Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson liberated after month-long kidnapping ordeal

Posted 01 Apr 2016 / 0

2016-04-01b.jpgEarly this morning in a remote rural area just outside of Powder Springs, Georgia, astrophysicist and international science celebrity Neil deGrasse Tyson was safely liberated from captivity by agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI raid rescued Tyson following four grueling weeks as a hostage of the radical Creationist terrorist organization CRISIS (Christians Reveling In Superheroes Instead of Science), a group known for targeting prominent evolutionary biologists. Tyson was quickly returned to Manhattan, where he will be slowly re-acclimated to his role as Director of the Hayden Planetarium and Research Associate in the Department of Astrophysics of New York’s American Museum of Natural History.

CRISIS has been harassing evolutionary biologists for over a decade, but Tyson was apparently the first physical scientist to be singled out by the group. Numerous prominent American biologists have been targeted by CRISIS for their advocacy of non-supernatural explanations of nature. The group has used a variety of tactics to suppress evolutionary science, including public shaming, flash-mobbing, and website hacking.

David Sloan Wilson of Binghamton University recounted a harrowing incident in which seven CRISIS militants confronted him outside of a Wendy’s in Topeka, Kansas.

“They surrounded me and started asking me all sorts of questions about how Spiderman might contend with a variety of social dilemmas,” Wilson explained. “They seemed to be obsessed with the idea that evolutionists were contradicting their view that God created superheroes in His image. I had to convince them that I was part of the solution, not the problem. If I hadn’t had that funding letter from the Templeton Foundation in my back pocket at the time, I might have been a real goner”.

Prominent population geneticist Richard Lewontin was subject to a different kind of harassment, a new form of blackmail called “phylogenetic coercion”.

“Somehow they got ahold of my DNA,” reported Lewontin, “potentially using a signed copy of my book Biology as Ideology. They threatened to reveal the fact that I share a very recent common ancestor with Richard Dawkins, which was definitely not the kind of information about me that I wanted to see publicized.”

Even evolutionary biologists who have not been directly targeted have come to live in fear of CRISIS.

“Why do you think I bury all my important evolutionary work in so many trivial blog posts about cats?” explained Why Evolution Is True author Jerry Coyne, “I have been scared out of my pants that I am going to get a knock on the door from CRISIS. I don’t even like cats.”

Other prominent scientists seem to have taken Coyne’s lead, covering up their important work on social media by profoundly diluting it with irrelevant content.

“My strategy was to throw CRISIS off my trail by posting lots of stuff about my daily jogs, or about Michigan State University athletics,” explained microbiologist Richard Lenski. “I am well aware that 99% of my followers on Twitter don’t give a crap about how far I ran on a given day, or whether the Spartans win or lose. But by hiding my science among all this boring crap, I hoped to avoid being targeted.”

Whereas superstar biologists have self-censored or hired bodyguards, physicists have long believed themselves to be above harassment by CRISIS.

“I don’t see why a Creationist fundamentalist group would want to target anyone in the physics community,” opined renowned string theorist Brian Greene. “After all, all our work does is reveal how God made the universe.”

For over a week, Tyson’s absence went unnoticed. In the past it was not unusual for the iconoclastic scientist to disappear for weeks at a time as he pondered some deep astronomical problem, so the fact that neither his wife nor his colleagues knew where he was did not initially trigger any alarms. But when erratic messages began to appear on Tyson’s Twitter account, his friends and family began to worry.

“I know that Neil can come up with some pretty goofy stuff,”  explained Alice Young, Tyson’s wife of twenty-eight years. “But he certainly would never promote scientific misinformation of any kind.”

Young and others alerted the FBI to Tyson’s disappearance, triggering a massive response from the agency.

“As soon as we heard that Neil deGrasse Tyson was missing, we sprung into action,” explained FBI regional director Shawn Naughton, “I mean it’s not like we are talking about E.O. Wilson wandering off or Jared Diamond deciding to defect to Papua New Guinea — this guy Tyson actually studies important things like incredibly-distant planets and remote stars. It’s a matter of national security that we assure the safety of brilliant minds like Tyson.”

FBI agents familiar with similar cases of scientific disappearance immediately suspected that Tyson had been kidnapped, perhaps by Islamic fundamentalists with a sincere interest in astrophysics. But it was a particularly absurd tweet that set in motion Tyson’s liberation:

“No way. No way that a prominent astrophysicist believes that bats are blind,” explained Naughton, “when we saw this, we knew that Tyson couldn’t be sending those tweets.”

But who was holding Tyson captive, and how would the FBI find him?

“This case was actually pretty easy to solve once we had that bat tweet,” described Naughton, “because there’s really only one group of people who would promote this kind of blatant biological misinformation: Creationists.”

FBI surveillance, which detected a delivery of fine wines to a house in suburban Georgia, quickly revealed that CRISIS was behind Tyson’s internment. “When you see fancy wines being ordered in Georgia,” asserted Naughton, “you know that something is up.”

Even as FBI agents were closing in on the CRISIS terror cell’s headquarters, the motivation for Tyson’s kidnapping remained a mystery. CRISIS members never announced Tyson’s kidnapping and made no outside demands in exchange for his release. They seemed content with keeping Tyson hostage indefinitely, a strategy that has only been used with success by the United States government. The gritty astrophysicist from the Bronx was subjected to near-daily torture throughout his ordeal.

CRISIS is known for using a form of torture that prominent academics are particularly susceptible to: public shaming. The usual modus operandi of the group is to use hijacked social media accounts to make it appear that a well-known scientist has begun to lose his grip on reality. While several prominent scientists have been successfully targeted by CRISIS, the group has also inspired some false alarms. For years the FBI shadowed biochemist Michael Behe, believing that he was being blackmailed or otherwise coerced by CRISIS, but after awhile it became apparent that Behe was just a really bad scientist. In Tyson’s case, the crisis was real.

“They thought that they could torture me by publicly embarrassing me via social media again and again and again,” described Tyson in an early-morning news conference. “I have to admit, this form of torture was working pretty well. To see myself so thoroughly shamed over and over was very difficult, especially given how broadly brilliant I actually am.”

Why was Tyson targeted, and what did CRISIS hope to get out of his kidnapping? As it turned out it was Tyson’s perceived connections — and not his status as a well-known scientist — that made him a target of CRISIS.

“They thought that I knew Superman,” explained Tyson. “No, for real, I am not joking… they thought that I actually knew Superman. They basically demanded that I get them in contact with Superman or they would continue to tweet biological misconceptions from my account. It was pretty brutal.”

Tyson’s portrayal of his ordeal hardly seems hyperbolic. Over a four-week week period, Tyson appeared to have gone off the scientific rails as he continually tweeted patently moronic comments on biology. Tyson was captured by CRISIS on March 3rd. Soon thereafter, the bizarre biology tweets began appearing on his account.

The first one was innocuous enough:

Although this initial suspect tweet appeared to be more informed by Little Red Riding Hood than by an actual scientific understanding of wolf behaviors, as a first sign that something was wrong it was not picked up on by many. The next biology-related tweet provided another subtle clue that Tyson was in trouble:

The analogy between the dynamic biological process of predation and trans-dimensional travel seemed odd, especially to trained biologists, but still was not a serious alarm. The real signs that Tyson was in trouble came over a week after he had been abducted:

Not only did this tweet directly contradict widely-understood realities of biological reproduction, it suggested that Tyson was willing to conjecture wildly in an area well outside of his expertise, a behavior that he had never displayed before. Further signs of Tyson’s peril came with another tweet about sex:

This tweet’s fundamental misunderstanding of how genes affect behavior, combined with its overly-simplistic understanding of reproduction and biological fitness, raised plenty of ire amongst biologists. But over a week into Tyson’s ordeal, still no one asked the obvious question: is it even possible that Tyson could be sending out such misinformed tweets?

It wasn’t just that tweets coming from Tyson’s Twitter account expressed profound biological misunderstanding: they also seemed to be getting more and more bizarre and erratic. Ten days into his ordeal, the CRISIS militants posted this painful tweet:

Cultural evolutionists and biological anthropologists alike cringed at Tyson’s allusion to what has to be the most biologically-erroneous, Creationist-inspired cartoon to ever run for way too long. But still few questioned the credibility of the tweets. The absurdity continued as Tyson appeared to equate natural selection, artificial selection, and the genetic modification of organisms by humans:

Nearly two weeks into his kidnapping, tweets like this one — suggesting that Tyson maintains an understanding of genetic evolution that is below that of your average middle schooler — finally began to raise serious red flags for law enforcement officials.

Frustrated by the fact that their increasingly-sadistic tweets had not yet yielded a contact with Superman, the CRISIS cell holding Tyson ramped up their attempts to shame him into submission with a tweet that no self-respecting scientist would ever post:

Taken as a whole, the tweets sent between the day of Tyson’s capture on March 3rd and his liberation today paint a picture of a scientist who is either on drugs or enduring some other crisis. But it would take the “blind as a bat” tweet to finally bring Tyson’s horrific ordeal to an end.

“As you can tell, these CRISIS folks are barbarians,” Tyson asserted, “and they just kept ramping up the brutality every time that I tried to explain to them that I don’t actually know Superman because he doesn’t actually exist.”

Instead of worrying about Dr. Tyson’s personal welfare, the reaction of the biological science community was to roundly mock him. The hashtags #BiologistSpaceFacts and #TysonBiologyFacts quickly became popular on Twitter. Rather than wonder “how has my scientific brother gone astray”, the biologists seemed to take Tyson’s breakdown as an opportunity to show just how limited the worldview of physicists can be.

When asked about the four week length of his internment — including nearly two weeks in which no one suspected that he was missing — Tyson expressed a fair amount of righteous indignation (especially for a physicist). “I mean, people actually thought that I was capable of sending out some of those tweets? What kind of idiot do they they think I am? Of course I know that bats are not blind. Of course I understand that there’s no such thing as a single gene for a complex behavior. Of course I understand that modern genetic modification technologies work in radically different ways than artificial and natural selection. And of course I know that even conjoined twin llamas have an anus! What does everyone think I have been doing all these years at the American Museum of Natural History, just gazing at the damn stars?”

One of the major reasons that Tyson went unrescued and unmissed throughout his ordeal was that so many biologists were ready to believe that a learned, elite physicist would be so completely ignorant of biology.

Jeremy Yoder, a well-known biological blogger, provided this analysis of Tyson’s odd series of tweets:

Given Tyson’s enormous audience, and the fact that he’s specifically known for his pickiness about astronomical accuracy—remember that time he complained about the constellations in the sky for the climactic scene of Titanic?—I think he, of all people, could stand to be a little more self-aware about stepping outside his expertise.

Yoder’s response to Tyson was representative of the general consensus amongst the biological science community: it was entirely reasonable to assume that an astrophysicist like Tyson might actually be so ignorant of basic biology. That assessment now appears to be a titantic misjudgment.

Tyson did not mince words when characterizing the role of the biological science community in his suffering. “I mean, it really shows you just how badly these people suffer from physics envy, that they would ignore every sign that I was being held captive by a lunatic fringe group. Seeing, as I have, the reactionary nature of the biologists — and their profound lack of basic problem-solving logic — it is no surprise that they can’t seem to advance their field anywhere as far as physics has gone. No wonder they have all this genomic data and still have no clue how to map genotypes to phenotypes. No wonder you ask them the basis of consciousness and all they can say is ‘neural connections’. No wonder Biosphere 2 was such an epic failure. Some of these biologists wouldn’t notice a key piece of evidence if it was biting them in the ankle like a venous gila monster.”

When asked how he planned to transition back to his role as Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City, Tyson seemed somewhat traumatized. “Well you can bet that it is going to be awhile before I feel comfortable up on the fourth floor,” he admitted, “and I can’t seem to get all the nightmares I experienced while in captivity out of my head, of that giant blue whale getting hit by a comet, crashing down, and crushing me”.

As he left the news conference to be debriefed by the FBI, Tyson expressed gratitude for his rescue. “I am just thankful to all the FBI agents who worked to release me into the warm glow of the sun’s celestial light on this bright April first morning,” he beamed, tears running down his face, “I am just so glad that forensic science isn’t solely in the hands of biologists, or I might be still stuck in that hellhole.”

A Major Post, Creationism, Evolution, Physics, Public Outreach

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