Neil deGrasse Tyson is a groundbreaking astrophysicist, popular TV host, and noted internet personality.
He’s also been accused of sexual misconduct by three women, as David G. McAfee reports at Patheos, a website that hosts a variety of blogs on religion, spirituality, and atheism.
One woman, Tchiya Amet, says that Tyson drugged and raped her when the two were students at the University of Texas Austin. Another, Ashley Watson, says he made unwanted advances when she was his assistant, causing her to quit her job. A third, Katelyn Allers, says she was “felt up” by Tyson at a party in 2009.
Tyson responded to the allegations in a Facebook post on Saturday. He wrote that he had a brief relationship with Amet but denied assaulting her; he admitted to some of the behavior described by Allers and Watson, but said he never intended his conduct to be sexual.
Allers said in an email to Vox that McAfee’s description of her encounter with Tyson was accurate, but declined a further interview.
Fox and the National Geographic channel, which were scheduled to host Tyson’s documentary series Cosmos in 2019, have announced that they are investigating the reports, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
In Tyson’s Facebook statement, he wrote that “I welcome” these investigations.
“I see myself as loving husband and as a public servant — a scientist and educator who serves at the will of the public,” Tyson said.
McAfee told Vox that he first learned of the allegations against Tyson in 2017, and decided to investigate because he was a fan of Tyson. He wrote about Amet’s allegations on Patheos in 2017 and published an interview with her in November. McAfee said that Watson and Allers contacted him after reading that interview.
For a time, the allegations did not receive the kind of mainstream attention typical of such stories in the #MeToo era, perhaps because they were first published at Patheos, which is not known for breaking news. But the claims made by Amet, Watson, and Allers are serious, and come at a time when the scientific community is beginning to reckon with the issue of sexual misconduct.
Three women have accused Tyson of sexual misconduct
Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the first black person to hold the role. The author of several popular science books and the host of the science TV shows NOVA ScienceNow and Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey as well as the podcast StarTalk, he was recognized for his role in making science accessible to the public with the Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences in 2015. He is also a prolific Twitter user who has been both celebrated and mocked for his tweets.
According to the three women who spoke to McAfee, he’s also guilty of sexual misconduct. Amet told McAfee that she visited Tyson’s apartment when the two were graduate students in 1984. He gave her a glass of water. The next thing she remembers is waking up to a sexual assault, she said. Amet has spoken and written about her allegations publicly several times in the past few years, confronting Tyson at a public event in 2010 and blogging about the allegations in 2014.
In his Facebook post, Tyson said that he dated Amet briefly when they were in graduate school together, but that he never assaulted her.
Vox has not yet spoken with Amet.
Allers, a professor of physics and astronomy at Bucknell University, told McAfee she encountered Tyson at a party after a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in 2009. She decided to pose for a picture with him. Afterward, however, she said he noticed her large tattoo of the solar system. Tyson “kind of grabbed me to look at it, and was really obsessed about whether I had Pluto on this tattoo or not,” she told McAfee. “And then he looked for Pluto, and followed the tattoo into my dress.”
She does not consider the encounter an assault, but told McAfee it shows that Tyson is “not someone who has great respect for female bodily autonomy.”
On Facebook, Tyson wrote of Allers, “while I don’t explicitly remember searching for Pluto at the top of her shoulder, it is surely something I would have done in that situation.”
“This was simply a search under the covered part of her shoulder of the sleeveless dress,” he added, and not sexual in nature.
Michele Thornley, an associate professor at Bucknell, told McAfee that Allers had told her about her encounter with Tyson in 2013, when Tyson was scheduled to speak at Bucknell. Allers asked to be excused from a dinner with Tyson following the event. Thornley said she explained to the event’s organizer that Allers did not want to be present at dinner, and also offered “some general recommendations to avoid having female students meeting with him in small groups without additional members of the community present.”
“I can confirm that the contents of the Patheos article regarding my encounter with Dr. Tyson are accurate,” Allers wrote in an email to Vox. “My hope is that the allegations against Dr. Tyson (particularly those by Tchiya and Ashley, whose lives and careers have been so very impacted) will be given serious consideration.”
Ashley Watson worked as Tyson’s assistant on Cosmos between March and June 2018, according to LinkedIn. She told McAfee that he invited her to his apartment to “share a bottle of wine” and she agreed to visit because she felt pressured to impress her boss. When she arrived, she said, Tyson played romantic music and talked about how everyone needed “releases” in life, including physical releases.
Watson told McAfee that when she got up to leave, he stopped her and offered to show her a “Native American handshake,” she said, holding her hands tightly and making eye contact. Then, according to Watson, he put his hands on her shoulders and said he wanted to hug her, but if he did, he’d “just want more.”
The following day, Watson said she confronted Tyson about his behavior; he told her she would never advance in her career because she was too “distracting.” She said she decided to quit her job as Tyson’s assistant after the encounter, and told a supervisor in hopes that her employer would not hire more female assistants for Tyson. The supervisor supported her decision to quit, she told McAfee, and advised her to claim a family emergency so as to avoid “uncomfortable situations.”
On Facebook, Tyson wrote that he had invited Watson over as a friendly gesture, and showed her a handshake he “learned from a Native elder.” When he learned the next day that she had been uncomfortable, he wrote, “I apologized profusely.”
Vox has not yet spoken with Watson.
Fox and National Geographic, which had been scheduled to air a new season of Cosmos in 2019, have announced that they are investigating the claims. The series initially aired on PBS in 2014.
“We have only just become aware of the recent allegations regarding Neil deGrasse Tyson. We take these matters very seriously and we are reviewing the recent reports,” Fox and National Geographic said in a statement to the Hollywood Reporter.
“The credo at the heart of COSMOS is to follow the evidence wherever it leads,” the producers of the show said in their own, separate statement to the Hollywood Reporter. “The producers of COSMOS can do no less in this situation. We are committed to a thorough investigation of this matter and to act accordingly as soon as it is concluded.”
McAfee, an author and journalist, said he decided to pursue the story in 2017 after seeing Tyson’s name on a list posted on Medium of celebrities accused of sexual misconduct. He decided to investigate because he was “a huge fan” of Tyson, he said. He remembers thinking “this needs to be addressed one way or the other. If I can debunk it, then that’s great. If not, that needs to be out there.”
McAfee has written several books on atheism, including Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist: The Guide to Coming Out as a Non-believer; Tyson, meanwhile has made a number of public comments indicating his skepticism of religion, saying that the label that best describes him is agnostic.
The allegations come at a time when the scientific community, and academia more broadly, are attempting to address sexual misconduct. Brian Richmond, the American Museum of Natural History’s curator of human origins, resigned in 2016 after allegations of sexual assault and harassment — which he denied — became public.
In 2017, a former anthropology professor launched an anonymous survey on sexual harassment in academia, garnering more than 1,000 responses. And in a 2016 survey of graduate students at the University of Oregon, 38 percent of women students and about 23 percent of men students said they had been sexually harassed by faculty or staff.
McAfee published his coverage of the allegations against Tyson on Patheos because he has a blog there, and didn’t have a relationship with another outlet that could publish the story, he said. His blog, which deals with science, skepticism, and faith, is called No Sacred Cows.
“It’s ironic that I ended up tackling one of my greatest idols,” he told Vox.
Update: This story has been updated to include Tyson’s response to the allegations, posted on Facebook.