Science

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Response to Allegations of Sexual Assault Is Self-Defeating

He confirms several aspects of the allegations but denies that any of them were harmful.

Photo illustration of Neil deGrasse Tyson
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Onward18.

Last Thursday, the religious website Patheos reported allegations of sexual harassment made against Neil deGrasse Tyson. One physicist accused him of non-consensually feeling beneath her dress at a conference, while a former assistant said he had made suggestive comments to her that prompted her to quit her job. The allegations join an older allegation of rape, by a woman who was a fellow grad student of Tyson’s at the University of Texas at Austin—first on her blog in 2014, and then reported in the New York Times on Saturday. Tyson responded to the allegations on Facebook on Saturday, in a note titled, “On being accused.”

One thing that struck me while reading his note is that he confirms doing many of the more minor things the women bring up, but he denies that any of them were harmful. He paints himself as a bumbly nerd who is just here to talk about planets and go on adventures, not one of the most powerful men in physics and a behemoth in entertainment alike. Ultimately, he sees his interactions with other women as a sort of word problem that can be cleared up via an investigation—if someone could just do the math, we’d certainly be able to figure out the rational, hard truth.

Take an incident with a fellow physicist and a fan, Katelyn Allers. At a meeting in 2009, when the two posed for a photo, Tyson allegedly touched Allers’s skin, which was tattooed with the solar system. Though he says that he doesn’t recall the exact event, Tyson surmises that the account, in factuality, is reasonable. (As the New York Times notes, Tyson didn’t name names in his post, but it’s easy to match up the details of each event.) There is actually a photo of Tyson grasping Allers’ arm. Allers says that he reached under her dress to trace her tattoo and that it made her uncomfortable.

Tyson takes issue with that framing. “This was simply a search under the covered part of her shoulder of the sleeveless dress,” writes Tyson. He was just looking for Pluto. Everyone knows how he feels about Pluto! He simply cannot resist the pull of cosmic artistry in general, “but going forward, I can surely be more sensitive to people’s personal space,” he writes. (This is as close as Tyson gets to learning a lesson.)

He doesn’t attempt to understand that existing in the world as a woman involves a lot of this kind of groping and touching, that in some cases a grab of the arm can be a signal of more danger to come, and that, despite his own point of view that it was fine, it is imperative—not a concession—to ask for permission before touching someone under their clothing. “My experience with him is he’s not someone who has great respect for female bodily autonomy,” Allers told Patheos.

Tyson again fails to grasp subjectivity discussing his relationship with his former production assistant, Ashley Watson. She told Patheos that Tyson allegedly invited her up to his apartment for wine, hung out in an undershirt, put on suggestive music, made jokes about stabbing as he sliced up cheese, and then talked about how humans need physical release, and did she?

Tyson in turn describes his relationship with Watson as “a fun, talkative friendship.” He fails to realize that she might have been so warm to him on so many hours of car rides—one of her duties was to drive him around—because it was her job.

His misread of her emotional interest in him allows him to confirm several of her allegations while he attempts to pass them off as benign. He confirms that he invited her up to his apartment for a late-night hangout and wine as “a capstone of our friendship,” despite a crew party simultaneously happening that night, without any awareness that she might have felt pressured to say yes because he was her boss. He excuses his response to her offer of a hug—he declined saying, “If I hug you I might just want more”—as being merely clumsy. He repeatedly points out that she had a habit of doling out hugs, as though it has any bearing on whether his response is intimidating (it is). He notes that he gave her “a special handshake” that involved feeling the other person’s pulse, which he passed off as a Native American tradition (Adrienne Keene, an assistant professor of American studies and ethnic studies at Brown University, expressed doubt over its origins on Twitter). Tyson ought to know that Watson found all of this creepy because she told him she did when she quit her job, before production was over.

The third allegation Tyson addresses is more serious: Tchiya Amet El Maat, a wellness coach who went to grad school with Tyson, told the New York Times that she blacked out at his apartment after he gave her water and awoke to find herself naked in his bed, at which point he had sex with her. Tyson alleges that they dated (Amet says they did not), and that they were intimate only a few times, and went their separate ways because “the chemistry wasn’t there.” He then goes on to attempt a bizarre bit of linguistic jujitsu in which he implies that Amet cannot possibly remember anything about the incident because she says she was blacked out during it, discounting the possibility that a woman might realize that she has been sexually assaulted even when intoxicated or drugged.

An investigation into this and other allegations is certainly warranted; the press, no matter how thorough, is not a court nor does it have complete access to his professional record (say, if other complaints have been made to his employers). I’m glad that Tyson has publicly announced his support of such an endeavor, which his employers Fox and National Geographic announced Friday that they would undertake. What I worry about, though, is that in his public posting on the matter, Tyson has already demonstrated that he lacks an understanding of what constitutes harassment and how power dynamics work. He says he apologized to the women involved, but for an apology to matter, it needs to own up to wrongdoing. The entire Facebook post seems to be premised on a desire to refute any such claim.

Tyson ought to be better at understanding this. When asked at a panel why there aren’t more women in science, he responded thoughtfully that as a black man he understands that there are reasons beyond smarts that some people are kept out. “All I can is say that the fact that I wanted to be a scientist, an astrophysicist was, hands-down, the path of most resistance through the forces of society,” he responded. It’s a shame that he doesn’t understand that he can be a source of those forces as well.