Neil deGrasse Tyson, celebrity astrophysicist, is sorry for tweeting.
Over the weekend, after the mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, Tyson tweeted that the number of people killed in the shootings paled in comparison to deaths due to things like car accidents and that our “emotions respond to spectacle more than data”:
In the past 48hrs, the USA horrifically lost 34 people to mass shootings.— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) August 4, 2019
On average, across any 48hrs, we also lose…
500 to Medical errors
300 to the Flu
250 to Suicide
200 to Car Accidents
40 to Homicide via Handgun
Often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data.
Tyson’s comments were poorly received, as other online personalities called him insensitive and self-interested:
But it does tend to do really well with...certain audiences, and also it feels good to be able to ~~know more~~ than normal people. I know that this, rather than actual curiosity, is what drives a lot of people to science content.— Hank Green (@hankgreen) August 4, 2019
FUCK OFF!!!! There's your data!!!!— Smash Mouth (@smashmouth) August 4, 2019
No one person caused 500 medical errors.— Sam Newell Ω (@BFranklin2017) August 5, 2019
No one person caused 200 vehicle deaths.
No one person committed 200 suicides.
No one person killed 40 people with a handgun.
One asshole with a high powered rifle killed 20 people in El Paso.
See the fucking difference.
His tendency for “well, actually”-ing is well-known online, and something he’s long defended. But as the country reeled from the heartbreak of two mass shootings back-to-back, Tyson had no choice to give as much of an apology as he was capable of constructing.
“My intent was to offer objectively true information that might help shape conversations and reactions to preventable ways we die,” Tyson wrote in a statement posted on Facebook on Monday. “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.
“So if you are one of those people, I apologize for not knowing in advance what effect my tweet could have on you. I am therefore thankful for the candor and depth of critical reactions shared in my Twitter feed,” he said.
Giving Tyson the benefit of the doubt, he was putting the number of deaths from the shootings into a scientific perspective. His data is meant to convey that Americans should be concerned about where else the country might be failing when it comes to mental and physical health care resources.
But the tweet went viral partly for coldly assuming that people are incapable of multitasking. People can mourn the loss of life in a mass shooting and at the same time believe that the death rates for medical errors, the flu, and suicide (particularly since the gun suicide rate in America outpaces its gun homicide rate) in the US are worrisome. The tweet also implies that anyone emotionally affected by the deaths in the El Paso and Dayton shootings is being single-minded — they’re just responding to “spectacle.”
The other big reason the tweet drew so much attention — it’s received more than 148,000 replies since Tyson posted it — is that Tyson’s online presence operates at the intersection of smartassery and smugness. He uses scientific data and knowledge gleaned from his science background to dress things down like the media hyping the super moon, or science fiction movies, or popular idioms and paradoxes like “what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?” His online brand has become so predictable, and such a buzzkill, that it’s been frequently satirized by the Onion and its ilk, and criticized by many.
In this instance, Tyson was trying to demystify the idea that humans should be sad at the horror of the mass shooting deaths. Unlike a super moon musing or dismantling the science in a sci-fi movie, though, Tyson’s disregard for the nuances of human life and tragedy is wildly inappropriate.
The furor surrounding Tyson’s tweet and the subsequent dunking of said bad tweet come after Tyson had been laying relatively low as he faced a separate scandal.
After four women accused the astrophysicist of sexual misconduct in March, the American Museum of Natural History investigated the claims, which Tyson denied. Last month, the Museum announced it had concluded its investigation and that Tyson would keep his job as the director of the Hayden Planetarium.