Sir Patrick Moore: A great and bad man

The astronomer inspired many, but we cannot whitewash his sexist, xenophobic and homophobic comments as the outbursts of a quirky old eccentric.

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I was an awkward kid, and some of my best friends were books. Books, as I’ve said before, are incredibly important for children. They tell us about our world and other worlds, worlds past and worlds yet to come. One of my favourite books was an encyclopaedia of space, edited by Patrick Moore. It was big and glossy and stuffed to the gills with facts and pictures. I wanted to know everything, I hid under the duvet with a torch late at night just devouring it. Proud relatives would show me off to friends – “tell Kerry what the farthest planet from the Sun is?” Of course I knew (Neptune, at the time). I knew everything, as long as it was in one of my treasured books. Each new fact was as precious to my ten-year-old self as a nugget of gold, or a slice of arctic roll.

Lots of things have changed since then. Some of the facts I took pride in learning have been overturned - Pluto is no longer a planet, because of pedantic morons trying to convince themselves that a naming scheme for different-sized lumps of rock isn’t entirely arbitrary in the first place. But until now, Patrick Moore and the Sky at Night remained an unchanging constant: The Bohr radius, the Planck length, the Patrick Moore. Now, as E.J. Thribb will doubtless observe, there is no more Moore. It’s hard not to feel a bit sad about that.

For many, Moore was a hero. Fifteen years ago I would have agreed, and certainly Moore has inspired generations of people to lift their thoughts to the stars; but few heroes bear close scrutiny, and Moore bears less scrutiny than most. “Never meet your heroes,” the old saying goes, and I’ve found it to be generally true, albeit more because of my personality quirks than theirs. I first met Professor Brian Cox in a pub in Holborn, and became immediately transfixed by how smooth his face was. “I can’t believe how smooth your face is,” were my first words to him, and I suspect he’s assumed I’m an idiot ever since. A brief introduction to Robin Ince a few years ago consisted of me saying “Hi, I’m Martin, I do a blog” and shuffling awkwardly away again. I’m a lot shitter in person.

These were people I wanted to meet though. I never met Patrick Moore, and I’m glad I didn’t, because my all accounts he was not a very pleasant man. Phil “Bad Astronomer” Plait publicly boycotted Moore’s show in 2007 after he made deeply misogynistic comments in an interview for the Radio Times. He suggested women had ruined television in general, and some of his favourite shows in particular: "I used to watch Doctor Who and Star Trek, but they went PC - making women commanders, that kind of thing. I stopped watching."

It’s interesting how keen people have been to whitewash comments like these at the outbursts of a quirky old eccentric. At the time, the BBC quoted one of their own spokespeople, who “described Sir Patrick as being one of TV's best-loved figures and said his "forthright" views were "what we all love about him".” On Twitter, various people have suggested that he was simply ‘old-fashioned’, and that ultimately we should focus on the excellent work he did for science outreach. There are three problems with this ‘loveable eccentric’ narrative.

The first is that Moore’s bigotry went far beyond a few crass comments about Star Trek. His 2003 autobiography set out some interesting thoughts about homosexuals and AIDS. He infamously referred to immigrants as ‘parasites’, declaring that he would “send them all back to where they came from.” Of Germans he believed that “the only good Kraut is a dead Kraut.” With a political career that included chairmanship of the United Country Party, Moore was out there whichever generation’s standards you choose to judge him by.

The second is that you can’t easily separate his professional accomplishments from his private views. My friend Kash Farooq is absolutely right when he says that we should be able to appreciate his work an accomplishments even while acknowledging his failings, but this becomes problematic when people make sweeping claims about him being a great man, or a superb communicator of science. Moore inspired millions of budding young astronomers to pick up a telescope; but if you were a woman, or a homosexual, or an immigrant, or the descendant of immigrants, then you were not particularly welcome in Sir Patrick Moore’s vision of British science.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the hailing of Sir Patrick Moore as simply a ‘great man’ or a ‘hero’ in the wake of his death is a kick in the teeth to those groups he sought to belittle and marginalise through his public statements, people who don’t have the benefit of fame or a BBC PR department to amplify their voices. Twitter yesterday was full of self-righteous people claiming offense at the airing of any criticism of the legend in the wake of his death, but it is equally offensive to see the reputation of a vocal and politically-active bigot white-washed for the history books, particularly if you are in one of the groups he targeted. The dead of course are impervious to offense, and in any case there are probably no retweets or fail whales in the afterlife.

Sir Patrick Moore was both a great man and a bad man. He achieved great things as a peerless writer, broadcaster and explainer of things, and then used his considerable talents to push hideously regressive views on the public. He inspired millions of people to engage with science and astronomy, even as he campaigned vigorously to exclude those who weren’t white and male. To remember him as a bigot ignores his achievements, and to remember him as a hero ignores his sins and belittles those who sought to keep down. He was a complicated man, and we should remember him as such.  


Update: This piece originally referred to Moore "expressing sympathy" for the BNP. This was incorrect, and has been removed.

Patrick Moore. Photo: Getty

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.

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