Intellectual prowess aside, popular astrophysicist and Startalk host Neil deGrasse Tyson is best known for one thing: Bad tweets. Tyson’s Twitter presence has been criticized for its pedantry, tone-deafness, and lack of humor. Even Netflix dragged him for Tysonsplaining the movie Armageddon. Tyson, who has at least once been referred to as “Buzzkill Lightyear,” has never addressed why he is the way he is, but perhaps that’s because he’s never been asked outright.
That’s why, in an interview on Wednesday at his office in the American Museum of Natural History, Inverse asked him: Why are Neil deGrasse Tyson’s tweets so bad?
“Bad?” he laughed.
“I’ve been asked by people who really like the tweets, the simultaneous compliment-insult question,” he continued. “‘Boy, I love your tweets. Do you actually write them?’ So, that’s the insult-compliment.”
It was a characteristically confounding answer, but it suggested that Tyson believes, at least to some degree, that his tweets are good. Herein lies the difficulty with Tyson: His online persona has been hard to make sense of because it’s not clear whether his know-it-all smugness is performative or whether he’s actually just like that — a smart man who really believes it’s helpful to overcorrect away all humor, nuance, and fantasy until nothing is left but the sad rubble of reality.
Supporting the latter, a self-reflective tweet on Friday suggested that Tyson’s tweets are bad because he doesn’t realize they are bad. In the tweet, he asked his followers whether they appreciated his comments, which he says are only meant to help “enhance your movie-going pleasure.”
Further discussion with Tyson supports this theory. “My tweets are thoughts I am having anyway,” Tyson said, explaining that he doesn’t actually spend that much time on Twitter. “I don’t sit down and say, ‘Gee, what am I going to tweet now? Let me think long and hard.’ No, I had the thought anyway. So, it either stays in my head or I share it.”
Of course, his tweets aren’t entirely unedited, since even he is beholden to Twitter’s rules. The time he spends on a tweet, he says, goes into making sure his thoughts can be accurately conveyed in 280 characters. “If I share it, the effort is — when there is effort — shaping it so that it fits the character limit and that it has a certain pithiness to it,” he continued. “Almost a haiku.”
“It reminds me of the famous aphorism,” he says. “The famous wit who once said, ‘I’m sorry this letter is so long. I ran out of time to make it short.’”
This layer of self-editing doesn’t seem to be helping.
That said, it could be a lot worse. Tyson says that some of his tweets go through a panel of critics before they are released into the world.
“So there’s three people who would pass judgment on my tweets before you ever see them,” he says. “One of them is my wife, one is my sister, and one is my daughter. And they hail from three very different pockets of the universe.” His daughter Miranda, he says, is his harshest critic, providing the millennial outlook on “the meaning of what I think I mean.”
Their critiques of his tweets are valuable, he says, because they help him hone his capacity to communicate what he’s actually trying to say.
“I’ve had tweets that people misinterpreted, but I’m creating the tweet, so it’s my fault it got misinterpreted,” he says. “Word it another way that reduces the uncertainty to microscopic levels and then proceed.”
In other words, Tyson’s tweets are the result of original thought, attention to form, and a deliberate effort to precisely convey meaning. And yet: They are still bad.
Sitting across from Tyson, who is wearing a space-themed tie in his office amid piles of books, globes, beer, at least one telescope, and a framed print of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” it was hard not to soften toward him, despite the memory of his god-awful Game of Thrones tweet (why, Neil?). Tyson is a renowned astrophysicist, prolific science communicator, and staunch advocate for science, but above all, he’s a dad with dad jokes — and an especially geeky one at that. Like all parents, he’s annoying because he doesn’t know he’s annoying — and because he’s actually right most of the time.
And doesn’t he know it. As of the time of this article’s publication, 86 percent of the Twitter followers responding to his poll voted to bring back his tweets.
“But anyhow, that happens on only three out of ten,” he says, discussing his family’s efforts at censoring his tweets. “Seven out of ten I feel confident that I don’t need second opinion on it.”
Startalk season 5 premieres on November 12 on the National Geographic channel.