Neil deGrasse Tyson Accessory to War

Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang is a good and interesting book, and I recommend it.

This is not a book that fully explores the alliance and overlap between war and makers of war on one hand and science and scientists on the other. Authors Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang focus on one part of that relationship, the link between astrophysics and related disciplines (really, astronomy at large) and the military.

Even as I recommend Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military, which I do, I want to broaden the conversation a little with a couple of thoughts about the relationship, from my own experience. Then, I’ll give you my strident critique of the book (there is One Big Problem), and then, again, tell you to buy it

Back when I was working in or near the Peabody Museum, in Cambridge, the museum’s assistant director, Barbara Isaac, hired me to work with the NAGPRA database. NAGPRA was the North American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Ultimately, large swaths of the Peabody Museum’s collection would be turned over, or some other thing done to it, as per the wishes of the various Native American groups associated with that material. Most of the work had already been done. But, Barbara is a meticulous person and wanted to make sure the dotting of each i and crossing of each t was double checked. So, I was one of two people charged with going over the printouts, on that old green and less green striped paper, bound in large blue cardboard books. Each line (or two) was an item or collection of items, with notes, and an indication of what was going to happen to the material. There were just a few options, but the basic idea was this: An item listed was either going to be returned to a tribal group, or not. My job was mainly to look at stuff that was not going to be returned and, given my ongoing scan of what was going to be returned, and my knowledge of North American prehistory, ethnography, and archaeology, to earmark things that said “do not return” but where maybe we should be returning it. So, for example, after noting that a particular South Dakota Lakota tribe would have this, and that, and this other, soapstone tobacco pipe returned to them, when I saw that the ninth pipe on the list, several lines down and all by itself, is labeled to not be returned, I’d earmark that. Nearly 100% of the time, that ninth pipe was just something that nobody wanted, or it didn’t really exist (not all museum databases are exactly accurate). But, it would be earmarked.

Many items on the list had information as to how the item had originally gotten to the museum.

Many, many items, especially items taken from Native Americans living in what was the frontier between about 1840 and 1900, were taken by medical doctors who, as we all know, also stood in for naturalists, or some kind of traveling scientist, on military and quasi military expeditions (Like Darwin).

And many of those items were taken for use as medical specimens.

We initially learned that Native Americans have a particular blood type because, in part, of studies done on blood stains on shirts of slain warriors, collected after various battles with the US Army units accompanied by such scientists. There are a few famous cases of Native American bodily remains, mostly but not all skeletal remains, sitting in the anatomy teaching rooms of this or that college. But a lot more, a lot not noticed by either historians or even the all seeing all knowing Wikipedia, are or were sitting in museums around the world. Collected, by scientists wearing military uniforms, on military ventures, with a scientific twist.

So the science-military link is not exclusive to astronomy and astrophysics.

I wrote elsewhere about the person I met who was taking Pentagon funding to build an object that would help cure cancer. An example of a scientist subverting the military funding process. And so on.

OK, my complaint.

The authors have two long chapters (and references elsewhere) covering the early history of human endeavor in general (not limited to military) and the evolution of astronomy, mainly as it related, over a very long period of time, to navigation. One chapter covers land, the other the sea.

Staring somewhere along the way in each chapter, we get a very nice, well done, and pretty full description of the process of humans learning about the stars, about the earth and how to find one’s way, etc. But prior to that, the authors do what so many authors do and I so much dislike. I’ve written about this before. We get a version of human prehistory, and indeed, current human variation (or at least, ethnographically recent), that is bogus. For example, the authors speak of the first modern humans wandering around in the Rift Valley of Africa. There is no evidence that modern humans evolved there. Using just the archaeology, southern Africa is a more likely origin, and the physical anthropology record is simply incomplete. There are early fossils there, but that is because the rift valley is and was a big hole that made fossils. The entire rest of the continent is big, and the evolution probably happened there, not in the rift.

Similarly, ethnographic variation we see in the present and recent times is stripped out. For example, most rain forest dwelling foragers are not known to have a sky oriented cosmology, or to use the sky for much information about seasonal change in ecology, or navigation. And, there have always been a lot of rain forest dwelling foragers.

Putting that criticism aside, however, Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military is a very enjoyable and informative read, and makes all the important points about the sometimes uneasy, sometimes too easy, relationship between science and the military enterprise, with a careful look at politics, government, and powerful industrial interests.

Now we also need a book on the broader issue of military-technology links. And, we need a personal ray gun that zaps out of control robots:

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14 thoughts on “Neil deGrasse Tyson Accessory to War

  1. It’s a lot easier to make your material entertaining if you’re not constrained by a need for rigor and accuracy. And I’m afraid that describes Tyson

    I was hoping a collaboration with Avis Lang would make the book more credible. But it looks like Tyson is still stating his opinions and speculation as fact. He has made a number of demonstrably false claims. Take everything he says with a grain of salt.

  2. There is a long history of mathematicians and statisticians working hand in hand with the military as well. Some of the people I knew who were at the old Bell Labs had several
    military related projects.

    He has made a number of demonstrably false claims.

    Some people who say this have pointed out things he says that are at odds with current views, some people (usually on the right and bigoted) have referred to his degree as a meaningless affirmative action degree and dismiss him not because of content but race. I don’t know which side you are on.

    1. I am a registered Democrat and voted for Hillary the last presidential election. And Obama in the two elections before that. I don’t consider myself right wing.

      I’m not talking about stuff at odds with currents views but claims that are flat out wrong.

      For example Tyson’s account of President Bush’s 9-11 speech. Over a period of 8 years Tyson was telling audiences that Bush used that emotional time to “distinguish we from they”. Stands to reason, right? We all know Republicans are Arab hating xenophobes. Except Bush’s actual speech was a call for tolerance and inclusion. Oops.

      It turns out that Tyson had managed to conflate Bush’s 9-11 speech with the Eulogy he gave for the Space Shuttle Columbia astronauts. However in neither speech did Bush attempt to distinguish we from they. That message came from Tyson’s powerful imagination and strong confirmation bias.

      See this Jonathan Adler column from the Washington Post:

      For more examples of Tyson making demonstrably false claims see

    2. Dean, I have given you examples of Tyson’s bad math, science, history.

      Some defenders of Tyson will say there certainly are more transcendental numbers than irrationals because Tyson has a doctorate and I’m just some random internet guy (ad hominem and appeal to authority)

      Others will say it’s okay if Tyson invents histories if he’s slamming people they don’t like. These are no different from Trump’s birthers.

      Still others will say someone pointing out Tyson’s errors is a Flat Earther, a Young Earth Creationist or a moon hoaxer (the straw man argument).

      I don’t know which one of these you are.

    3. ‘I don’t know which one of these you are.’

      You missed my point. I know his comment about the numbers was wrong ( and did when he made it. Stupid comment, but physicists are not mathematicians (I’m a statistician, but have a Master’s in math as well), and I don’t expect him to know much about things outside his area of expertise. The errors you point out aren’t in science (so there is probably a good discussion to be had about whether he should or should not toss off comments when he’s not well-informed), but it concerns his credentials in science that the derogatory comments I from the right are aimed at (Andy Schlafly, of Conservapedia “fame” is famous for referring to NdGT’s degree as “an affirmative action gift”). (Of course, Schlafly’s website is wrong about everything it discusses in math and physics, so…)

    4. Dean, Tyson has botched basic physics as well as given us bad history. I gave examples in the link you didn’t bother to read.

      I am not Schafly. Yet you try to tar me with the same brush. You are not credible.

    5. Dean writes “The errors you point out aren’t in science ”

      False. My list contains errors Tyson has made in science as well as math and history. Some of them are errors in basic physics. Again, here is my list:

      Dean writes “No, I did not make an accusation, I asked a question.”

      False. Did a search for a question mark in your posts. If you did ask a question, you didn’t use a question mark.

      Rather you’ve made several suggestions. You’ve noted some folks object to his opinions that are at odds with current views. Which doesn’t apply. Tyson makes claims that are flat out demonstrably false.

      Also you’re suggested people who criticize Tyson are right wing bigots. Some of Tyson’s critics are indeed right wing. But there are also liberals who have criticized Tyson. Should we be concerned if the critics are right wing or left? No. What we need to determine is if the criticisms are valid. Can those calling out Tyson back up their complaints with evidence?

      If Sean Davis of the Federalist can back up what he says with citations and evidence, we should take what he says seriously. And Davis gave us an airtight example of Tyson inventing history to support his political talking points.

      You would say Tyson’s false account of Bush’s 9-11 speech is correct because Davis is Right Wing and therefore we should discard his criticisms? This is classic ad hominem. Whether someone is on the left or the right we need to examine their claims to see if they’re backed up by evidence.

    1. No, I did not make an accusation, I asked a question. The fact that you can’t realize that doesn’t speak well for you though. Interesting that you are working so hard to “defend” yourself from a non-existent accusation though.

  3. If science were not so damn powerful, useful, and correct so often, it would be of no use to the military. You don’t see any the military going after “creation science”

    Personally, I’m glad there was a link during WW2. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that radar saved Britain from invasion by Nazi Germany and its marine counterpart, sonar, had a large part in keeping the Axis submarine fleets from dominating the oceans. Or is there someone here that thinks that either the invasion or the dominance would have been a good thing?

  4. “False. Did a search for a question mark in your posts. If you did ask a question, you didn’t use a question mark.”

    Hop David, until you learn to read for comprehension it isn’t worth paying attention to your comments.

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