Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Monday, October 24, 2016

When I first encountered Neil deGrasse Tyson, I thought, “What a nice man.” He was on the TV screens at New York’s Hayden Planetarium, where he’s director, urging us to behold the wonder of — to use the Biblical term — the heavens.

That impression only grew on seeing his television show, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Here he bursts with elation over the great scientific breakthroughs, guiding us into the subject with the kindly enthusiasm of the gifted teacher.

So imagine my surprise to learn that Tyson has become the object of not just mild disapproval, but loathing, on the political right.

Example: Tyson has become “the fetish and totem of the extraordinarily puffed-up ‘nerd’ culture,” Charles C.W. Cooke writes in National Review before descending into a lunatic rant about science-minded people “babbling about statistics” and their imagined contempt of those who are Southern, politically conservative, religious and patriotic. (He likes the term “one suspects.”)

Hoo-ha. We’ve seen this movie before. Drumming up resentment against the educated “elite” has been a time-honored way to flatter and comfort struggling Americans — and thus win their votes on the cheap.

Still, it was odd to find this anti-science bombast in the magazine founded by the exquisitely cultivated William F. Buckley — a gentleman whose life mission was to lift conservatism from this kind of boobery.

I’m looking, looking, for something Tyson has said that could be construed as pushing a liberal, much less left-wing, agenda. Cooke conjures up a link so flimsy it would have been laughed out of court at the Scopes Monkey Trial. Tyson, he states, can be “pointed to as the sort of person who wouldn’t vote for Ted Cruz.”

Well, that clinches it. Though let’s ignore for the moment that the same would go for most Republicans I know.

More to the point, Tyson has never said anything publicly about Cruz. But he did serve on George W. Bush’s Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond. And he has disappointed many on the left for dismissing fears over genetically modified foods as scientifically unfounded.

Could the problem be that Tyson is a man of color with a doctorate in astrophysics from Columbia University? That’s hard to believe, though who knows what lurks in those murky fumes.

The probable problem with Tyson is that he is genial and speaks with the common touch but gives no quarter to those demanding scientific ignorance of their public figures. Those are admirable qualities — in most of the developed world.

Meanwhile, why would a well-adjusted person feel threatened by the obvious fact that our top scientists know a lot more about their subject than he or she probably does?

Hey, we’re back at the planetarium, watching the space show under the huge dome, Tyson narrating. He’s talking about supernovas and pulsars.

After about three minutes, I’m totally lost. So are others in the audience. But we settle back and enjoy the spectacular show — all that cosmic matter up there, collapsing and then exploding in beautiful clouds of blue and pink.

That other Americans know this stuff should be a source of pride. Prowess in the sciences has always been one of the foundations of American greatness. Is the national interest to be sacrificed on the altar of whatever’s eating at the far right?

Face it. Tyson’s foes have got the ignorance vote all wrapped up. And don’t underestimate it.

But if science educators like Tyson are drinking $16 cocktails in hotels — as National Review’s steamed-up screed would have it — the patriotic response is not resentment. It’s to pick up the tab.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at [email protected]. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at

Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls via Wikimedia Commons

Want more political news and analysis? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

  • Dominick Vila

    The fact that members of the GOP-TP loathe science and facts is not news. In fact, it is almost required rhetoric since it proves, time and again, how devoid of reality the GOP claims are, and how dismal their record of governance is. They also hate education, and even success, when the successful person happens to be an ethnic minority. Last, but not least, is the need to feed the ignorant zealots, who constitute the most loyal members of the Republican base, the raw meat they love to hear.

    • sleepvark

      Agreed, the man is guilty of being black. Kind of like our president. Such a terrible crime, being successful while being black . . .

      • holyreality

        I bet affirmative action! gave NGT his degree too!

        • Independent1

          And your point is?

          • holyreality

            Apologies, I thought it was enough over the top to be taken as sarcasm.

          • Independent1

            Probably my fault. I didn’t catch the sarcasm; I’m probably too used to snarky trolls posting on the NM.

  • Jambi

    Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson “scares the hell” out of the Mike Huckabees of the world… a black scientist who “thinks”….that’s as scary as a black President!!

  • Allan Richardson

    Anyone who sticks to facts will annoy fanatics of any persuasion from time to time. The fanatics on the left (who, frankly, are much LESS dangerous than those on the right) refusing to vaccinate their kids and condemning ALL genetically modified foods as (the secular equivalent of) Satanic are causing SOME damage by bringing back bygone diseases and opposing crops that may prevent starvation, but much less than the climate change deniers and their “business” allies who feel they have a “right” to pollute the environment with poisonous by-products of their more “efficient” processes without any liability.

    As for genetically modified organisms, the reasonable view, promoted by Tyson, is that SOME organisms used in SOME ways are for the good of humanity, while some may be used for evil purposes or have evil side effects. Millions of diabetics, for example, take insulin made in yeast cells that have been altered with the human gene for producing insulin. Without this breakthrough, many of these patients would suffer reactions against the insulin of pigs and cattle; and besides, there aren’t that many pigs and cattle slaughtered for meat anyway. And since yeast can also be modified with genes for many other proteins, a wide variety of drugs to help patients could be developed using the same principles.

  • daffodilly

    The nightmare of the put-upon American Redneck is coming to pass. Well educated, well spoken, intelligent, black men and women of all colors being recognized for their contributions to our society. Apparently, that hate thing just ain’t working.

  • James Bowen

    Both sides of the political spectrum have more than their fair share of science deniers. On the right side we have the climate change deniers and evolution deniers. On the left side, however, we also have those who are irrationally opposed to nuclear power, those who downplay or deny the threat of overpopulation (and mass immigration’s contribution to it in the U.S. and Canada), on top of the irrational opposition to genetically modified crops. Too many partisans on both sides, unfortunately, let their political dogma get in the way of conclusions supported by scientific evidence.

    • whodatbob

      Thanks for acknowledging that we in the middle have known for some time. Both sides have radical wing nuts.

      • James Bowen

        You are welcome.

      • sleepvark

        I would disagree with the lumping of left and right wing nuts together. It’s an apples and oranges kind of thing.
        The right wing nuts deny the science.
        The activists on the left don’t do that at all. They question the morality of the use of some of the science. A big difference.
        There are valid arguments on both sides of the nuke question(s) having to do with morality vs efficacy. I for one would rather use nuclear energy to help solve certain distribution problems, most having to do with pollution. I doubt the validity of many of the fears promulgated by the other side of the argument, but I have to respect their moral stance. They do not deny the science. Those who oppose my opinion in this matter (use of nuke tech) are well educated people of good will, and I enjoy knowing them and interacting with them and am proud to have them as friends.
        I cannot say anything like that for the right wing nuts. The most generous thing that can be said of them is that they are ignorant redneck blowhards, and a sad reflection on any efforts taken in the past to educate them beyond second grade.

  • stcroixcarp

    Poor Bill Buckley. For all his smarts, he never did figure out that conservatives are congenitally inclined to boobery.

  • ExRadioGuy15

    Not only is NDT a nice man, he also represents the GOP nightmare: an intelligent African-American man who sees through the Fascist BS of the GOP…

  • pszymeczek

    Science has a well-known liberal bias…