Sunday, September 28, 2014

Tyson's excuse is absence of evidence

I mentioned that Tyson used a bogus quote to bash Bush, and he replied:
I have explicit memory of those words being spoken by the President. 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.

FYI: There are two kinds of failures of memory. One is remembering that which has never happened and the other is forgetting that which did. In my case, from life experience, I’m vastly more likely to forget an incident than to remember an incident that never happened. 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.

One of our mantras in science is that the absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence.
That is a stupid mantra. It allows people to promote all sorts of unscientific nonsense.

Someone could say, "Sure there is no evidence for psychokinesis, but that does not mean there is evidence against psychokinesis." Or substitute astrology, parallel universes, higher dimensions, quantum computing, or whatever is your favorite belief that lacks evidence.

In this case, G.W. Bush's post-9/11 public statements were all logged. The sillier ones ended up in a Michael Moore movie. If the quote is not on the record, then Bush did not say it. In public for Tyson to hear it, anyway.

A lot of people believe that the 9/11 WTC hit was just a battle in a multi-century war between Christendom and Islam. Bush is a Christian, so it is fair to assume that he believes Christianity to be superior to Islam. He may have even used the word "crusade" by mistake. But he certainly never publicly framed this as a religious war, with the Christian God on our side.

Not only is the quote wrong, but the larger point about the President announcing a religious war is wrong also. Bush's statements were similar to what the President said last week:
At the same time, we have reaffirmed again and again that the United States is not and never will be at war with Islam. Islam teaches peace. ... So we reject any suggestion of a clash of civilizations. Belief in permanent religious war is the misguided refuge of extremists ...
The other misquotes are in support of stupid points also. I know of areas where the community would be very upset if half their schools were below average, as "average" would probably mean on the state standardized tests. There are also issues where my personal views have changed 360 degrees. There is nothing wrong with a congressman saying, “I have changed my views 360 degrees on that issue.” In some cases, their views might change 180 degrees every time a lobbyist walks in his office. Two such changes, and his view have changed 360 degrees.

Electrons have to rotate 720 degrees to get back to their original state, so maybe a clever congressman might say that his views changed 720 degrees.

I am all in favor of making fun of politicians for saying something stupid, but these things are not stupid without additional context. There are plenty of better examples. Just look at the above Obama speech to the UN, where he compares Islamic terrorists to Ferguson policemen. Or look at the dumb stuff VP Biden says all the time.

Tyson is still refusing to admit that he made up the Bush quote, that Bush's actual statements were more nearly the opposite, that Tyson was trying to score cheap political points, that those points are entirely false, and that Tyson made up the other quotes as well. I was not looking for an apology. But now I know that he has a disregard for the facts when he tells personal anecdotes.

Update: Tyson now says:
When eager scrutinizers looked for the quote they could not find it, and promptly accused me of fabricating a Presidential sentence. Lawyers are good at this. They find something that you get wrong, and use it to cast doubt on everything else you say. ...

My bad. And I here publicly apologize to the President for casting his quote in the context of contrasting religions rather than as a poetic reference to the lost souls of Columbia. ...

And I will still mention the President’s quote. But instead, I will be the one contrasting what actually happened in the world with what the Bible says: The Arabs named the stars, not Yahweh.
So he will be disproving the Bible instead of Bush? There must be a better way to credit Arab astronomy, if it really matters that some stars have Arab names.

Update: Sean Davis concludes:
After all the strum and drang, Tyson still doesn’t seem to grasp the main issue here: this wasn’t a misquote. It was a fabrication that deliberately created the exact opposite impression of how reality actually transpired. It was the sort of thing a dishonest politician does, not the sort of behavior you’d expect from a scientist who’s allegedly devoted to studying reality.
That's right. I would not be piling on if Tyson just corrected the (mis-)quote, and skipped the argument about how the misquote was okay.

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