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Whatever Neil deGrasse Tyson did, it deterred women from STEM careers

Whatever Neil deGrasse Tyson did, it deterred women from STEM careers
Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson on Dec. 14, 2013. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Everybody has a breaking point. Reading about the sexual harassment and assault allegations against Neil deGrasse Tyson this week, I found mine.

Tyson had always seemed a force for good. Charismatic, entertaining and wicked smart, he’d done what few ever manage: Make science interesting to the public. He demonstrated by example the value of seeking truth, the worth of curiosity and the possibility of a world that operates based on reason and thoughtfulness.

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These ethics are in short supply, and I was thrilled to watch his rise as spokesperson for the universe. That a black man achieved this visibility made me even more glad for his success. He was the role model I never had, and I was delighted to witness his influence on my students.

I don’t know what happened that night between Tyson and El Maat, but it was enough to make her decide to leave the field.


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So it was with dismay that I read about the allegations against him. One came from a former production assistant, Ashley Watson. After inviting her over for wine and ending the evening with a strangely intimate gesture he called a Native American handshake, Tyson reportedly 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.”

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In a Facebook post, Tyson corroborated her story, explaining, “on a few occasions, I clumsily declared, ‘If I hug you I might just want more.’” He wrote that his intent was “to express restrained but genuine affection.” But the words “I want more” don’t express affection; they express sexual attraction. Watson quit the next day, citing the incident as her reason.

Another allegation came from Katelyn N. Allers, a colleague that Tyson met at a party thrown by the American Astronomical Society. Allers has an elaborate tattoo of the solar system running up her arm. “He looked for Pluto, and followed the tattoo into my dress,” she said, calling the move “uncomfortable and creepy.” Again Tyson corroborated, but in his version, “this was simply a search under the covered part of her shoulder of the sleeveless dress.”

Tyson doesn’t seem to get that you don’t lift any part of the dress of a woman you just met at a party, especially a professional function. Allers felt sufficiently uncomfortable that, years later, she declined an invitation to a university dinner because she did not want to cross paths with Tyson.

The most disturbing allegation came from Tchiya Amet El Maat, an African American woman who accused Tyson of drugging and raping her while they were graduate students. “She recalled Dr. Tyson giving her a drink of water, and that she then blacked out,” the New York Times reported. “When she came to, she said, she was naked on his bed. She said that when he saw she had awakened, he started having sex with her, and she passed out again. She said she was blacked out much of the night.” El Maat dropped out of the program shortly after and cited the alleged rape as her reason.

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Tyson’s response to El Maat’s accusation is, again, problematic. To him, “what was most significant” is that years later, when he checked her website, “she was posting videos of colored tuning forks endowed with vibrational therapeutic energy that she channels from the orbiting planets.”

This detail is not significant; it’s irrelevant. Tyson’s comment that “as a scientist, I found this odd” is a transparent attempt to discredit El Maat by implying that she’s unreliable. He is falling back on the most time-tested way that men discount women’s allegations against them: making her sound crazy.

Many Americans, when pressed, believe something you’d probably consider irrational. Somewhere between 50% and 80% of Americans believe in angels, and 18% believe the sun revolves around the earth. If a worldview that wouldn’t hold up to a scientific test rendered the believer unreliable in a court of law, most Americans could not take the stand.

Tyson also questioned why El Maat waited so long to come forward. But her delay, and her subsequent desperation to find closure, are completely consistent with what we know about the aftermath of trauma. When she finally did press charges, in 2014, she wrote, “I have waited for so long to make sure that I was taking the right action.” That indecision is familiar to anyone who has been assaulted by an intimate.

Women hold fewer than 10% of full professor positions in physics, and only 20% of the precarious and poorly paid adjunct positions. Of the tens of thousands of physics and astronomy PhDs in the U.S., about 90 are held by black women.

Every time a woman of color walks into my physics classroom, it feels like a precious and precarious moment. I want to do everything I can to help her succeed. I know from my own experience that there are a hundred reasons for a woman to leave physics. I can only imagine how many more reasons there are for a woman of color. I don’t know what happened that night between Tyson and El Maat, but it was enough to make her decide to leave the field.

I would prefer that Neil deGrasse Tyson, the public face of my field and the most effective instrument for scientific literacy in this country, continue to be the role model he had become in my imagination. Unfortunately, the evidence thus far suggests that he is feckless at best, a rapist at worst. Even the feckless version is removing women from the opportunity pipeline. And I am tired of it.

Jennifer Carson is an astrophysicist and professor of physics at Santa Monica College.

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