Science

The Problems With Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Exoneration

The astrophysicist emphasized the importance of evidence and impartial investigation, but the process was far from scientific.

Neil deGrasse Tyson with an image of stars behind him.
Neil deGrasse Tyson in New York on Oct. 23.
Craig Barritt/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson will soon be back on TV. His shows were pulled from National Geographic after Patheos published accounts of sexual misconduct against the astrophysicist and host this past December. On Friday, the network confirmed that it had concluded an investigation into Tyson’s behavior, and will now air the slightly delayed season of Cosmos and will put Star Talk back on television.* “There will be no further comment,” the network said in a statement reported by Variety.

The network isn’t saying what it found (or didn’t find). This is both frustrating and expected—HR files aren’t typically a matter of public record. But this isn’t exactly a typical workplace dust-up, either, given how public the accusations have been. And it’s worth remembering the bar that Tyson and Cosmos director Ann Druyan themselves set last December in response to the allegations. In a Facebook post, Tyson noted that “evidence always matters” and that “an impartial investigation can best serve the truth.” And to the New York Times, Druyan said: “The core of our shows is that it matters what’s true. No matter what, that means we will absolutely follow the evidence where it leads.” (Neither have issued statements since National Geographic announced the result.)

Druyan and Tyson, both high-profile connoisseurs of the scientific method, were clearly deploying scientific-adjacent language in their statements, though surely they realize that a private, internal investigation by an employer does not produce the same caliber of truths as what they share on their show. What we got on Friday was simply the news of a private corporate decision. “An investigation conducted by a party with a financial stake in the outcome (for example, the accused’s TV network) cannot, by definition, be ‘impartial,’ ” Adam Conover, host of the truTV show Adam Ruins Everything noted on Twitter in response to the news Friday. He’s right: If National Geographic had found something bad on their superstar, it would stand to lose something huge, in advertising dollars against an entire TV season that has already been produced. It’s biased to protect Tyson. If this investigation were a scientific paper, there would be a blaring conflict of interest section.

What we’re left with is a binary output: National Geographic could have canceled Cosmos. It chose not to, for reasons it has not shared. Did it thoughtfully explore an allegation of rape, and find it to be false? Did it find that Tyson overstepped boundaries with his assistant—as I have argued he clearly did, based on actions he’s admitted to—and decide that they can remedy that by quietly sending him to take a Feminism 101 class? Were the people doing the investigation attempting to suss out if this is the best guy to keep on payroll, or were they simply trying to figure out if there was something illegal or criminal at hand?

If this investigation were a scientific paper, it would present a methods section to explain the process, and a results and discussion section to construct a nuanced portrait of what we ought to learn from the data. It would have been peer reviewed (not a perfect filter for junk, but a filter) and would be available to other experts for further critique. In other words, it would have been transparent, not opaque.

It makes sense, as a matter of routine, not to air the results of sexual assault investigations publicly; doing so would open up both Tyson and the women making the allegations to unnecessary public judgment and scrutiny. But our way of handling this is lopsided: Accusers often must come forward in public forums to pressure an investigation into happening at all. This was certainly the case with Tyson, who had been accused of rape by a former classmate several years ago, a claim that only got traction after his assistant came forward, too. The women who aired their claims publicly, and who presumably (though who knows!) participated in this investigation will now have to grapple with the fact that their stories either weren’t taken as the truth or were deemed not worthy of substantial ramification.

There’s a double standard in whose evidence is held up for debate and who gets to wrap things up more privately. The question is why Tyson, ever a stickler for evidence and precision, is OK with this process. It might just be that it’s easier to be committed to the truth when it doesn’t involve you.

Correction, March 19, 2019: This piece original misstated that Star Talk would be put back on the radio. It will be put back on television.