Tyson attempted to frame an incomprehensible tragedy into understandable terms, and he failed—so do Republican policy-makers.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the most brilliantly analytical minds of today, but he clearly has trouble discerning when to use words instead of data.
His recent Tweet about the dual mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, which killed at least 34 people and injured 53, was a poorly worded attempt to criticize how many preventable deaths occur in the U.S. While the loose implication was that mass shootings are entirely preventable and that any loss of life is deplorable, Tyson ended his Tweet with a decidedly cold, unaffected tone: "Often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data." Responses ranged from shocked offense at the astrophysicist's callousness to thoughtful criticism of how his delivery was flawed.
In the past 48hrs, the USA horrifically lost 34 people to mass shootings. On average, across any 48hrs, we also lo… https://t.co/jJ55MrCGWd— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@Neil deGrasse Tyson) 1564941516.0
@neiltyson No one person caused 500 medical errors. No one person caused 200 vehicle deaths. No one person commi… https://t.co/dNr2BSNlXu— Sam Newell Ω (@Sam Newell Ω) 1564968712.0
@neiltyson I genuinely love you Neil, but I have to ask how someone so smart can say something this dumb.— Josh Gad (@Josh Gad) 1564982693.0
@neiltyson *two fascists massacre dozens of civilians in 24 hours, one even writing he hoped to start a race war th… https://t.co/VKpDV6z3Pc— Ben Norton (@Ben Norton) 1565018102.0
@neiltyson FUCK OFF!!!! There's your data!!!!— Smash Mouth (@Smash Mouth) 1564946181.0
Members of the medical community also took issue with Tyson's cynical take. Dr. Judy Melinek, a forensic pathologist and columnist for Forensic Magazine, called out mistakes in Tyson's data, particularly that his "homicides via hand gun" point is an offshoot of the very tragedy that had just occurred. She wrote, "1. The medical errors number is wrong. It's based on grossly extrapolated data with no autopsy confirmation and assumes that if someone died after surgery it was due to the surgery and not to the underlying disease the surgery was for. 2. Mass shootings are homicides."
@neiltyson 1. The medical errors number is wrong. It’s based on grossly extrapolated data with no autopsy confirmat… https://t.co/p6nDzuT7li— Judy Melinek M.D. (@Judy Melinek M.D.) 1564944335.0
@neiltyson More children die injured by firearms than cancer in the USA. It is in fact the second cause of death of… https://t.co/gFV2RvhF4m— Dr Soledad Miranda (@Dr Soledad Miranda) 1564975584.0
Investigative crime journalist Billy Jensen demanded, "Can you now apologize for your misrepresentation of data when it comes to cause and effect? The top four you listed are tragic causes of death by disease, error or accident. The last one you listed is caused by assholes and their ability to get guns in this country."
@neiltyson Can you now apologize for your misrepresentation of data when it comes to cause and effect? The top four… https://t.co/rT1c8wp1ls— Billy Jensen (@Billy Jensen) 1565015658.0
Tyson soon posted a lackluster and frankly insincere apology on Facebook. He wrote, "My intent was to offer objectively true information that might help shape conversations and reactions to preventable ways we die. Where I miscalculated was that I genuinely believed the Tweet would be helpful to anyone trying to save lives in America. What I learned from the range of reactions is that for many people, some information — my Tweet in particular — can be true but unhelpful, especially at a time when many people are either still in shock, or trying to heal — or both." Aside from his words' academic detachment, Tyson concluded with his own brand of "I'm sorry that you were offended (but not for what I said)" anti-apology: "So if you are one of those people, I apologize for not knowing in advance what effect my Tweet could have on you."
@neiltyson Am sorry that some of you were upset about my idiotic, tone deaf, entitled tweet is not an apology.— Yoni Freedhoff, MD (@Yoni Freedhoff, MD) 1565006466.0
@neiltyson Speaking as an editor, you could've cut everything but these two words. An "I'm sorry if you were offend… https://t.co/CrNbed88oX— Jason Bailey (@Jason Bailey) 1565009880.0
However, the truth is that policy-makers who hold the most power to stop these preventable deaths possess the same attitude expressed by Tyson. With gun control in the United States notoriously lacking universal background checks, Republican Senators continue to oppose gun control laws while condemning each new mass shooting. Various reports list that there have been "more mass shootings than days this year," in the words of CNN, with at least 251 mass shootings within the first 216 days of 2019 (Quartz reports the number to be as high as 292).
Yet, it is overly simplistic to suggest that Republicans who oppose tighter gun restrictions in any way condone mass shootings; rather, they suffer from the same nearsightedness as Tyson, focusing on more tenable issues than the one right in front of them. As Vox notes, "Republicans...have had a more varied set of reactions. Some condemned white supremacy. Some called for moderate gun control measures. Others argued that those seeking gun control or blaming Trump have it wrong. And still others sought to cast the blame elsewhere—for instance, on violent video games." Indeed, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick made an ignorant example of himself on Fox News on Sunday morning by railing against violent video games as the shooter's motivation. In fact, the shooter's manifesto largely railed against the Latinx community and immigrants, only mentioning the shooting game Call of Duty as an example of what not to do in a real-life shooting. Patrick barely acknowledged this, and argued, "What's changed in this country? We've always had guns. We've always had evil. But what's changed where we see this rash of shootings?" he said. "And I see a video game industry that teaches young people to kill."
Tyson similarly misdirected focus from the problem at hand. Much of the outcry over Tyson's Tweet was due to his implication that our reactive horror to mass shootings was misplaced, because "the data" showed that more lives were lost every day due to more common and even mundane tragedies, like suicide or car accidents. It's a point Tyson repeated in his apology, "I then noted that we tend to react emotionally to spectacular incidences of death, with the implication that more common causes of death trigger milder responses within us."
But at least a few Republicans, such as Rep. Dan Crenshaw (TX), condemned the El Paso shooting by rightly calling it what it was: an act of "white supremacy." To put the recent tragic events in El Paso and Dayton into clearer context than Neil deGrasse Tyson provided, the FBI defines a "mass murder" as an incident in which someone "kills four or more people in a single incident (not including himself), typically in a single location." No separate legal or criminal definition exists for a "mass shooting," undoubtedly due to the fraught debate surrounding gun laws and their politically divisive nature.
Violence against another human being because of their ethnicity is one of the most disgusting forms of evil that ex… https://t.co/x28Pm2Zfgf— Dan Crenshaw (@Dan Crenshaw) 1564931515.0
Overall, the one useful point we can conclude from the debacle surrounding Tyson's tone-deaf Tweet is what Dr. Irene Tien pointed out in reply: "In 2018, the fed govt spent: $145M on medical errors, $340M on influenza, $147M on suicide, $597M on car accidents, and >$1B on the opioid crisis. From 2004-2015, a measly $22M on gun violence. These are stats. Not emotions." When compared to other preventable deaths that occur in the U.S. each year, data suggests that the government is doing the least to prevent gun-related homicides. Morbid comparisons between public devastation and violence are only distractions from the institutional failures that have allowed more shootings to occur than days of the year so far.
@neiltyson In 2018, the fed govt spent: $145M on medical errors $340M on influenza $147M on suicide $597M on car a… https://t.co/bp06Zpn03F— Irene Tien MD FACEP (@Irene Tien MD FACEP) 1564969015.0
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