It’s always the fallout that gets ’em. Celebrities too often seem to have the idea that admitting a mistake will diminish their luster, so that an initial small error becomes compounded with denial and evasion afterwards. The latest tarnished star: Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Tyson made a small mistake: in a couple of talks, he falsely quoted George W. Bush. Several people scrambled to track down the juicy quote, didn’t find it, and pointedly pointed this pointy fact out to him, which in Tyson’s words, went like this:
When eager scrutinizers looked for the quote they could not find it, and promptly accused me of fabricating a Presidential sentence. Lawyers are good at this. They find something that you get wrong, and use it to cast doubt on everything else you say. Blogosphere headlines followed, with accusations of me being a compulsive liar and a fabricator.
NO. That’s not how you respond. Allow me to help out, Dr Tyson. Here’s how it should go:
Appreciate the assistance with improving your accuracy.
Thank you for pointing that out to me.
A brief explanation is appropriate.
Human memory is fallible, and I clearly confabulated and misattributed the quote.
Admit and apologize.
I was wrong, and retract that comment.
Promise to correct the behavior (this is important, and note, if you continue to do the same thing in the future, you’ve really screwed over your reputation.* Sincerely change).
I won’t use that quote in the future.
See? Not hard. Keep it short. Keep it simple. Keep it clear. Move on. Critic is either satisfied, or looks petty if they keep harping on it. But jeez, you were wrong, as all of us mere humans are now and then, acknowledge it and do better.
Otherwise, congratulations: you’ve just given a group of conservative religious morons who already despise you a hammer to bash you with, and bash you accurately. The extended dodge just gives more ammunition to the critic, which he can use appropriately (to find more examples of errors, and use them to accuse you of being fast and loose with the facts) or inappropriately (as this critic does, to start quoting theology and use your evasiveness to prop up idiotic arguments about god). Either way, you’re doing yourself, and the rest of us, no favor.
*That would be the Duane Gish approach, who repeatedly had factual errors in his presentations pointed out to him, but would then blithely continue using them in subsequent presentations. Creationists can do that because they don’t have a reputation for honesty, anyway. Don’t be Duane Gish.