Neil deGrasse Tyson (Sort of) Admits to Misquoting George W. Bush and Agrees to (Someday) Apologize for It

(Photo: Flickr / lwpkommunikacio)Neil deGrasse Tyson is an American astrophysicist and science communicator. He also hosts the podcast StarTalk radio show.

After first denying the charge, famed scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson admitted, in a way, that he misquoted former President George W. Bush and will apologize for the mistake at some point in the future.

The hoopla began with a series of articles by The Federalist, a one year old conservative news and opinion website. Wikipedia editors also became part of the controversy after they removed references to the misquotation from its website, and at least one of the editors also wants to remove The Federalist's Wikipedia entry.

Tyson, host of Fox's "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" and director of the Hayden Planetarium, had accused Bush of saying, "our God is the God who named the stars," after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as a way to distinguish "we from they," or Christians from Muslims.

Tyson posted his email response to Sean Davis of The Federalist to his Facebook page on Friday. His initial response was to say that even though no one can find the quote, he was certain that he heard it, and encouraged others to find the quote.

"I have explicit memory of those words being spoken by the president," he wrote. "I reacted on the spot, making note for possible later reference in my public discourse. Odd that nobody seems to be able to find the quote anywhere — surely every word publicly uttered by a president gets logged. ... So I assure you, the quote is there somewhere. When you find it, tell me. Then I can offer it to others who have taken as much time as you to explore these things."

In the comments below that post, a commenter wrote, "Perhaps this is the quote you were thinking of: 'The same creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today,'" with a link to a speech Bush gave after the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.

In response, Tyson wrote, "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."

There are two problems with Tyson's response, however.

First, it is not the same quote. The quote contains some similarities, but the message and context are entirely different. Tyson was using his fabricated Bush quote to argue that Bush was being divisive in regard to Muslims. In Bush's Columbia speech, however, Islam was not mentioned nor related to the context.

Second, the Columbia speech quote was already mentioned by Davis in the original post that set off the controversy. So, no "searching" was necessary to find the quote that shares some similarities with Tyson's misquote.

Jonathan Alder, Johan Verheij memorial professor of law and director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation at Case Wester University School of Law, has been writing about the controversy for The Washington Post blog The Volokh Conspiracy, and described the situation this way: "What is really so 'mysterious' is why Tyson finds it so difficult to confess error and pretends that Bush's 2003 remarks were only just-now discovered. ... Yet if this is the source of the quote, then nearly everything else Tyson claimed about it and its significance is false (as is the account of the quote's provenance he gave last night)."

Alder also encouraged Tyson to apologize.

"Tyson claims to be a man of science who follows the evidence where it leads. The evidence here clearly shows Tyson screwed up. Whether knowingly or not, he regularly repeated a false account in order to cast aspersions on another public figure. The only proper thing to do is recant and apologize. That is what a person of integrity does," he wrote.

In response to a tweet from Christopher Chabris, a psychology professor at Union College who has written for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, Tyson said he plans to apologize to Bush for misrepresenting him, but he is "looking for a good medium & occasion."

Wikipedia editors were removing references to the controversy on Tyson's Wikipedia entry. At the time of this publication, a reference can now be found, though the reference cites a Tampa Tribune political blogger rather than any of the original articles by The Federalist.

Also at the time of this publication, the three-sentence Wikipedia entry for The Federalist states: "This article is being considered for deletion in accordance with Wikipedia's deletion policy."