By Prarthana Mitra
At a time when gender discrimination and “bro-culture” in the tech world are leading to walk-outs and mobilising protests all over the world, eminent astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson faced multiple allegations of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behaviour over the past week. The host of Cosmos: Possible Worlds, a popular pop-science show on Fox, disputed the claims made by at least three women he met across thirty years in the field.
Fox Broadcasting as well as National Geographic (that was to air the reboot next year) said they would investigate the allegations on Friday. The following day, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where Dr. Tyson directs the Hayden Planetarium, said it would look into the accusations as well.
The case against denial
“Accusations can damage a reputation and a marriage,” he wrote. “Sometimes irreversibly. I see myself as loving husband and as a public servant — a scientist and educator who serves at the will of the public,” he said, referring to Alie Young, whom married in 1988. He addressed each allegation in the greatest detail, described two as benign gestures, and suggested that the third had not occurred.
It has disturbed some of his most ardent fans, how he exploited outlandish scientific theories and misappropriated anthropological constructs to justify the accusations levied against him.
First accusation and rejoinder
The first, reported on the website Patheos, was a horrifying account made by one Tchiya Amet El Maat, who had publicly accused Tyson of raping her in 1984, when they were graduate students at the University of Texas. In an interview on Saturday, she recalled him giving her a drink of water, her blacking out, realising she was naked on his bed after coming to senses, and being raped again before passing out for the second time. No charges of sexual assault were pressed at the time owing to the Texan 10-year statute of limitations.
Tyson’s claims that they were in a “brief relationship” were refuted by Amet. He also put the entire experience down to there not being enough “chemistry”, further questioning her memory 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, in an attempt to establish Amet’s testimony as dubious.
Second accusation and rejoinder
Katelyn N. Allers, an associate professor at Bucknell University, Pennsylvania, also told Patheos about her “uncomfortable and creepy” meeting Dr. Tyson in 2009 at a party after an American Astronomical Society. Tyson’s obsession with her solar system tattoo ended with him following it into her dress, alleged Allers, referring to the body art which stretched from an arm to her collarbone.
Missing the entire point about consent and respecting private space, Tyson said that ever since Pluto had been written off as a planet, it interested him greatly to know “whether people include it or not in their tattoos”. He said he never knew it made Allers uncomfortable, writing “it was never my intent and I’m deeply sorry to have made her feel that way”.
Third accusation and rejoinder
Ashley Watson, who began as Dr. Tyson’s assistant on Cosmos, said in an interview on Saturday that after accepting an invitation to his place to “unwind for a couple of hours” (in Tyson’s words), she found herself in an uncomfortable position as he proceeded to show her a Native American handshake, which involved clasping their hands together and finding the pulse on the other person’s wrist, while looking into each other’s eyes. She said she broke it off after about 10 seconds, and stood up to leave.
Before this exchange, she was also told that “as human beings, we all need release”, and asked if there were any “releases” she needed. As she was leaving, she said, he told her, “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.”
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.” When she brought this to her supervisor’s notice, she was made to quit.
In his Facebook post, Tyson defended each of his moves, calling the hug a gesture of genuine affection he extended to all new friends, and claiming that it was Watson who freely offered hugs which he typically deflected. He added he had apologised profusely to her after she notified how creeped out she had felt, and that she accepted his apology.
Ann Druyan, an executive producer and director of the new Cosmos (originally a Carl Sagan show from the 80s), told the press, “I’m sick about this.” Ms. Druyan said, “The core of our shows is that it matters what’s true. No matter what, that means we will absolutely follow the evidence where it leads.”
Interestingly, Tyson also described evidence as a cornerstone of every claim. “But what happens when it’s just one person’s word against another’s, and the stories don’t agree?” he asked, continuing, “That’s when people tend to pass judgment on who is more credible than whom. And that’s when an impartial investigation can best serve the truth – and would have my full cooperation to do so.”
The glaring evidence in cases of sexual assault allegations is offered by this study which proves that only 2-10% of women lie or have a reason to lie about being abused, and have nothing but public scrutiny and victim shaming to “gain” from it.
The author of famous books such as Death by Black Hole and Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Tyson was also selected to serve on a 2001 government commission on the future of the American aerospace industry, and on the 2004 Moon, Mars and Beyond commission. He was awarded the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal in the same year. Since 2009, Tyson has hosted the immensely popular weekly podcast StarTalk. Tyson’s impressive body of work now remains overcast by these allegations pending investigation and following the shameful apology note that betrays his egregious abuse of power and position, more than it defends.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius