Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Neil deGrasse Tyson

I thought it would be interesting to use, as Neil deGrasse Tyson’s manly picture, an image that he brought up while being interviewed by Joe Rogan (as well as in other instances) from his time as a heavyweight college wrestler:

…in part because I don’t necessarily think of Tyson as…swole. But there you have it. He was an undefeated wrestler and team captain in high school, and went on to wrestle as an undergraduate at Harvard. On the list of astrophysicists you wouldn’t want to fight, Tyson is probably at the top. He may also be the only name on that list.

But it’s been a while since he last wrestled. Obviously, I need to look at Tyson as a scientist, educator and public figure, and for the purposes of this profile, I’ll be looking at the second two.

He founded the Department of Astrophysics at the Museum of Natural History in NYC in 1997, and has had his position as director of the Hayden Planetarium since 1996. He visited the Planetarium as a kid, and that visit was a big part of what got him initially interested in astronomy and astrophysics. Neil deGrasse Tyson is gifted with an amazing voice and eloquent mind, and he was an excellent choice to take over as the personality behind the remake of Cosmos, following in Carl Sagan’s footsteps. He is an effective communicator and educator, with that combination of presence and his enthusiasm for what he has to teach that makes a person compelling.

Tyson has become a public figure primarily through debates over science and religion over the course of the past decade or so. I’ve watched him in debates a number of times, and one thing that stands out to me is that he doesn’t take crap from anyone. He isn’t acerbic or self-absorbed or unnecessarily harsh; he is direct and clear and uncompromising. He is able to acknowledge and speak about what some might call the spirituality of science without leaving room for anything he feels lacks sufficient evidence to justify belief. That is, he can talk about the numinous without having to refer to the divine, nor even leave grey area where others might want to reference god or the supernatural. For Tyson, the natural is more than enough.

For being uncompromising while remaining gracious, for serving as an example of more than one kind of strength, and for being someone who has become a public figure because of his intelligence, eloquence, and integrity, Neil deGrasse Tyson is today’s Profile in Positive Masculinity.

5 thoughts on “Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Neil deGrasse Tyson

  1. When it comes to astrophysics, Tyson has been the lead author of a handful of forgettable papers. He flunked his doctoral dissertation the first try at U.T.. Columbia was his second try.

    When it comes to popularizing science, his routine is over simplified pop science and history and it’s frequently flat out wrong. How does he get away with disseminating misinformation? Because, like most people, his audience will swallow B.S. if it reaffirms their prejudices. Also his audience is generally clueless when it comes to science and history.


    • I appreciate the comment, though clearly I disagree. I don’t think the link you provide justifies the word “frequently” – I’d say “very occasionally” for someone who has been a science educator for 20 years and an ardent detractor can find only seventeen (alleged – I won’t have the time to go through them all) mistakes, five of which they feel are (allegedly) significant. (The two bold examples I read were in my view not significant in one case, and retracted in the other, so I’m very skeptical) I’m also obviously not on board with the idea that his success is based on his audience being biased and clueless. But, all that being said, clearly not everyone is going to be a fan.


      • “and an ardent detractor can find only seventeen”

        Nope. I am the author of that post. It is not a complete list. I could give more but only have so much time and energy. Here’s a few more not in that list:
        Tyson’s claims on painful sex
        In the Joe Rogan interview he conflates the observer effect with the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle. They are two different things.
        He has said golf balls on the moon have reached earth escape velocity.
        His comments on Deflategate.

        Moreover, Tyson is repetitive. He may have been giving talks over decades. But much of his material is repeated year after year.

        He started giving the Bush and Star Names talk in 2006. And kept on giving until 2014 when it was soundly debunked by Sean Davis. Tyson had Bush trying to sow division in the wake of 9-11, attempting “to distinguish we from they.” But Bush’s actual speech was a call for tolerance and inclusion, exactly the opposite of the xenophobic demagogue from Tyson’s fantasy world. Moreover, Bush and his administration have repeatedly condemned anti-Muslim rhetoric. Colin Powell played a large part in bring Corporal Kareem Kahn’s sacrifice to public attention.

        How on earth did the self proclaimed skeptics in Tyson’s audience swallow this false history year after year after year? Because it was an unflattering portrait of a Christian Republican president. LIke anyone else, they are happy to swallow BS if it reaffirms their prejudices.

        The Tyson video on Bush and Star Names:

        A Colin Power interview where he talks about Kareem Kahn

        You said one of my examples was retracted. Which one?


        • This one:

          “I’ve been reading Ghazali’s writings to get some of his statements in context. I’ve come to the conclusion that Ghazali does indeed discourage his followers from pursuing the discipline of mathematics. Tyson has a point. But it is wrong to say Ghazali characterized math as the work of the devil.”

          That is, you end by saying that Tyson’s point is basically correct, but just quibble with his exact language.

          From my point of view – this blog has 11 years of posts on it, gathered up from a couple of previous incarnations. If someone went through and only found 17, or even 20, mistakes I’d made, the majority of which aren’t even significant in their estimation, I would be shocked and pleased. But I understand your issues with Tyson, I think – I’m just not persuaded to share them to a significant degree.


          • “That is, you end by saying that Tyson’s point is basically correct, but just quibble with his exact language.”

            Errrr… No. Saying exercise caution when driving a car wouldn’t be remotely the same as saying cars are the invention of Satan.

            And the claim that Islamic innovation stopped with Ghazali is also false. There were many Islamic mathematicians and scientists in the centuries following Ghazali. The father of symbolic algebra was born 300 years after Ghazali’s death.

            “If someone went through and only found 17, or even 20, mistakes I’d made, ”

            If someone found 4 examples of you basing your arguments on invented history your credibility would be compromised. Or at least it should be. But in entertainment and celebrity are more important that rigor and accuracy in this era of Tyson and Trump.


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