08 March 2011

Neil deGrasse Tyson's mortal sin in online PR

Dr. Tyson (h/t: Wikipedia)
I recently listened to a Point of Inquiry Podcast - Chris Mooney interviewed Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Dr. Tyson is an astrophysicist, director of the Hayden Planetarium, host of the NOVA ScienceNOW tv show, and probably the best science communicator in the United States right now.

He's also an agnostic - not an atheist.  And while he says the public "God debate" is really not something he chooses to engage in much, he seems willing to disobey a rule so well-established in social media PR these days you might even call it one of PR's Ten Commandments - "thou shalt not edit thine own Wikipedia page."

About 36 minutes or so into the podcast, Dr. Tyson talks with Mooney about how he feels mislabeled as an atheist, and then makes an admission that makes an online PR flack like me raise an eyebrow:
It was funny – I don’t know who created my wiki page – but in there, a few years ago it said “Neil deGrasse Tyson is an atheist who is an astrophysicist” and I said “what… that’s not really..” so I said, so I put in there, “Neil deGrasse Tyson is agnostic” and then three days later or so it was back to “atheist.” So there’s an urge to claim me in that community. So then I had to – So I had to put it - word it in a way that would survive an edit so I said, “widely claimed by atheists, Tyson is actually an agnostic” so that managed to stick. I haven’t checked it lately but that’s how I left it off.
(Note: the edits to which Dr. Tyson refers don't appear on his Wikipedia page today.) Let me be clear about something:  I don't think what Dr. Tyson did is "wrong" - he took steps to correct the record as he sees it, and protect his own reputation. After all, this is essentially what I do for clients. When people write things about you, you have a right and an obligation to ask that those people get the "facts" right.   And in a forum as public and influential as Wikipedia, Dr. Tyson is quite right to be paying attention.

But let's be clear about something else - this sort of edit runs counter to Wikipedia's guidelines about conflict of interest and "neutral point of view"edits.  Dr. Tyson may view his action as simply correcting a minor point, but there is a clear public relations interest in a popular science communicator avoiding the unpopular, often misunderstood label of "atheist." It has been argued that Dr. Tyson's use of the word "agnostic" rather than "atheist" represents a distinction without a difference. And there's also a public relations interest in avoiding getting sucked into a debate over religious nomenclature.

Put it this way - If I, a public relations professional, were working for Dr. Tyson or the Hayden Planetarium or NOVA, and made exactly the same edits at exactly the same time, I'd be absolutely slaughtered for it. Companies and PR firms have been called out publicly for making far less substantive edits to their own or their client's Wikipedia pages.

The problem here isn't with anything Dr. Tyson did - the problem is with Wikipedia's guidelines.  Wikipedia's relatively inflexible guidelines have created a situation where "neutral" third parties can purposely or inadvertently post inaccurate or misleading information about a person or company - and that person or company is essentially "forbidden" (or at the least strongly discouraged) from responding quickly on the same forum. No, Wikipedia should not be a place for people to post their CV's or companies to plant marketing materials and press releases. However, just as Dr. Tyson has a right to weigh in on what's being said about him without fear of being labeled as a whitewasher, companies and PR flacks have a right to do so as well.

I do think we should disclose when we're making edits or additions.  Frankly, I have no problem with some special kind of citation that an edit to a page was made by the subject of that page or one of its agents. We should be using legitimate sources and follow the same rules as everyone else on this platform.

Wikipedia's popularity (and search engine optimization) has unquestionably positioned it as an unbiased and authoritative resource.  It's increasingly cited in other publications.  But even the "outs" you can find in Wikipedia's guidelines - things like "if a rule prevents you from improving Wikipedia, then break the rule" or "use common sense" - haven't made it acceptable for the subjects of pages to correct the record.  We're left with contacting the Wikipedians and hoping that they'll get back to us before they deal with any of the 738 gazillion other pages on the site, and even then there's no guarantee that the matter will be dealt with appropriately.

This is crap.  And it should change.


cfolsen said...

I agree that the current situation is broken. The only way to get something corrected (even if info on the page is factually, provably inaccurate) is to enlist the help of a relatively small group of editor/moderators - people who have enough wiki-cred to make changes above reproach. How is this the intent of the creators? Now we just have a different set of information gatekeepers.

Not allowing the subject to participate in their own discussion is wrong, futile (people and companies will find a way), and naive on how the site actually works - unless the site creators were looking for a venue to allow anonymous unrelated parties to intentionally shape information with their own opinion rather than fact. If so, then well... job well done.

Ron said...

Of course, now that he's said it in an interview and it's been printed online, someone could edit his wiki page and cite that article as proof he's a agnostic. So in a way, he solved his own "problem" by talking about it in public.

David said...

Thanks for the comments. @Ron - interesting point, but he's only solved this to a point. Why should someone have to score an interview to get their wikipedia page fixed? and what stops a person from going back in there and saying "Dr. Tyson claims to be agnostic, but for all intents & purposes is atheist" ?Bottom line is he should have the final say on his own faith (or lack thereof).

@cfolsen - spot on, dude. you must have some experience with this ;)

Anonymous said...

He could have put up a citation needed on the place where he was being labeled as atheist

Alex said...

Personally, every atheist I know would be happy to have a prominent agnostic on their side, I don't know why they'd want it to be agnostic.

Alex said...

--I mean atheist

Fred Fnord said...

> It has been argued that Dr. Tyson's use of the word
> "agnostic" rather than "atheist" represents a
> distinction without a difference.

My goodness, you really are a 'communications person' and a 'public relations professional', aren't you? "It has been argued" is one of the most obnoxious of the weasel-word constructions, almost invariably people who are the ones who believe the thing in question, but don't want to get dinged for holding that belief.

In actuality, being an agnostic is very different from being an atheist, in much the same way that having a firm belief that the Red Socks are the best team in baseball or that they are NOT the best team in baseball is different from not feeling compelled to hold an opinion on the Red Socks.

And indeed, in a lot of ways, being an agnostic is a much more difficult position to hold than either being a believer or an atheist. No one who hates atheists have any kinder feelings towards agnostics, and many atheists are just as hostile towards agnostics as their opponents are.

Indeed, the position is roughly comparable to that of male bisexuals, who are loathed by those who hate homosexuality and are treated with scorn even today by a large chunk of the homosexual community, who see them as 'straight people who like slumming', 'gay men in denial', or 'people who can't make up their minds'.

Mr. Tyson was not trying 'spin control', because no one who is an agnostic could possibly fail to understand that they are even more marginalized than atheists are. Mr. Tyson was angry because someone else was misrepresenting his beliefs. And the fact that you can only see things in terms of damage control reflects poorly upon you.

Eirhead said...

Probably reddit. I remember telling /r/atheism this fact based on knowledge attained from interviews, and those thick headed retards insisted I was completely wrong. Fuck those smarmy dick holes.

Eirhead said...

And just so we're clear, atheism and agnosticism are polar opposites. Just because the atheist community wants to be related to the agnostic community, that doesn't mean the agnostic community wants anything to do with the atheist community. Polar opposites. GET IT

Anonymous said...

I don't want PR hacks or subjects of wiki articles allowed to edit their own wiki entries. The current situation is not in fact "broken", it's fine. NdGT's wiki article currently reflects his statements.

This idea I hear that people "should" be able to go in and edit their own wiki articles just strikes me as insane. You're a public figure, you can't control an encyclopedic article on you. All you can do is what he did, disagree in a citable venue. Then it gets fixed, and you're done.

So who loses there? Oh yeah, the PR hacks. Cry me a river.

Anonymous said...

I had a great speech brewing in my cauldron... but then I read Fred Fnord's comment, and I can say is, "What that guy said."

Neil deGrasse Tyson said...

Thanks for this thread of reasoned attention given to my Wiki page and comments related to it.

What's absent from the discussion happens to be a fertile subject in the fields of art & literature: Is a created work what you perceive it to be or what the artist intended it to be? Am I what the public believes me to be, or am I what I say I am?

By way of examples, I once tweeted "Godspeed..." during one of the later shuttle launches -- a common farewell in aerospace circles. Others piped back in the thread "I thought he was an atheist".

And I still use (and defend) the use of BC and AD in dates, rather than the more atheistic BCE and CE. Why? Because the Catholic church invented the Gregorian Calendar (implemented in 1584), the most accurate and successful calendar ever devised. We should be honest about this fact and not sweep the religiosity of it under the rug.

So I do and say things that vocal atheists generally never say or do. And since conduct and usage defines words, not dictionaries (which, themselves, describe words as they have come to be used) any modern assignment of the word atheist to me actually misleads those learning who or what I am.

In any case, my real objection is the implicit assumption here that I avoid the atheist label for reasons of spin, in an attempt to protect my pubic accessibility. When the real spin (in this, a blog on PR) is referencing my case as the foundation for your larger, entirely valid point regarding edits and the Wiki culture.

FYI: see also: http://bit.ly/YEFQbw

Thanks, again, for your interest.

Respectfully Submitted
Neil deGrasse Tyson, Rome

Charmlet said...

There are quite a few things I, as someone who edits Wikipedia, want to correct:
#Yes, people are discouraged from directly editing their own articles. This is easier on both them, in terms of frustration, as well as the editors who patrol for neutrality. HOWEVER - What is not mentioned is the use of the edit request system - where someone can request an edit and it will be seen and completed usually within a matter of minutes.
#In one of the comments, cfolsen says "relatively small group... who have enough wiki-cred to make changes above reproach". There is nobody on Wikipedia who can make change unilaterally and force it to be unchangeable.
#The comment is made that people are "slaughtered" for making PR edits. This is not fully true. People are slaughtered for using a PR firm to create advertising and flowery articles about them/their company, yes. But they are not slaughtered for maintaining a Wikipedia page on someone with factual information in accordance with policy. In fact, quite a few experienced editors have done this in the past.
#"Wikipedia's relatively inflexible guidelines have created a situation where "neutral" third parties can purposely or inadvertently post inaccurate or misleading information about a person or company - and that person or company is essentially "forbidden" (or at the least strongly discouraged) from responding quickly on the same forum."
##Neutral should not be in quotation marks, that implies it's not true. Nobody purposefully posts inaccurate information on Wikipedia, they follow what reliable sources say. And as I point out, there are multiple ways someone can request an edit and have it done within minutes, namely live-chat help, the Help Desk, and the talkpage with an edit request.
#First, there's 4 million articles thereabout. I'm not sure where you 'contacted the Wikipedians', but there's dedicated venues for this kind of request.

Point being - Please look into this a little more before presenting a loaded and one side of the issue.


Anonymous said...


Agnosticism is not a belief. Even people as intelligent as NDT can be confused and it is a common mistake.

@Eirhead "And just so we're clear, atheism and agnosticism are polar opposites."

If theism is the polar opposite of atheism then how can agnosticism and atheism be polar opposites? Just because you want something to be true doesn't make it that way. Calm down and do your research.

lilburne said...

"Wikipedia's popularity (and search engine optimization) has unquestionably positioned it as an unbiased and authoritative resource. It's increasingly cited in other publications."

You seem to have fallen for the hype. Whilst some areas are indeed accurate and unbiased those articles are the minority. Most of the articles are a mess of bias an unauthoritative nonsense. See Jagged85 and Qworty as but two examples.

They have more articles on places in Terry Pratchett's discworld then places in the whole of Africa.

Article after article is full of basic howlers. The accuracy of wikipedia is inversely proportional to one knowledge of the subject.

Anonymous said...

Your job is worthless and only protects money. Who cares about PR. Science trumps any PR thought.