This weekend, Twitter flooded with reactions to the two mass shootings El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. There was outrage at Congress's inaction on gun control, and the white supremacist rhetoric espoused by right-wing politicians, right-wing media, and one of the shooters. Celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson had a different take: people die all the time.
Tyson, who remains in charge of New York City's Hayden Planetarium after being accused of sexual harassment, tweeted on Sunday in response to the shootings. In the tweet, he listed the average 48-hour death toll of five other preventable deaths, all of which exceeded the number of people who died in those two shootings. The death toll is currently 31, with many more injured. He closed with “Often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data.”
Tyson has since apologized on Facebook, but both the original tweet and the apology exposed just how inadequate a purportedly objective, expert-driven scientific commentary can be in the face of some of the world’s most pressing issues.
As they tend to be when told not to feel how they feel, people were furious. One of the primary criticisms lobbed at Tyson’s tone-deaf take was that a lot more is done to prevent the deaths he cited than to prevent mass shootings. Flu shots are developed each year, hospitals are constantly working to reduce medical errors, traffic laws are adapted, and cars are built ever-safer.
Compare that to what’s being done to manage gun violence in the United States. Even in the wake of these shootings, President Trump has chosen to turn mental illness into a scapegoat rather than advocate for gun control, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of people who have mental illness disorders are nonviolent. Gun control, on the other hand, has been shown to be effective in combating gun violence worldwide.
The deaths Tyson cited are not unrelated to gun control. Because of their uniquely lethal nature, guns result in 50 percent of suicide deaths, despite being used in only 5 percent of suicide attempts.
To compound that, many of the deaths cited are related to systemic inequality and a failure of America to provide social services to marginalized people and mental health care to those who are struggling with depression and other mental health disorders.
His tweet implies that these numbers are objective truths to work from, an age-old argument from data-driven scientists. But these numbers hide another story: one in which America repeatedly fails its most vulnerable citizens. The healthcare system is notoriously biased against people of color and has consistently failed the Black community. Suicide rates are a reflection of gross underinvestment in mental healthcare in America—an issue that deserves attention far beyond the context of mass shootings.
Tyson doesn’t raise any of these issues. He lets the numbers speak for themselves, and there’s a lot they don’t say.
In his apology today, Tyson spent the first half of the note recounting the contents of his tweet, acknowledging that it landed badly. He noted that some information can be “true but unhelpful” when people are mourning, and apologized for not anticipating people’s reactions.
In short: he didn’t get it. Yes, he shared—as he put it—“objectively true information,” but that information is meaningless without context.
Objectivity has long been science’s favorite defense for neglecting the full picture. We’ve been learning this lesson with climate change: scientists have spent decades pushing alarming graphs of rapid warming, but it’s the emotional response elicited by pictures of stranded polar bears that compel donations to fight it.
Data can and should help inform policy and community responses, but it works best when paired with empathy, personal stories, and cultural context. Tyson may have been trying to help move discussions forward, but we need to confront mass shootings, white supremacy, and homegrown terrorism as national tragedies, not just as statistics.