In the aftermath of the two mass shootings yesterday I noticed plenty of politicians, celebrities and other notable figures weighing in on Twitter, offering everything from condolences for the grieving to fingerpointing and verbal attacks. One of the stranger ones that I saw retweeted over the course of the day was from astrophysicist and cosmologist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. It struck me as fairly odd at the time, but not inaccurate, and I’ll confess that I didn’t pay it all that much attention. He provided a few data points about deaths of various sorts in the United States. As it turns out, Tyson clearly believes he’s a master of many trades, but being a grief counselor or therapist ain’t one of them.
In the past 48hrs, the USA horrifically lost 34 people to mass shootings.
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.
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) August 4, 2019
Sounds about right, though I’m not sure how much comfort that was going to be to the families of the deceased. Others were not able to give it a pass, however, and Tyson soon found himself the target of rather withering verbal attacks. This led to the inevitable apology (or nonapology, really), explaining that data should always be helpful, but perhaps not in this case. (Deadline)
Neil deGrasse Tyson apologized this morning following a tweet Sunday deemed “insensitive” about the weekend mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton that sparked a fierce reaction on social media, but not everyone is accepting his apology.
“My intent was to offer objectively true information that might help shape conversations and reactions to preventable ways we die,” Tyson wrote in his apology Monday morning on Facebook.
“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, mistake sort of acknowledged, apology kind of delivered, and we can all get on with our lives, right? Not exactly. The apology, if anything, drew even more boo birds from the peanut gallery.
“I find it incredulous that an intellectual such as Neil deGrasse Tyson would be so unwittingly tone deaf at a time like this,” wrote a Facebook commenter named Andrew Smith. “Which makes his attempt at an apology rather disingenuous.”
Another Facebook user, Kellie Gerardi, commented below Tyson’s new post: “The depth of your reflection in this note is offensively shallow. You used data to draw a false equivalence with unfathomably hurtful timing, and your arrogance has you doubling down with ‘true but unhelpful’. Why even bother with a note?”
As I’ve mentioned here previously, I used to be a pretty big fan of Tyson back when he primarily stuck to talking about the cosmos. He’s always struck me as both intelligent and having the sort of personality and stage presence that allows him to communicate complex information to a broad audience, frequently in entertaining ways.
Of course, as I said, that was back when he was mostly staying in his lane. I’ll confess to having grown increasingly annoyed with him after he decided that in addition to being an expert on black holes, he was also a renowned authority on climate change, political science and, well… pretty much everything under the sun. And in many cases, he’s clearly not.
But yesterday I found myself once again having a bit of sympathy for him. Not because that was actually a useful tweet to ease the pain of the grieving, but because he at least got his facts correct and was speaking on an applicable subject. Mass shootings are shocking and they absorb the full attention of the media for days on end. (Unless it’s a liberal doing the shooting.) That’s no doubt why these deranged madmen wind up perpetrating such horrible acts.
But the reality is that you could add up all of the deaths and injuries resulting from actual mass shootings for this year so far and it would add up to little more than a rather typical month in either Chicago or Baltimore. And only a drop in the bucket compared to the total number of preventable (as in not natural causes) deaths around the entire nation. This is particularly true when it comes to the epidemic of gang violence that never makes it on the air at CNN or MSNBC. So Tyson’s efforts were certainly of no comfort to those who just lost a loved one, but he was making a valid point nonetheless.