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Neil deGrasse Tyson’s stats in his ‘mass shootings’ tweet were factually incorrect

With all the horrible news over the weekend – 20 dead in El Paso, 9 dead in Dayton, and hospitals in Chicago having so many shooting victims, they turned away patients – you may have missed a rather odd response from the most prominent scientist on all the world wide interwebs.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is known to “fact-check” movies and other pop culture items, correcting scientific inaccuracies and pointing out bits of science that the average viewer may have missed. He even compiled many of these “fact checks” into a talk that he’s given all over the country, including a couple that my wife and I have gone to.

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Most times, his observations are interesting. They’re details that creators missed or got wrong, but also details that creators included that run a bit deeper than the story that’s being told.

A couple of quick examples of Tyson’s:

The song Let it Go from Disney’s Frozen includes a line “My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around”, which introduces kids watching the film to the word “fractal” (I have a short video explaining what a fractal is on YouTube). That’s not necessarily a word that most 9 year olds will know, but it’s being introduced to them in a pop culture setting, in one of the more popular songs to come from a film in recent memory. There’s at least one kid who asked what a “fractal” is as a direct result, and they accidentally learned something while watching a cartoon. That’s a win!

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Another example of his that stuck out to me was his observation in A Bug’s Life, where a mosquito goes to a bar and gets served a drop of blood.

To adults, it makes sense that the drop of blood would sit in a ball on the counter. No big deal, right?

Neil explained that a mosquito would be served this way at a bar because on their scale, the surface tension of the liquid is sufficient to keep the glob intact. There’s no real point in putting it into a cup. That’s a detail Pixar didn’t have to include, especially since they had to figure out how to get the physics to render properly, and so on. It was an intentional decision they made to spend extra resources on this to make physics in a cartoon be consistent with reality.

Neil’s observations like these not only make movies more interesting to many of us, but can also inspire kids and adults alike to think outside the box and look for science in our every day lives.

Then there’s… Whatever this is yesterday.

What the whataboutism?

This is the reaction to mass shootings that nobody asked for, and reactions were, well, about what you’d expect.

My friend Alice applied Neil’s logic to other tragedies:

And my friend Yvette (you may know her as SciBabe) had this excellent take:

And Dr. Katie Mack, a fellow astrophysicist, had these words:

And then of all people, the band Smashmouth chimed in:

Just this morning, Neil posted a note to Facebook entitled “TweetStorm”, where he kind of, sort of apologized. As he explains in the post:

If you missed it, I offered a short list of largely preventable causes of death, along with their average two-day death toll in the United States. They significantly exceeded the death toll from the two days of mass shootings, including the number of people (40) who on average die from handgun homicides every two days.

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.

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.

Read that again – “Where I miscalculated was that I genuinely believed the Tweet would be helpful to anyone trying to save lives in America.”

I don’t understand how that would have helped anyone. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. Tyson’s words are particularly useless when you consider that those who can actually help save lives (our legislators) have failed time and time again to do anything more than offer their most heartfelt thoughts and prayers.

He closes his statement by saying:

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. As an educator, I personally value knowing with precision and accuracy what reaction anything that I say (or write) will instill in my audience, and I got this one wrong.

That’s a lot of words to say “I’m sorry you’re upset.”

As Dr. Mack pointed out:

This situation reminds me of the Always Sunny episode where Frank’s “Wolf Cola” gets caught selling soda to Boko Haram, a terrorist organization in Africa, instead of people in Boca Raton, Florida like he originally thought. In the episode, Dennis makes it a point to not ever actually admit to doing anything wrong when addressing the public. Instead, you pretend to care about people’s feelings until the next outrage porn story gets picked up by the 24 hour news cycle.

You make a public statement, hide for a little bit, and wait for something else to get picked up. It’s the same play that Neil is making. And that’s unfortunate.

I expected a lot better. He’s probably the best-known scientist and as such, acts as an ambassador of science to the general public who otherwise wouldn’t get any science in their social media feeds. The first tweet was bad form. The best time to delete it was the second after he posted it, and the second best time to delete it is right now. But the non-apology apology circumvents responsibility for the damage he’s done to the science communication community, and sets a precedent of not owning up to mistakes.

Everybody makes mistakes, especially when it comes to social media. Most of us are lucky enough that our mistakes don’t get made into headlines for articles like this. But when you fuck up, own it. I have far more respect for those who are willing to own up to their mistakes than I am someone who tries to wiggle away from it in shame.

I’m still a fan of his, I’m still following him on social media, and I’ll probably still go see him talk the next time he does one near me. But, for lack of a better phrase, fucking yikes dude.

We saw people dying in car accidents. Instead of saying “oh well,” we made seatbelts and airbags. We made safety standards for vehicles. Hell, you have to pass a test in order to be able to drive a vehicle, and update your registration on your vehicle every year.

People were dying from diseases like the flu. So, we made vaccines that have eradicated smallpox and rinderpest. Other vaccines are incredibly effective against Polio, Measles, Mumps, Rubella, Chicken Pox, and other diseases.

The “500 medical errors” number is just wrong. As Dr. David Gorski points out on ScienceBasedMedicine.org, A more accurate number is 5200 a year, which works out to be around 14 people a day who die as a direct result of medical errors. 14 is greater than zero, but it’s not nearly as grim as Neil tried to portray it.

Then there’s suicides. over 65 people a day take their own life using a gun. That’s about half of all suicides, according to the CDC.

Our government has agencies dedicated to help prevent people from dying – the CDC, the EPA, and the FDA just to name a few. These were made after problems were identified with diseases, our environment, and with our food/medications. Are they perfect? Of course not. But if you’re waiting for perfection, you’re going to be waiting a long time. If nothing else, they are steps in the right direction.

Something is better than nothing.

I encourage you to call your legislators and express your feelings to them like I just did. I left a voicemail for Indiana Senator Braun and spoke with a member of Senator Young’s staff. If you do call, keep your message short and to the point (write it down before you call if it helps), and be sure you leave contact information so they can verify you’re actually a constituent.

Read next: Your thoughts and prayers are useless.

This article was previously published with a different headline here. This article was republished with a new headline as it is more representative of the content of the article. 

Written by Dan Broadbent

Science Enthusiast. Atheist. Lover of cats.

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Neil deGrasse Tyson gives non-apology apology for his ‘mass shootings’ tweet

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