top of page
  • Writer's pictureCourtney Heard

How The Allegations Against Neil Tyson Are Different From Those Against Weinstein & Toback

Skeptical of the rape claims against Neil DeGrasse Tyson

I’m fully prepared for the inevitability that some of you have your minds made up about this post already from the headline alone. You’ve got your mind shut and will only hear sentiments that reinforce your cemented conclusions. The only reason anyone would question Tyson’s guilt while accepting Weinstein’s is that we like Tyson. He’s our science man, right? People who are skeptical about the claim made against Tyson are clearly just unthinking idiots who play favourites, amirite? Right. If you’re not willing to consider any other explanation, this post is not for you. Click back until you’ve got yourself snug in your echo chamber and have an awesome day.

Those of you who are still here, I assume, want to understand how someone could be skeptical of the claims against Tyson. This is going to require you to put aside your preconceived ideas. You’re going to have to accept the possibility that I could actually be a halfway decent person and have good reasons for this skepticism. You’re going to have to drop your “rape apologist” labeling and leave behind your “believe every woman!” rhetoric. Open your mind and try to understand what I’m going to talk about.

Before we get started, I feel it important to note that I, myself, have been sexually assaulted twice in my lifetime. I don’t feel the need to mention this because I think it’s any of your business, nor because I think anyone really needs to know. I say it, because it will win me the opportunity to be heard by some of you on this topic. Sadly enough, the very fact I’ve been the victim of these crimes will make some of you treat me with kid gloves. Maybe, just maybe, that means you’ll be more open to hearing my reasoning.

To begin, we have to revisit the topic of wrongful convictions which, as many of you know, is one of my most talked about topics here on When I first wrote about them, I reported that the Innocence Project estimated there could be as much as 80,000 innocent men and women in prison in the US at any given time. It turns out that estimate has grown in the time since I wrote my Reasonable Doubt series. The estimate is now over 120,000 innocent people at any given moment locked up in America.

As I have said before, eyewitness testimony is largely to blame for this huge number. Repeated scientific studies into eyewitness testimony conclude that our memories fail us about 50% of the time. We get details wrong, names, dates and times all while being 100% certain we’ve gotten it all right. Every human being fails in this way, and the odds get even worse when the situation we are trying to recall is a stressful one, as crime often is. From my previous post on eyewitness testimony:

Take into consideration the case of Jennifer Thompson-Cannino. In 1984, as she slept alone in her apartment, a man broke in. She was awoken, saw him in her room and began screaming. The man then held a knife to her throat to shut her up and she offered him anything he wanted to leave her alone. Face to face, they spoke. He said he was not interested in money and proceeded to rape her. Horrified, Jennifer refused to let this man get away with what he was doing. She vowed, while she was being attacked, to study this man’s face. Every last mark, scar and expression. She studied his face the entire time she was being attacked and was beyond confident she could identify this man in a court of law. Jennifer was not a drug user. She was a respected and accomplished college student. She was healthy both physically and mentally and she swore she could recall that face like she could her own mother’s.
Able to escape her apartment with her rapist still there, she ran and found police. The perpetrator left and raped another woman nearby.
Jennifer reported her crime and after evidence was collected and a composite sketch of her attacker was made, the police laid out a photo line-up of men, including Ronald Cotton who was identified in a tip that came in that he resembled the sketch. The police, correctly following procedure, told her the man they were questioning may or may not be in the photos.
Jennifer studied the photos carefully and picked Ronald.
When asked if she was sure, she assured the detective that she was indeed.
Ronald was brought in for questioning. He gave a mistaken alibi, having mixed up which weekend was in question. This made the police think he was lying.
Ronald Cotton was put in a physical lineup shortly after, from which he was pointed out by Jennifer (who, as we know, had chosen his photo as well).
She was absolutely sure.
The evidence was presented at trial. A sane, sober woman told the jury that as she was attacked by this man, she studied every feature of his face and had no doubt in her mind that Ronald Cotton was that man. The prosecution then also brought to light that he had “lied” about his alibi for that evening.
Imagine yourself on that jury. Imagine listening to 22 year old, pretty, responsible, ambitious, blond Jennifer tearfully point out Ronald as her attacker and explain in detail the horror of her attack. Imagine what you would feel in that moment. Likely, rage would be building up inside of you. Sympathy for Jennifer would grow. Then you would be told that Ronald made up a story for his alibi, which was proven to be wrong. Ronald appeared to be a liar.
Imagine yourself in that situation. It would appear that Ronald was guilty, no? Most people in today’s world, save for Neil deGrasse Tyson and a handful of Innocence Project volunteers, would have found him guilty and you can hardly blame them for that, can you?
Not surprisingly, Mr. Cotton is found guilty and sentenced to life plus 54 years for the rape of Jennifer Thompson.
In prison, some time later, Cotton came across a man named Bobby Poole who was serving time for rape. Cotton wondered if he had been the real rapist due to the similarities in their appearances. Prison staff would often mix the two of them up. Cotton even heard a story from another inmate, that Poole had admitted to the rape of Jennifer and the second victim. Several appeals and retrials later, however, Cotton’s sentence still stood.
It wasn’t until 1994 that the DNA evidence, still preserved in police custody, was tested and proved beyond any doubt that the real offender was Poole, and not Cotton. After 10 years in prison,
Cotton was freed and the charges were dropped.
In shock, Jennifer became riddled with guilt. She found Ronald and apologized profusely. The two became good friends and wrote a book together about their ordeal: Picking Cotton.

This case illustrates several things:

  1. Rape accusations can be wrong, even when the victim is absolutely sure.

  2. Getting it wrong doesn’t mean the victim was purposefully lying.

  3. You can believe a victim was assaulted while still remaining skeptical about the accusations levelled against a specific person.

Given this information, there are three main reasons why I am more skeptical of the allegations made against Neil DeGrasse Tyson than I am of the allegations made against Harvey Weinstein and James Toback:

  1. Numbers – There are dozens of women reporting these crimes committed by Weinstein. There are hundreds recounting the crimes committed by Toback. There is just one reporting the crime against Tyson. While this does not mean her claim is not true – it very well could be – it does mean we should remain skeptical unless or until further evidence arises.

  2. Evidence – The further we dig, the more references we find to Harvey Weinstein’s felonious behaviour from jokes cracked during awards shows to warnings during interviews on the red carpet. Toback’s offenses also seem to have been a well-known secret in Hollywood with some suggesting they knew about it for up to 20 years. In Tyson’s case, although the claim was made that he had victimized other students, none have come forward and the sole evidence against him is the eyewitness testimony of a single woman who claims she was under the influence of drugs at the time. Again, this does not mean she is lying, nor does it mean it’s not true. It simply means we must be skeptical and wait until further evidence arises before we accept his guilt as fact.

  3. Corroboration – All of the accusations leveled against Weinstein seem to be eerily alike. He invites the girls to his hotel room, he asks for massages, he answers the door in a bathrobe, etc. Same with Toback. His victims are asked to let him hump their legs, pinch his nipples and look him in the eyes. In Tyson’s case, there is no one else coming forward with similar stories so we can’t compare the details.

  4. People can and do lie – In 2011, Wanetta Gibson admitted to fabricating the allegations of rape she made against Brian Banks after he lost his football career, did time in prison and was forced to register as a sex offender. There’s the infamous Duke lacrosse case from 2006 that damaged the lives of not just the three accused, but also coaches, the entire lacrosse team at Duke and more. In 2005, Jennifer Wilbanks admitted that she made up a story about being kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a Hispanic male and white woman because she didn’t want to marry her fiance. There are plenty more cases I could list, and these are just the ones we know about.

Common responses to this reasoning I’ve noticed around the web are:

“It’s rare for allegations of rape to be false” –  This may be true, but we still have to accept two things:

1. Rarity doesn’t eliminate the possibility that someone could be lying or getting things wrong. As long as there is a possibility the allegations may not be true, we must tread carefully, because no matter how rare, it does happen. In its wake, there are many lives affected, and some totally ruined. Skepticism is always called for when it’s just a single eyewitness’ testimony in the evidence pile.

2. It may not be as rare as we think. There are plenty of stats you could cite in an attempt to prove it’s rare, but none of those stats account for cases of false accusations that have not been discovered yet. It’s not just that there could be men and women serving time right now after falsely being accused of rape, it’s that, according to Innocence Project estimates, there likely are. We just don’t know about them yet. As such, they cannot be included in your false accusation stats.

“You have to believe the victim” – No, you don’t always have to believe the victim. There are situations in which the victim should absolutely not be believed. Such circumstances include:

  1. the victim has proven his or herself to be a consistent liar in previous situations

  2. the victim is/was under the influence of mind-altering substances

  3. the victim can’t keep his or her story straight

  4. the accused has a demonstrably rock-solid alibi

  5. the victim has threatened on previous occasions to use false rape claims to his or her benefit (and it can be proven)

I’m sure, given enough time, I could think of dozens more situations in which it’s not the right thing to do to believe the so-called victim and still not even come close to covering them all. As with most things in life, these situations have nuance and grey areas and variables that change how we should react to them.

“Women don’t report it because they fear they won’t be believed” – While I am sure this is the case for many, many victims of sexual assault, it is not the only reason women don’t come forward. A common thread in the comments made by some of Weinstein’s, Cosby’s, Toback’s victims and more, is that it’s not an easy thing to talk about. It’s embarrassing. It’s grotesque. It involves your most private parts, which you know you will have to go into detail about. These details could be discussed in court in front of your father and mother, your siblings and extended family and friends. Imagine, for a moment, sitting in a room filled with everyone who cares about you, from your parents and grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, to your mentors, colleagues, friends and neighbours, and then having to describe, in lewd detail, the last time you had sex. Then, imagine some unfriendly stranger gets to pick apart your story and all its x-rated details and ask you questions like, “Did you climax? How do you know he penetrated you?” All while your father looks on; while your mother listens and your siblings and so on. This is what went through my mind when I was raped twice. Not wanting to see the indescribable pain on my father’s face is what I was thinking when I did not report it the first time I was assaulted. I had no doubt in my mind I would be believed. I never feared being called a liar. I feared my father’s tears. I am sure I am not alone in these sentiments. So, even if we somehow manage to make the entire world believe every single woman when she says she’s been raped, there will still be many cases that go unreported from women and men.

“It’s innocent until proven guilty in a court of law! That doesn’t mean I, personally, have to follow this rule!” – of course not, but your perceptions of the case added to the perceptions of everyone else in our society can have a drastic effect on a person’s livelihood, on their family and friends and their reputation from now until the day they die. It also says something about you when you are completely unable to apply the same skepticism you would to a god or an herbal cancer cure to an unverified accusation of sexual assault with zero evidence.

You have to understand that while I remain skeptical about Tyson’s guilt, that does not mean I think he cannot be guilty. It means I don’t know if he is or not and with the production of compelling evidence, I would accept these claims as I have the allegations against Weinstein and Toback. For all I know, Tyson could be a serial rapist. I am not dismissing this possibility by remaining skeptical. I am not defending him, or professing his innocence. I am saying that I don’t know what happened based on one woman’s thirty-year-old story, given the lack of evidence, the unreliability of the human mind to recollect things from yesterday correctly let alone thirty years ago, and the fact that no one has come forward to confirm her claims that he used his position of power to gain sexual favours from other women.

In Weinstein’s case, we believe the claims because there is an overwhelming amount of evidence. In Toback’s case, we believe the claims for the same reason. In Tyson’s case, to believe the accusations made against him, we must accept the word of one woman, allegedly drugged at the time and no doubt experiencing stress, and whose brain is just as fallible as the rest of ours.

I think it is our duty to be skeptical about claims that lack evidence. I’ve said this about religion, I’ve said this about alternative medicine and woo and I’ve said it multiple times about the guilt of criminally accused men and women. We have a duty to treat them as innocent until proven guilty because when we don’t, we create more victims. Wrongfully accused men and women do not have to be formally charged with a crime to have false accusations destroy their lives. People can lose their jobs over it, their family, friends and more.

As an advanced and reasonable society that values science, evidence and freedom, we owe it to ourselves to accept “innocent until proven guilty” as part of our moral code. Why? It’s simple: you never know when the accused might be you.

If you like what I do here and want to support my work, you can chip in here or become a member here.

#neiltyson #rape

bottom of page