixth of earth's gravity. A 150 pound man would weigh about 25 pounds on this station. This is close to the gravity on the moon's surface.

Also weight scales with the square of spin rate. So tripling spin rate would increase weight by a factor of nine.

Brick Helicopters

Helicopter blades will continue rotating after engine failure. Descending through the air at an angle can spin up the blades. Leveling off just before reaching the ground makes for a soft landing.

The process is described and demonstrated at this Getting Smarter Every Day Video.

GMO = artificial selection

In this video Tyson defends genetic modification by claiming it's not different from the artificial selection humans have been practicing for millennia.

Which is wrong. Genetic modification as practiced by Monsanto is splicing DNA from one species onto the DNA of another species. Artificial selection encourages traits that already exist in a population's gene pool. Here is a primer: Genetic Modification Explained.

Are GMOs beneficial? Or are they harmful? I don't know. I'm not taking a position pro or con. I'm pointing out Tyson's argument conflates two different techniques.

Before NASA nobody thought about miniaturizing electronics

In an interview with Fareed Zakaria, Tyson said:
The urge to miniaturize electronics did not exist before the space program. I mean our grandparents had radios that was furniture in the living room. Nobody at the time was saying Gee, I want to carry that in my pocket. Which is a non-thought. 
Well, the TR-1 hit the market in November of 1954 and NASA was formed in 1958

The TR-1 hit the market 4 years before NASA was formed

Here is the Wikipedia article on the history of transistors.

Are there more Tyson bloopers?

I don't have the time and energy to maintain a complete list of Tyson's bloopers. If you want to call attention to a noteworthy mistake, feel free to comment. For example, one of the commenters below (Phil Wilson) talks about Deflategate. The folks at The Federalist are also enthusiastic Tyson fact checkers.

Some comments I won't bother publishing. I don't have strong feelings what label we give to Pluto but I'm more or less in Mike Brown's camp. I'm fine with calling the earth an oblate spheroid. Also I have no use for racist comments.

Sometimes good comments get thrown away along with mountains of spam. Editing for clarity and brevity will make it more likely that I read and use a comment.


Sam Walsh said...

So what he made a few mistakes, and got stuff wrong when typing up certain things, he is probably the most seen and heard scientist out there right now, I fail to see how it is fair to have disdain for the guy when he remembers a vast amount of stories and facts, that occasionally even if he tries to make sure he doesn't, he is bound to slip up somewhere.

I was generally getting the feeling that you were attacking Tyson for trying who he was. And since he has made science more widely received, and enjoyed, I fail to see how his contribution is negative. And as someone who believes the spreading of logical, and intellectual thought is the key to most of the worlds issues, I struggle to see how anyone who feels the same has nothing other than inspiration for the guy.

And as for the claims that he appeals to the 'Kardashian types', I'm pretty sure those types lose interest after the word astrophysicist.

Anonymous said...

My impression is that Hermes never stays in low orbit either at Earth or Mars. At Earth, I believe that it stayed at one of the L-points while it is refueled and re-provisioned. Does that make a difference?

Hollister David said...

Anonymous, parking at an L point would make a big difference. As I wrote above, it'd make Weir's 124 day journey possible. However Tyson's trailer very clearly describes Hermes' trip. It departs from low earth orbit and reaches Mars orbit 124 days later.

Anonymous said...

Inverse square is exponential. Try it. 1/n^2 = n^-2, where -2 is the exponent!

Hollister David said...

Anonymous, now there are two anonymous posters. That makes it ambiguous who I'm replying to. Folks, please give yourself a handle.

How about a parabola? y=x^2. 2 is the exponent! Any polynomial will have exponents. How about y = x? 1 is the exponent! Or y = 1? Zero is the exponent!

No, an exponential function is a different animal.

Anonymous said...

I've been a science enthusiast my entire life and enjoy engaging with others of similar interests. What I've not enjoyed is a certain subset of science enthusiasts who view science as a sort of club to bash those less knowledgeable than themselves so they can feel superior. This type of science fan rarely knows much of science beyond the fact that they enjoy science documentaries and have memorized some scientific trivia - a very different thing from applying scientific methodology, being able to integrate models into explanations or working out mathematical formulas. De Grasse seems to attract a following among such science fans.

Science enthusiasts who see a conflict between science and religion often enjoy pointing to the distasteful spectacle of religion being used as a club by the arrogant and hypocritical. In fact, humility is as great a virtue in science as it is in religion. It's almost as if the problem isn't science or religion, but human nature.

G. Bullock

Samesong said...

@Sam Walsh But, how was Dr. deGrasse Tyson's outreach to "the Kardashian types" improve by not checking his figures and logic? He's got a PhD in astrophysics, he knows how to do it pretty swiftly. The Martian describes a mission concept which is close enough to plausible to have its faults discussed in an interesting way. Hop does that here, while Tyson kind of missed the physics and left no one any the wiser with his comments. It is valuable that such public outreach errors are sorted out, I think it helps rather than hampers public outreach activities in general. And maybe it makes Tyson and others a bit more careful going forward, improving space outreach activities.

Phil Wilson said...

I concede that NDGT is far smarter than I as he earned a PhD in astrophysics and is co-author of a dozen or so papers, while I have a BSEE and doubt that I could ever achieve a PhD. However, he's a slacker who repeatedly spouts off pontificating before checking his work. Here's yet another of many examples. When the Deflategate controversy erupted about deflating footballs Tyson opined quickly. He correctly cited the Ideal Gas Law PV=nrT but then went on to totally mis-apply it, blowing the simple calculations. He incorrectly concluded that a drop in temperature could not explain the cited drop in psi. What he neglected to do in his rush for public center stage was to use absolute pressure; instead he just used the supposed 12.5 psi the balls were supposedly set to by the refs, never adding the sea level 14.7 psi to the 12.5 psi. It makes a significant difference. To his credit, he acknowledged his error when we engineers and physicists pointed it out.

Hollister David said...

Phil, Tyson has also acknowledged the Bush misquote (albeit with a lot of arm twisting).

But he and his fans seem to remain oblivious to most of his errors.

As a space enthusiast, I've been advocating infrastructure in the earth-moon neighborhood. Lunar propellent mines, orbital propellent depots, near earth asteroids parked in lunar orbit. Robust near earth infrastructure would have many payoffs including making it easier to travel between earth and Mars.

The Hermes departing directly from low earth orbit feeds into Mars Direct mythos Zubrin and his followers have built. It really galls me to see Tyson, this self proclaimed advocate of mathematical rigor, endorse an impossible trajectory.

I will check out the Deflategate controversy. I might add it to this list of Tyson goofs.

metaphor said...

The Martian trailer seems pretty obviously to be an ad where Tyson was just given a script to read. So it would be the error of the author or screenwriter that you're referring to.

Also, isn't it possible that the Hermes parking orbit at Earth and Mars would be an elliptical orbit rather than a low circular orbit? For example a 200 km x 100,000 km orbit. Then there would be no need to spend a long time spiraling into or from a heliocentric orbit. The landers would just need a better heat shield and the launchers more delta-v to reach the orbiting spacecraft compared to low orbit.

He also says the Hermes stays in low Earth orbit between flights, but that also makes sense as it could spend 40 days getting from HEO to LEO after the astronauts have left, several years in LEO getting resupplied for the next flight, and another 40 days going up to HEO for the next flight to Mars before the astronauts board it.

Hollister David said...

Are you the same Metaphor that made the Kerbal and actual solar system delta V charts? If so, I admire your work.

Tyson's words at 1:15 "We only built one. And it remains harbored in low earth orbit between missions. Astronauts rely on shuttles to travel up to Hermes and from there they set sail on a perfect controlled cruise".

The Twentieth Century Fox back story has Hermes departing from low earth orbit. I'm fairly sure Tyson was just going from the story line handed him. Still, he fact checks other science fiction efforts. He should have checked the movie studio's script before making that trailer.

In the original novel Weir doesn't specify the orbit Hermes departs from. I believe the movie studio is the source of this error.

I haven't seen a description of the Mars parking orbit. Judging by the delta V budget of the unaltered Mars Ascent Vehicle, I'd say MAV rendezvous in low Mars orbit was the plan. I've heard Andy wanted to rely on Mars aerobraking to help with getting Hermes into Mars parking orbit. To get 2 mm/s^2 from VASIMR engines would take a very good alpha. That sort of alpha means structures with lots of surface area and low mass. Whether acres of solar panels or acres of waste heat radiators, shedding velocity via aerobraking would damage that tenuous and fragile structure, in my opinion.

As mentioned in a post above, I've long been an advocate of cislunar infrastructure rather than direct Zubrinista style departure from LEO. EML2 is a much better place to harbor the Hermes between missions. Skipping climbing up and down a large part of earth's gravity well would save time and delta V. Not to mention avoiding exposure to the radioactive and debris dense regions of lower earth orbits.

Neil deGrasse Tyson said...

Wow. Just discovered this compilation. I recognize that it required careful and extensive review of huge swaths of my print and video output. So I am impressed by this effort.

As for fact-checking movies as a past-time, I think I am largely misunderstood when I do so. My aim is to celebrate the fact that attention was given to science at all -- by artists and producers. And when I correct something, the intent is to leave the reader (or viewer) in a more enlightened place. But in practice, people see my comments as pointless, nitpicking, buzz-killing conduct, which means I consistently fail to communicate my full motives, and will probably do less of it in the future.

Many of the comments and criticisms in this compilation are at a very high level, compared with the science fluency of the intended audience. While this does not excuse actual errors, it does bring into question how to best invest one's efforts to rid the world of misinformation or disinformation. Lately, I've been a huge target. Comes with the territory, but I welcome it.

Some specific reactions:

1) I am clever enough to have come up with a different word than "exponential". I am a fan of colloquialisms, but only when they don't confuse the science So my bad there.

2) The Martian spot was just for fun. I significantly edited the script that I was handed ,for visual accuracy and content. Any errors that remained I simply missed. You might otherwise be applauding me for the errors I caught.

3) Regarding the Bush quote, I made two inexcusable errors: the first was attributing the quote to a speech Bush gave five months later. And second, giving the wrong motivation for him saying the quote. But the quote was otherwise accurate and was only a minor part of a much larger point that I made in lectures I've given. And as noted, this whole story, which is more interesting than I'm even conveying here (involving accusatory reporters from conservative magazines) is fully detailed on my Facebook Notes.

4) As for Al-Ghazali and his role in the fall of the Golden Age of Islam, I present this analysis as part of a larger discussion of the rise and fall of Baghdad as the intellectual capital of the World. And nobody who sees that full discussion (including a presentation I gave in Dubai in February 2016 to 3,000 people) has objected in the way people do who see only excerpts. So there's some miscommunication there. In any case, this should not count as an error but more as a point of Historical discussion and debate.

5) Deflate Gate: There are levels of error one can make. In my opinion they should be fielded differently from one another by critics. I see five...
(A) a person is clueless and is spouting nonsense. (B) A person has the right ideas but gets none of the facts correct to support them. (C) A person understands most of what matters, but makes some correctible mistakes. (D) A person understands what matters to the calculation, even does the calculation correctly, but made the wrong assumptions, and so got the wrong answer. (E) (related to (D) A person understands everything, gets the right answer given the assumptions, but omitted a factor or phenomenon that affects the calculated result. For me, I'd put my deflate gate tweet somewhere between Levels (D) and (E).

I any case, keep them coming. I welcome this level of scrutiny.
And Happy Pi-day to all.

Respectfully Submitted,
Neil deGrasse Tyson, New York City

Hollister David said...

Neil deGrasse Tyson,

I applaud your movie fact checking. It's a way to stimulate interest in science and educate. I am hoping my critiques will do the same. I am enthusiastic about an ion driven Mars transfer parked in earth's neighborhood between launch windows. But at earth-moon Lagrange 2 rather than low earth orbit. I hope you will take the time to let your audience know the problems a low thrust rocket has climbing out of earth's gravity well.

Thank you for your reactions 1) and 2). Acknowledging errors is an admirable thing.

I am not satisfied with reaction 3).

I was also horrified by 9-11. After that terrible event I braced myself for the inevitable waves of xenophobia. I was expecting Bush to fan the flames and exploit the intense emotions of the time. But I was very pleasantly surprised. Rather than the jingoistic rabble rousing, Bush called for tolerance and inclusion. See Bush's actual post 9-11 speech Islam is Peace

So I completely reject your portrayal of Bush's post 9-11 behavior. Bush did not try to sow division between Christians and Muslims, just the opposite. And given that Bush wasn't trying to whip up anger against Arabs, your ridicule blows back and lands on your own shirt.

It seems to me Bush was a good friend to you. His appointments were a boost to your career. How do you show your gratitude? You falsely portray your benefactor as a xenophobic demagogue. You mock his idiocy while your audience howls with laughter.

Sorry, but I completely agree with Sean Davis and Jonathan Adler in regards to the Bush and Star Names video. Whether they are conservative or not makes no difference. Their accusations are valid.

Onto reaction 4)… Cite please. I'm no scholar of Muslim theology so my opinion could well be wrong. Show me a passage from Ghazali's writings where he says math is the work of the devil. If you can produce that, I will revise that section of this blog post and acknowledge your correction. As for an audience of 3,000 not objecting to what you say? You've been giving false accounts of Bush's speech to large audiences. So far as I know, Sean Davis is the first to correct you. It seems big audiences can be just as misinformed as you are.

I urge you to exercise some humility and respect. More eloquent expressions of awe and wonder at our universe. Less ridicule toward those you regard as your intellectual inferiors. This would make you a more effective advocate for science and rational thought.

Neil deGrasse Tyson said...

Dear David H.

Thanks for your note.

I don't what you mean by being dissatisfied with my statement that I made two unforgivable errors related to Bush's speech. Unless you are arguing against my assertion of how insignificant the reference was to the larger point I was making in my talk. Fact is, the Bush reference was a simple (and flawed) way to introduce Arab star names as a subject, which was the real point of that small part of my much larger talk on Cosmic Discovery

As for Al Ghazali, a more accurate representation of his views is that the manipulation of numbers was an earthly rather than a divine pursuit. And it was divine thoughts and conduct that were widely promoted -- to the exclusion of earthly conduct. Earthly conduct became associated with being anti-God, which I characterized as the devil. In later speeches (over the past year or so) I leave it as the simple split between earthly and divine pursuits, realizing that I was misleading some people by mentioning the devil at all.

Further, I neglected to mention that the "five-centuries" reference in my tweet the B.o.B refers to the dawn of the earliest maps of a spherical Earth. A time where all doubt was removed from the minds of cartographers. I am most fascinated by this transition of world view, before which everybody drew themselves in the center of a flat circle.

The demands on my time are huge, so I won't be able to visit back, except infrequently, but I appreciate yours, and others' measured commentary on my work.

Respectfully Submitted
Neil deGrasse Tyson, Washington D.C.

Hollister David said...

I like parts of your naming rights presentation. By all means mention Californium and Berkelium. Talk about the Golden Age of Islam and how we use Arabic star names. It is wonderful you glorify cultures that value scientific inquiry.

It is your scapegoats I take issue with. In Partial Anatomy of My Public Talks you write "And I will still mention the President's quote." What does Bush's eulogy for the Space Shuttle Columbia astronauts have to do with naming rights? Are you going to milk a eulogy for comic relief?

From what I've read Hamid al-Ghazali praised the disciplines of science and math. But he said science and math shouldn't be mixed with theology. You've said the same. Hamid would question Greek philosophers. Does that make him anti-science? No. Galileo challenged Aristotle and that certainly doesn't make Galileo anti-science.

Islamic scientific discovery continued for some time after al-Ghazali. And the fall of Islam's Golden Age can be attributed to several factors not having any thing to do with that cleric.

So if you're trying to paint a picture of Islamic religious bigotry shutting down scientific inquiry, you've failed.

After establishing Ghazali as your scapegoat you will go on to claim religious belief shut down Newton's amazing output. You argue he could have easily worked out LaPlace's n-body mechanics had he not been satisfied with The God of The Gaps explanation. And how do you know that? I could just as easily argue an agnostic Newton would not have made any of Isaac's ground breaking innovations. Neither hypothesis is testable.

Does belief in God shut down creativity in math and science? You can certainly point to knuckle dragging religious fundamentalists. And I can point to believers who've done good work. I can also point to some knuckle draggers among your fans. I know dissing Christians and Republicans will get you time on shows like Bill Maher. But I would urge you to avoid religion and politics. Stick to what's testable in the laboratory if you want to regain credibility.

Larry said...

This says it all for me:

Tyson has an attitude problem (comes across as an arrogant jerk), but beyond that, Greene's right without question. Science doesn't work on a schedule, only its funding, and Tyson's point is absurd. As a scientist he should know better (beyond whatever teasing may have been going on). He strikes me as being very serious.

Hollister David said...

Larry, thanks for an interesting video. I don't see Tyson as slamming Greene, however. He is attempting to present some of the criticisms of string theory in an entertaining fashion. Greene doesn't seem offended by this clowning around. Roger Bacon would advocate testing a theory in reproducible experiments. But how do you test string theory? We might be entering an era in science where models aren't testable and critics might well object "Where's the Bacon?"

It is annoying that he focuses on their slow progress, though. How often does an Einstein or Newton come along? And given the increasingly complex body of knowledge, could even an Einstein or Newton cut through the clouds of confusion to shed light on what's going on? Maybe not. Einstein spent much of the latter part of his life unsuccessfully pursuing the TOE.

Larry said...

@David. I disagree. His comparison of string theory’s progress to that of others (Einstein or whoever) has no merit and Greene rightly tells him so. If strings really exist, then they’re theoretically the size of the Planck constant (a millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimeter), which is far beyond anything our best technology can possibly see (not even close). Finding a way to verify their existence and/or run experiments so more can be learned is incredibly difficult (unlike General Relativity). Progress is inherently slow because of the very nature of what they’re researching. So what’s Tyson’s point? That progress isn’t fast enough so maybe they should abandon the entire theory? The theory has tremendous promise (unifying relativity and quantum mechanics for instance), so it might ultimately be proven right, even if it takes another 1000 years to unravel. Indirect experimental evidence may be possible one day, even without being able to directly see a string. His point is completely untenable IMHO. It may very well be the TOE (GUT) so you can't place a timetable on it. The theory should only be abandoned (or shelved, if temporarily) when a real dead end is met (proof that it's false, or the inability to make anymore progress).

Shalryn said...

Asking if anyone knows of any more Tyson bloopers is pointless. Tyson is a blooper. I haven't been able to stand him since the first time I saw him, probably because the first thing out of his mouth was wrong. More real science and less personal grandstanding would do a great deal to increase his credibility. He should consider sticking to what he knows and leaving the sciences other than astrophysics (where his error rate is lowest) to those who are educated about them.

10036598 said...

Mmm, a part of me wishes that I had not found this discussion board, because sometimes ignorance can be so blissful; sometimes being none the wiser is better than enlightenment. I agree with Mr Hollister David and many others part taking in this discussion and many others elsewhere on the very same topic.

I think that Mr Tyson, (a man who I happen to admire greatly still) should take the time out of his busy schedule and address the wider community (whom he has inspired to take an interest in astronomy and science in general) and make amends for his mistakes.

As an advocate for Astronomy and science, Mr Tyson is a very well known and popular individual in the scientific community...
Mr Tyson if you are reading this, I am sure that you are aware of the great influence you hold over the general public, on youtube alone many of your videos get over a million views and positive reactions by people from all across the globe;
When it comes to promoting science you have an unprecedented influence over the public globally, like no other science advocate since Mr Carl Sagan.

So, without trying to sound like a dork, as J. Hector Fezandie once said "With great power, goes great responsibility".
Please use your internationally recognised platform of influence responsibly and have the humility to make amends to any of your mistakes you make along your journey.

I sincerely hope that the reason you have failed to make amendment to your mistakes/completely clarify your statements and put all these questions to rest is not because you have a big ego, because that will just be really really really, disappointing to know....To quote Akala- " the only bi**h in the world Is a man and his ego he hides in a shell"

To Mr Tyson as a closing statement I just want to say that we all make mistakes, were only homosapiens haha, were not infallable creatures. I hope that you will do the right thing and make amends.
Humble admirer Mr Limbu

(On a side note, if anyone doesn't recognise the name 'Akala' I am not surprised, he is not as well known as Mr Tyson, Akala is a british Poet/rapper, but please don't let the 'rapper' part disuade you from taking interest, he is quite an intellectual individual and his words are nothing short of eloquent.
Here is a link if anyone is interested in checking him out

10036598 said...

Apologies for the poor english. My english no good. I no speak english well.

Anonymous said...

Religion is seeing without an observer. Science requires an observer who measures. The very act of measurement deceives us into the feeling that the observer is a real thing in space who can understand how other "things" in space interact. What this means is that knowledge can never be anything more than a construct in space. As an example, a description of how a helicopter falls out of the sky isn't actually a helicopter falling out of the sky. Knowledge can never encapsulate wholeness.

Jalabar said...

I thought it very cool that Neil went out of his way to contribute to the helicopter video that proved him wrong. But then, I think Neil is human (and thus fallible) like the rest of us, so am neither surprised when he makes a mistake not do I let it lessen my opinion of the man.

We NEED science. Neil is trying to get young people interested in science, so we as a species do not stagnate. When you put yourself out there as much as NDT, you will make mistakes sometimes. But he keep trying, and that is the most important thing.

10036598 said...

I agree with most of what you say. But surely when you make mistakes and uneducated people who don't know anything different accept your statement as a fact. That! Is a problem. Dr Tyson has influential powers equal to the likes of Attenbrough and Sagan. He should have the humility to make corrections where required.

Just bullet point that thing and attach it to relevant videos on youtube. Job done. End of story.

But until then, there will always be many among and outside the scientific community who will loose respect for him, because until he admits to his mistakes he will come across as an egotistic individual.

I still admire him tho.
I wish I was as charismatic as him when discussing my trade. And I also wish that I could look cool in nerdy Tyes as much as he does. Sadly I don't have that level of coolnes, to pull it off...

Hollister David said...

Jalabar, he does acknowledge some of his errors. But not all.


He still hasn't acknowledged his rant against the American Medical Association was clueless. Steven Novella did a post on doctor bashing on Neurologicablog. There's a section titled "Those Darn Physicists" where Novella discusses Neil's Terminal Cancer routine.

Novella patiently explains that Neil mischaracterizes the way a prognosis is delivered:

"First, I have never told a patient they have X amount of time to live – and I diagnose patients with incurable terminal illnesses on a regular basis. We just don’t express the situation in that way. Rather we give statistical information – 50% of patients survive for about two years, but some survive longer, even up to 10 years, and there are rare cases of remission. I understand that patients will often walk away thinking – I have two years to live – but that is not what doctors actually say."

In the comments section Tyson replies to Novella. Tyson says maybe "idiot" was too harsh and "incompetent" was more appropriate. Then he has the temerity to lecture Novella on the way doctors typically deliver a prognosis. Again Novella patiently corrects this guy issuing pronouncements on a field outside his expertise. So far as I know Tyson has never admitted his error nor has he apologized to the medical profession.


Tyson's accusations against Bush are serious. Seizing 9-11 as an opportunity to sow division between Muslims and Christians would be deplorable. But Bush's post 9-11 speech was exactly the opposite of Tyson's fiction. Bush praised the Islamic religion and called for tolerance and inclusion.

Tyson has admitted this error but doesn't seem to think it's a big deal. His apology to Bush was buried deep in a long letter where he spends most of his time boasting about his wardrobe and accomplishments and complaining his critics are mean.

The reaction to Sean Davis' exposé was troubling. Many proclaimed the accusations false because they came from a conservative blog. True skeptics would examine the evidence regardless they like the source. Tyson's fans demonstrated they can reject uncomfortable evidence that conflicts with their world view -- just like most human beings. It is not sufficient to pay lip service to Feynman. They need to walk the walk as well.


To this day no one has produced the passage where Hamid al Ghazali says math is the work of the devil. See Neil's reply to me in the above comments. His defense? He presented these claims to a large body of Muslims and nobody challenged him.

Most of his audience were too polite to call him out when he's on stage. But many, many Islamic scholars have called him out in various blogs and forums. His “3000 Muslims agree with me” defense is silly.

In forums I am told Tyson has no need to present evidence because SCIENCE! I get straw man arguments. For example I am asked to defend the Quran. It is very sad and ironic. When the IFLS folks start practicing dispassionate skepticism, I’ll stop ridiculing them.


Is promoting science Neil's #1 goal? Or is it promoting himself?

Do Tyson's fans and the IFLS science crowd truly embrace science? Or is SCIENCE! merely an empty rallying cry?

B'Rat said...

There's this hilarious incident with Neil claiming that Star Wars's BB-8 can't work in real life... and people pointing out that it's actually a real robot.

About the Flat Earth affair, while I frankly don't understand Dr. Tyson's reply, I suggest to include this painstakingly researched blog post since History Today requires a subscription.

Tim O'Neill said...

Many thanks to B'Rat for linking to my blog post on the myth of the medieval belief in the flat earth and how historically illiterate scientists and others keep perpetuating this erroneous idea.

As for Tyson's attempt at a defence on that point above, in trying to pretend he didn't make a blunder he blundered further. The transition from symbolic medieval mappae mundi to actual cartographic maps did not represent any "transition of world view" and it definitely didn't indicate any final removal of "all doubt" about a flat earth. As I detail in my blog post, there was no "doubt" to be finally "removed". And the earlier maps were iconographic clusters of symbolism overlaid over a very general and schematic cartographic rendition. So to compare them to later actual cartographic charts is comparing apples to oranges and to conclude the difference between the two represents some change in "world view" or the removal of any "final doubts" is just pseudo historical garbage.

Tyson really should stick to science and leave history to historians.

B'Rat said...

Mostly, I find suspicious how Neil deGrasse Tyson skips over his later tweet, the unavoidable "it was lost to the Dark Ages"

Jesse Flynt said...

I often like him. I often find him unlikeable and smug when he pontificates, often in error, about very important topics he has no credentials in (politics, history, medicine). All to take the specks out of our eyes. He looses credibility when he does that (For examples, reference above). NDT for physics teacher? Sure! NDT for politician, physician, or philosopher? Well I think he's shown himself to be a little ham-fisted and sloppy in these areas.

Alex said...

Outstanding work here. I've observed as much with regards to Tyson over stepping his area of expertise. His musings on politics, history and philosophy are particularly sophomoric - i.e. 'Rationalia which is basically a sloppy, wrongheaded spin on Plato's 'Republic' and a call for a society ruled by your betters; presumably with a spot for Tyson. I hold a Bachelors in History and have been an enthusiast since I was a lad. I usually find myself under whelmed, if not irritated by how flippant and irresponsible such people are with heavily complicated events like, for example, The Crusades. This event is a perfect punching bag for those who want to rail against Christianity (President Obama also made reference to it in an effort to have us 'keep in mind' about our 'misdeeds' in the West. This one I chalked up to irritating me to no end because Obama painted an inaccurate picture to push his own point). However, I do have a quibble and perhaps you can enlighten me. Specifically this assertion, "We all know a Republican would seize this emotionally charged moment to stir up hatred against Arabs." I was happy proper perspective was brought about Bush's speech, but I may have missed where the leadership 'stirred up hatred against Arabs' because from what I recall, they were generally measured in their words. In any event, the Democrats are up to the task of 'demonizing' as well; just in a different way. They love the class warfare rubbish of 'rigged systems' and 'the rich paying their fair share'. And lately, Russia with the dubious claims of hacking. Scapegoats have featured well in world history. Cheers, Alex

Hollister David said...

Alex,I was being sarcastic. Tyson evidently constructed his memory of Bush from inaccurate stereotypes that he subscribed to. The Bush from Tyson's confabulation was certainly a xenophobic demagogue. The real Bush was the opposite. Bush's actual 9-11 speech was a level headed call for tolerance and inclusion.

Tim O'Neill said...

"And lately, Russia with the dubious claims of hacking."

Yes, "dubious claims" peddled by that well-known leftist organisation, the CIA. Welcome to the post-truth world ladies and gents ...

Kartal Toker said...

Just to improve the context of the Ghazali bit...
Prof.Tyson's misrepresentation there seems to result from his misconception that in Islam "earthly" is viewed as bad, therefore work of devil. I can't really speculate where that comes from (is it so in some branches of Christianity?), and he toned that down a notch anyway. I am neither an expert of theology, nor of Ghazali's work. But as a muslim I can say our religion asks us to balance the earthly and unearthly pursuits, and not forsake one while losing ourselves in the other. Of course interpretations of religion differ from person to person, and there was a period of history (I would say stretching from 13th to 19th century) through which mainstream muslims preached forsaking earthly sciences. So I think Prof.Tyson tried to use Ghazali as an (easy but apparently incorrect) example of that line of view, so I think that is a C in his error scale (explained by himself above) and his point stands.

URBAN said...

This isn't quite fact checking but it's related in that he's waaaay out of his bailiwick and it shows. Although I had seen his face and knew his name, my first actual contact with the general sloppiness of deGrasse Tyson's thought was his rather bizarre list of “eight book that every intelligent person ought to read.” It's not just that it's a strange list – who puts Gulliver's Travels on a list of eight essential books? – but save Gulliver's Travels I doubt he's actually read any of them. “What an idiot!” I thought to myself as I looked over the list and his reasons why they are important. “Is he admitting that he's not very intelligent?” Or is the emphasis on the “should”? He'd like to read them but hasn't gotten around to it.

It would be too long and boring to go through all of the reasons why I'm suspicious for each of the books but I'll make a cursory stab at a couple.

First up, the Bible, "to learn that it's easier to be told by others what to think and believe than it is to think for yourself." Wow! Where to start? I know he's never read the Bible because it's IMPOSSIBLE to learn that lesson from reading the Bible. There's nothing “easy” about it. What an intelligent reader ought to come away with is a lot of questions, mostly of the “why” variety.

Although not personally religious I have a lifetime fascination with religion so I recognize his reasoning from past encounters with folks hostile to religion. Many people who have never actually read the Bible and only know whatever was read in whatever church they were bored at as children imagine the Bible to consist of stories with idealized characters behaving righteously, 'exempla virtutis' along the lines of Livy's history of the early days of the Roman Republic crossed with Aesop's fables. Nothing could be further from the truth. Either he never read the book or he has severe reading comprehension issues.

Adam Smith's “Wealth of Nations,” “to learn that capitalism is an economy of greed, a force of nature unto itself." In truth Smith engages in a great deal of hand-wringing about the potential for his ideas to encourage greed and comes to the firm conclusion that the human sentiments would be all the corrective that was needed to keep greed in check. He was wrong, of course, but you'd never learn that from reading Smith. DeGrasse Tyson wouldn't know that because he never read it.

My favorite, Sun Tzu's “The Art of War,” “to learn that the act of killing fellow humans can be raised to an art." He only read the title. Had he read the book he would have known that much of it is about avoiding wasteful carnage, winning through guile and subtle strategy. It is brimming with psychological insights about conflict which is why it is a perennial business oriented best seller. He never read that one either.

And then there's the one he probably did read in high school, “Gulliver's Travels,” "to learn, among other satirical lessons, that most of the time humans are Yahoos." Especially lazy blowhards like deGrasse Tyson.