Astrophysicist and educator Neil Degrasse Tyson has taken to Facebook to refute recent allegations of sexual misconduct.
The esteemed director of New York's Hayden Planetarium claims that he's never acted with malicious intent towards a woman, but recognizes that he needs to "be more sensitive to people's personal space."
A total of three women have accused the Cosmos host, who is now under investigation by his networks Fox and National Geographic. In November, the religion and spirituality website Patheos published the accounts of two former colleagues who claim that Tyson made inappropriate overtures in their professional interactions. More incendiary, back in 2014, a former classmate from Tyson's graduate program filed a report with the Austin Police Department that he'd violated her while she was "blacked out" and unconscious after he'd plied her with a drink that "possibly contained a date rape drug."
In response, on Saturday Tyson published an open letter, "On Being Accused." In roughly 1,600 words, Tyson recounts his perspective on each of the three instances in question. He begins, "For a variety of reasons, most justified, some unjustified, men accused of sexual impropriety in today's 'me-too' climate are presumed to be guilty by the court of public opinion. Emotions bypass due-process, people choose sides, and the social media wars begin."
What proceeds in the letter is at best a passive aggressive addition to those social media wars—a socially awkward scientist defending his misreading of personal space—and at worst a dismissal of gender-based power dynamics. Tyson doesn't name his three accusers, but paints an innocuous picture of each event, in which he takes responsibility for two of his three alleged actions.
In 2009, fellow physicist Dr. Katelyn N. Allers met Tyson at a social event for the American Astronomical Society; he was reportedly "obsessed" with her tattoo of the solar system and displaced the sleeve of her dress—without asking—to see if the body art included Pluto. In his letter, Tyson surmised, "[W]hile I don't explicitly remember searching for Pluto at the top of her shoulder, it is surely something I would have done in that situation."
During the summer of 2018, Ashley Watson worked as a Production Assistant on Cosmos, assigned to see that Tyson stayed on schedule and transport him to and from work. She's alleged that he made "misogynistic comments" and pressured her to visit his apartment, where he undressed to his undershirt, prepared wine and cheese, and played suggestive music. "It felt very manipulative and strange," Watson told The Post. "I felt like he was expressing that he wanted to have a sexual relationship with me."
Tyson and Allers at the 2009 event in question.Patheos
On Facebook, Tyson lamented that his friendly overtures, including showing his assistant "a special handshake, learned from a Native elder" that consisted of him stroking his thumb over her pulse, were badly misread. He says he felt friendly affection towards Watson, reflecting, "I expressly rejected each hug offered frequently [from Watson] during the Production. But in its place I offered a handshake, and on a few occasions, clumsily declared, 'If I hug you I might just want more.' My intent was to express restrained but genuine affection."
Tyson's tone peaks in defensiveness—perhaps understandably—on the topic of Tchiya Amet El Maat's accusations of "date rape" in 1984. In 2010, Amet even publicly accused Tyson of assaulting her in front of the live audience at NOVA's scienceNOW Cosmic Conversation Event. No investigation was launched due to the statute of limitations, but Amet has since filed an official police report and has written about the incident on her blog.
In Tyson's abbreviated—and frankly dismissive—address of the incident, he says his classmate-turned-accuser "turned out to be the same person who I dated briefly in graduate school" and with whom "the chemistry wasn't there." He continues to question her reputability by plainly implying that she's prone to unreasonable beliefs, writing, "For me, what was most significant, was that in this new life, long after dropping out of astrophysics graduate school, she was posting videos of colored tuning forks endowed with vibrational therapeutic energy that she channels from the orbiting planets. As a scientist, I found this odd." In his own nonsensical assessment, he concludes that the claim is a "false memory...which, because it never actually happened, had to be remembered as an evening she doesn't remember."
Amet took to Twitter to repudiate Tyson's claim that they were ever romantically involved.
Near the end of the letter, Tyson adds, "I note that this allegation was used as a kind of solicitation-bait by at least one journalist to bring out of the woodwork anybody who had any encounter with me that left them uncomfortable."
By Wednesday, the public note had received 37k likes, 9.6k comments, and 7.2k shares. Amidst the many accusations made in this "me-too climate," Tyson's is perhaps the most thorough and direct rebuttal. But it builds a dissatisfying defense that suggests social awkwardness and ignorance of his own stature to fans, colleagues, and subordinates resulted in mere miscommunications. It echoes Sarah Silverman's defense of Louis C.K., that the defamed comedian was unaware of his authority as a major figure in his industry and thus misjudged the pressure he applied when making (far too personal) appeals to women.
Even if we take Tyson at his word, what's the cost of this brand of social awkwardness? Accusers' reports of fears for personal safety are diminished as misunderstanding powerful men's eccentricities. While there is a meaningful line between misread social cues and predatory behavior, negotiating that line cannot become a battle between reputations or a revision of history that turns violations of space into personality quirks.
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