Analysis: Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s #MeToo Accusations And His Response

Oh, great…the Harvey Weinstein Ethics Train Wreck is still making stops and picking up passengers. This time the target is Neil deGrasse Tyson who someone, actually several somones, decided was a powerful man too full of himself who needed to be taken down a peg or sixty, and thus he has been accused–Democratic Senators would say “credibly” accused—of two episodes of sexual harassment and one rape. This is no trivial matter for Tyson, whose carefully constructed image as the new Carl Sagan is now in real danger. So is his job, his celebrity, his reputation and perhaps his marriage.

The three accusations belong in two boxes. The two sexual harassment claims may bolster each other, for harassing is an attitude, a habit, and a form of ethics blindness. Real harassers never do it just once. Rape is something else entirely, and, obviously, far more serious, since it is a crime.

Let’s examine each of the accusations, and Tyson’s defense, which he issued in a long Facebook post over the weekend.

Accusation #1:

Workplace Harassment: Hostile work environment and Unwanted sexual advances (2018)

Ashley Watson, who began a job as Dr. Tyson’s assistant on “Cosmos” in the spring, told an interviewer that on one occasion he asked if she would like to come to his home to share a bottle of wine and “unwind for a couple of hours.” She agreed to come in for one glass, she said, believing that they were going to talk about work and her future assignments.

Once in the astronomer’s apartment, she said, he told her that “as human beings, we all need release,” and asked if there were any “releases” she needed.  (Oh-oh!) As she began to leave a while later,  and he asked if she would let her show her  a Native American handshake.” This required clasping their hands together , finding the pulse on the other person’s wrist, and looking into each other’s eyes. (Super Oh-oh, and also “You’ve got to be kidding me.”) She says that it made her uncomfortable, and she broke it off after about 10 seconds.

As she was again trying to leave, she says Dyson commented, “I want you to know that I want to hug you so bad right now, but I know that if I do I’ll just want more.”

Then, the next day, he told her, “You say you want to be a producer, but it’s always going to be an uphill battle for you because you’re too distracting.”

She says told a supervisor ,a line producer,about what had happened, and that she was quitting.. The supervisor, asked Watson if she wanted to file a complaint. She said no. The supervisor suggested she tell her co-workers that she was leaving because of a family emergency, which she did.

Comment: If accurately described, this is slam dunk sexual harassment. The apartment visit is an extension of the workplace. If it is a veiled “date,” Tyson has crossed a line because he is the woman’s supervisor with hiring and firing power. She cannot consent meaningfully. The release comment, depending on the delivery and context, is creepy and plausibly sexual in intent, unless he also said, “Me? I like to watch baseball. How about you?” The “Native American handshake” sounds like a nifty version of the old “shoulder rub.” Now there has been touching, and forced eye-gazing. Ew. The last comment at the apartment  is also a sexual advance, especially in context with the rest.

Tyson’s Explanation: Not good. In his Facebook post,  Tyson described the handshake as one he uses “in appreciation of people with whom I’ve developed new friendships.” He said that at work, Ms. Watson freely offered hugs, which he typically rejected, but that on a few occasions, he “clumsily declared, ‘If I hug you I might just want more.’”

“My intent was to express restrained but genuine affection,” he wrote.

He also wrote that . Watson had come into his office after the incident in his apartment and told him she had been “creeped out.” He said he had “apologized profusely” and that she had accepted the apology.

Comment: Tyson’s defense is essentially “I didn’t mean anything by it, she construed it the wrong way, and anyway, she accepted my apology.” Those are three excuses, none of which carries any weight in sexual harassment cases. It’s what the harasser did, and how the harassed felt about it that matter. His apology and her acceptance of it, even if true, do not and cannot undo the event. The encounter and his words  made her uncomfortable working with him, and objectively, anyone can see why. It is also interesting that Tyson doesn’t deny the “release” conversation, or his later comment about her being a distraction.

Since Watson had to leave her job, this episode could justify a lawsuit for sexual harassment.

Accusation #2: Sexual assault (2009)

Katelyn N. Allers, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, told the website Patheos about meeting Dr. Tyson in 2009 at a party after a gathering of the American Astronomical Society. Dr. Allers has a tattoo of the solar system extending from an arm to her collarbone. She said Dr. Tyson was “obsessed” with whether the tattoo included Pluto. “He looked for Pluto, and followed the tattoo into my dress,” she now says. She did not object at the time. Now she says she found the incident “creepy” and that it made him uncomfortable.

Tyson’s Explanation: Tyson, who is, as if it wasn’t obvious already, a big enough nerd to have a continuing part on “Big Bang Theory,” noted that Pluto had lost its planet status p three years earlier, “so whether people include it or not in their tattoos is of great interest to me.” He said he did not know until now that Dr. Allers had been uncomfortable. “That was never my intent and I’m deeply sorry to have made her feel that way,” he wrote.

Comment: This sounds similar to the episode that got Garrison Keillor fired, but in that case the NPR star was in the workplace, and his victim was an employee. The episode would be an absurd basis for a sexual assault charge, and Allers sounds like the kind of professor who would turn up at a Congressional hearing decades later to tell the story.  They were equals, it was a party, he was out of line, she should have put a stop to it, and could have. Yup, Tyson was wrong, rude, disrespectful, and may indeed ne so clueless that he didn’t realize it. For Allers to raise this nine years later, however, is unfair, and mean.

That said, the episode does put the 2018 accusation in context. Tyson clearly doesn’t get it, and the 2009 party assault lends credibility to the 2018 accusation. Men like this engage in sexual harassment and have no idea that they are doing anything wrong.

In addition, his statement that “whether people include [Pluto] or not in their tattoos is of great interest to me” doesn’t pass the giggle test. How many people have tattoos  of the solar system, even in Tyson’s world?

Accusation #3: Rape (1984)

Tchiya Amet El Maat  has publicly accused  Tyson of raping her in 1984 when they were both graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin. She says recalled  Tyson giving her a drink of water that apparently caused her to become unconscious. She was naked and on his bed when she woke up, and when he saw she was awake, he started having sex with her. She says she passed out again, was blacked out much of the night.

In 2014, she filed a report with the Austin police, but her complaint was not investigated because Texas has a 10-year statute of limitation on sexual assault charges. Her report came 30 years after the alleged incident. She also says she never had a relationship with Tyson.

Tyson’s Explanation: He denies the whole thing. Tyson says El Maat and he  had a brief relationship and that they had been “intimate only a few times, all at her apartment.”  He finds the timing of the accusation suspicious, “as my visibility-level took another jump,” and notes that she says she cannot remember much of the night. “It is as though a false memory had been implanted, which, because it never actually happened, had to be remembered as an evening she doesn’t remember,” he wrote.

Comment: He said/she said, a decades-old incident, no substantiation. Tyson should be presumed innocent, and there is no reason to believe the female accuser, and many reasons to doubt her veracity and motives. Of course, what Tyson says now would be identical whether he was guilty or not. He is, or should be, considered innocent until proven guilty. Tyson’s progressive colleagues, fans and allies don’t believe in that principle, as we learned during the Kavanaugh hearings.

Good luck, Dr. Tyson.

A spokeswoman for the Museum of Natural History said  that the museum was reviewing the recent allegations. “The museum is not aware of any other allegations and has received no complaints,” she said. Fox and National Geographic said in a statement that they had “only just become aware of the recent allegations regarding Neil deGrasse Tyson.”

“We take these matters very seriously and we are reviewing the recent reports,” they said.

I don’t know what good reviewing them will do., but if they are fair, the likely conclusion is this:

  • The rape accusation should be discounted. It is too late, too foggy, unprovable, and unfair.
  • The 2009 accusation is likely accurate, but by itself would be  something that a mature, fair colleague would forgive. However, it does show a man whose ethics alarms don’t work very well around women.
  • The 2018 episode was sexual harassment. Should Tyson forfeit his career because of it? He’s a scientist and TV personality, not a judge or an elected official. He needs to learn how to conduct himself professionally, and he should retire the “Native American handshake.” I would put him on probation, without having a lot of hope that he could avoid other sexual misconduct in the future, since he seems profoundly clueless.

My guess is, however, that he’s finished.

And the Harvey Weinstein Ethics Train Wreck just keeps rolling..


Source: New York Times


31 thoughts on “Analysis: Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s #MeToo Accusations And His Response

  1. I don’t know. I would have given him better odds of surviving when I thought he was a Democrat, but when I checked his politics, he tries to be apolitical. I’m guessing he leans that way based on some of his tweets and social justice activism. I’m doubting he will get the hype, but he may be forced into the shadows.

  2. I think the point about putting him on probation is what’s missing from the attitude toward men’s overstepping the new (and they still are new) sexual boundaries of social behavior. All of a sudden, there’s no middle ground, just as Due Process has been tossed in the garbage. It’s a “do (as we say you must do) or die” situation. Losing one’s job, reputation, and whatever else is left — it would be a funny cartoon strip of a silly general being systematically stripped of his medals, his shirt, his pants, down to whatever’s left hiding behind his crossed hands if it weren’t actually happening. It’s a manhunt, meant to (it has been so stated) make every boy and man run scared, trap them in the headlines, and bring down as many as possible, regardless of their innocence, their families or their value.

    I’m rather sorry you go along ethically with the decision to use the label of (the also relatively new) “sexual harassment” as well. This insistence on women complaining after being annoyed being turned into anything more than a “creep out,” is being used as a weapon. In almost all the cases I’ve seen reported so far, it’s also firing blanks.

    By her own report, Ms. Watson (1) agreed to go to his apartment. Period. I’m not even going to enumerate the rest including the pulse taking torture that she endured without a single excuse, “I have a sore wrist. Let go, please” just as false as his own pretenses. ‘”Excuse me, I have to get home; I have a pile of laundry to do!” “Oh, I’m sorry. Didn’t I tell you I only had time for a glass? My boyfriend’s waiting for me.” smiling and leaving him with an out. Does she find out later that he’s passing remarks about her? Possibly. If she didn’t make it clear from the beginning of her employment that she was an available part of the office machinery, she wouldn’t have been in that situation. Am I saying it was her fault? Hell, yes. …Talk about slippery slopes!

    Dr. Allers: “he followed the tattoo into my dress” is more of the same. If he was following the tattoo, it was with a finger, a finger that can be softly closed into one’s fist and bent back until his “uncle” is the elephant in the room. Don’t want to cause a fuss at the time? Then it wasn’t important enough to do it later.

    Harassment was originally defined as torment, as annoyance to the point of exhaustion. Legally, it varies by state, but usually fits “a course of conduct which annoys, threatens, intimidates, alarms, or puts a person in fear of their safety.” Exactly. Nonsense. All the way from “annoy.” If real physical harm of any kind is in the cards and your exit is blocked – kick, scratch, scream and run. Being “creeped out” is “eeuw”: that’s disgust, not fear. And safety is not endangered by a creepy finger crawling toward your breast. It’s the piling of one on another on another, however controllable the situation may have been in the first place, that makes it a killing point. It is a tactic in an underhanded, undeclared war. (see Kavanagh in the New Woman’s Dictionary. Not a single one of the accusations stands up on in its own merits. )

    This has all be said before here. I’m going out on a limb — because I have as much respect for Our Leader as anyone else posting here — and saying that it is not right, it is not ethical, to reproduce these situations and call the men’s petty advances unstoppable and unethical by default. Is this really the only way women can defend themselves? By ruining the livelihoods and lives of the men they couldn’t deal with in social situations?

    No. What it is is a nasty, ugly, back-stabbing revenge by women who are now teaching a new generation of females that they all are being wronged every day in every way because some or many women have been wronged in the past . [Where have we heard this before?] It has been put into place so fast, with the new vocabulary to give it special importance, that that alone should tell us it cannot be just, nor correct. The same can be said about transgender folks and toilet use. Forcing people who don’t understand what the hell you’re doing invading the most private of their privacy and making laws to the effect that you have to comply with it, that’s bad enough. No one has had time to adjust to the idea, to participate in the decision, not even to begin to understand what is going on. In a way, the “sexual harassment” accusations are worse, because they paved the way for “cry rape” without anything about rape being comprehended.

    It really isn’t. And the more me-too criers, the more incomprehension about what rape is.

    Rape became a four-letter headline everywhere in the United States without ever really being studied — it’s one of the most complex subjects with many variations and degrees of physical harm, with differentiation from battery or other assault or sexual activity, or with even more variety of emotional reactions in both short- and long-term –, without knowing how many women have actually, via medical evidence, been raped, or thought they were, or cried crocodile style; without having enough facts and statistics piled up to even begin taking the police and the hospital personnel, the courts and the education system, and both boys and girls to task, to begin to CHANGE BEHAVIOR. Too fast, too furious.

    You can’t change acceptable, entrenched behavior overnight, or over three years, or ever . . . by legislating it! Making the law is not something you do first, as far as common habits are concerned. Even smoking bans took four decades to take fire and that was interfering with a physical addiction that was finally proven — proven to the public! — to have dangerous second-hand health effects on all of us. Strange as it sounds, the kinds of studies that took place about tobacco need to be done about rape, which means that it has to be … oh dear! … discussed. Not advertised in 40 point headlines. Not in terms of the bad rapist or would-be or wannabe or harasser that maybe may sometime become, but with knowledge aforethought.

    Pile Pelion on Ossa in the reverse direction and see where it goes.

    Unfortunately, because so much was foisted on the public so fast, with so much un- or misunderstanding, that the venue for discussion and teaching about rape – what it is and its effects – are all but gone. The “new” ideas are killing sex ed. What’s left is a (dirty) joke in most schools, an embarrassment to parents, a dead issue that was aborted.

    I am not dismissing anyone’s pain or harm, nor am I inserting any personal examples. This is a matter of a large part of our society acceding to use of vocabulary without definition (or with twisting it to mean anything some people want it to mean) and using it to accuse and attack. Labeling unpleasantness like what is now being called “sexual harassment” and all the way to “rape”, when we don’t even know what they are, seems unethical to me.

    • The problem is that the stuff described by the first accuser was sexual harassment—I’m talking about the law, now—decades ago. Decades. An with always the same intro: this is an area that that laws can’t handle very well. Of course it could and should be handled by simple communication, with lines being drawn and enforced informally. But we can’t put then onus on the victim, not when her job is on the line. Yes: she should have been out the door with the “release” comments. Yes, the “handshake” was transparent creepiness, but no employee should be put in that position.

      I wouldn’t use “sexual harassment” if it was my choice, but holy crap, what excuse does any man have for not knowing the lines in the workplace now? I would call the offense what it’s been for centuries: being a rude, unethical jerk and trying to use power and the workplace to enhance one’s love life. Too long, though.

      • I actually think the rule — that about a man or woman in a so-called *position of power* can’t make a pass at anyone not equal — is a bad rule. I recognize the reason why it is established, and I do not support any person who abuses authority to aid in their seductions, but to legislate laws and rules to insert between people seems wrong. (Camille Paglia, for example, writes at length against this sort of thing).

        I would place all the blame and responsibility in this Ashley Watson instance completely on her. It is very simple: If a man asks a woman to his apartment to drink and ‘relax’ that woman should know, immediately, what is going on and should decline and explain, clearly, that she is not interested.

        If she cannot prove her case (if she does not have recordings, videos, or a witness) and she accuses a man as Ashley Watson has done, and thereby does financial and reputation harm to him, there should be mechanisms in place where she must pay damages.

        To give women that sort of power — to topple a man on a mere accusation — is to invite abuse.

        • I don’t understand her belief that she thought this was about her career. Did he tell her he was going to go over her job assignments to get her to come to his apartment?

          In a professional environment, I don’t think anyone should be invited to someone’s apartment to discuss one’s career. That’s a big red flag to me. I suppose in the entertainment business (this was for his show “Cosmos”), it may be a common practice to meet in someone’s hotel room or home to chat about the business, but I don’t understand why. That type of setting seems ripe for sleazy advances (and, in the case of Weinstein, clearly was) or, at the very least, misunderstandings that lead to accusations.

        • Did Watson consider channeling her inner ​Lena Dunham?

          Dunham did, after all, come to the defense of her diddlin’ perv Girls writer/executive producer Murray Miller a while back.

          Why did she not offer him up for immediate castration prior to being hanged-n-shot?

          Because her “own heart and mind had been COLONIZED BY PATRIARCHY and (because of) the ways my own ignorance operated even as a survivor of multiple sexual assaults,” (bolds/caps mine)

          Gotta tell you, I haven’t read a heapin’ steamin’ redolent pile of Happy Horse Shit like that in a looooooong time.

      • Question. Is it always unethical or sexual harassment to date your boss? My girlfriend dated her boss awhile ago. I’m curious how that happened but don’t really want to ask haha. Maybe she initiated it.

      • I hear you, Jack. But all I see from the descriptions of the incidents is the lowest level “annoyance” factor. There is also a string of negative adjectives to describe a woman who leads a man to think she is fair game — such as accepting an invitation to his apartment in the first place . . . and who then goes and reports the (hoped for/inevitable) results to a higher level (in this case even a co-worker would outstrip Tyson’s power with that scenario).

        If the dialog here is verbatim, however, Ms. Watson has to have been intent on getting out of there as fast as possible before she burst out laughing. That might have taken the situation to a real “sexual harassment” level.

  3. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. He’s a pompous ass, and his obnoxious comment about last Christmas soured me permanently on him. The left lit a fire with #metoo, and now it’s burning their own up.

    • Yes, pretty amazing. He’s an astronomer of color and a Deacon in the United Church of Climate Change. Of course, all that money didn’t save Harvey Weinstein and all that lefty earnestness didn’t save Matt Lauer or Charlie (“Hustle”) Rose. Today’s question of the day: Is there an English word for “schadenfreude?”

      • Is there an English word for “schadenfreude?”


        English borrowed the word because there is no close term for the concept.

        You might use “armchair malice” but the shades of meaning differ.

    • Sagan would never be a legend today- he was too sincere, and we hate sincerity unless we can look back on it through a nostalgic lens (see also: Fred Rogers, Bob Ross). Snarky one-liners are what it takes to be beloved by the masses today, and if you’re not reminding people that you know more than them do you even count as an intellectual?

      • …we hate sincerity unless we can look back on it through a nostalgic lens

        As Linus found when spending Halloween night in a pumpkin patch: sincerity makes for a lonely night.

        • P.S. See also George H.W. Bush, who the media has plenty of positive things to say about now that he has died. In life and in office, not so much. Not that I would particularly enjoy the media cutting loose the same way Ted Rall did at the death of Ronald Reagan, but, as much as I don’t like Ted, at least he was consistent. He didn’t like Reagan in life and he didn’t like him after he had died. However, my own occasional attempts to follow suit on social media upon the death of public figures (notably Ted Kennedy) who I didn’t like were ah, not received well.

  4. I think I pretty much agree with all this. Tyson is a socially inept, uncouth lout. He doesn’t deserve to be fired, but if he is, I’ll have trouble shedding a tear mainly because his own political belief system is driving his fate. Something about being hoist on ones own petard comes to mind.

  5. I am not sure I see the problem with #2. I don’t know if he was married at the time, but I am pretty certain he was trying to flirt with Dr. Allers. They were at a scientific meeting, it was the get-together after the day of talks and posters, and there was drinking. This happens at every large scientific meeting.
    There also is flirting. This is a bunch of physicists at a physics convention. Overly geeky flirting/half flirting is not unheard of. You can’t make every attempt to flirt a criminal case if that attempt is not welcome. As Dr. Allers herself says, she didn’t object at the time. It probably was a little ridiculous and funny at the time.

    Now, #1 is a big problem. He is a faculty member. He has gone to innumerable sexual-harassement seminar, worksheets, training sessions, quizzes, etc. He would know this is wrong. Now, have I seen people brush all this aside before? Yes, I have. I also pointed out to superiors each time that it shouldn’t be allowed. Could she be making this up? Maybe, but he admits he invited her to his apartment, to giving a weird ‘handshake’ that requires pulse-taking, and making an almost certainly inappropriate comment to her. He knows not to do that. The last one is perhaps excusable (who hasn’t said something stupid before?), but asking her alone to his apartment just crosses the line for me. If she is lying about what happened in the apartment, he opened that door by inviting her there.

    As for #3, waiting 30 years to make an accusation is a big red flag for me. If you didn’t say anything about it earlier, you need to just keep your mouth shut now. It may seem unfair, but requiring someone to try to defend themselves from a accusation from so long ago is profoundly unfair.

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