After the horrific mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson angered the internet by putting the number of deaths in perspective.
“In the past 48hrs, the USA horrifically lost 34 people to mass shootings,” Tyson wrote. “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.”
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
The numbers in Tyson’s tweet may not be entirely accurate — he provided estimates — but they do put the causes of death in perspective.
According to CDC reports, there were 47,173 suicide deaths, 42,392 transport-related deaths, and 14,542 homicide deaths by firearm in 2017. This translates to roughly 258.5 suicide deaths, 232.3 transport-related deaths, and 80 firearm homicides every two days or 48 hours.
Some argued that the medical errors number is wrong because it includes deaths from diseases and other natural causes that were simply not put at bay by medical intervention.
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.
— Judy Melinek M.D. (@drjudymelinek) August 4, 2019
Calculation errors aside, Tyson’s tweet put the number of deaths in perspective. Yes, the El Paso and Dayton shootings were horrific, and terrorism is worse than other forms of death. But in the aggregate, more people are killed by other things. Americans are far more likely to get killed in a car accident than they are to get eaten by a shark, but shark attack deaths are less expected and more terrifying.
Tyson was not minimizing these deaths, but putting them in perspective.
Gun control activists attacked him, however. Some, like author Evan Handler, claimed that American society is working to prevent the other causes of death Tyson mentioned, but not working to prevent mass shootings.
This needs to be said again, because you don’t seem aware of it.
We’re working to prevent medical errors.
We’re working to prevent the flu.
We’re working to prevent suicide.
We’re working to prevent car accident.
We’re doing fuck all about mass shootings.
Spot the difference.
— Evan Handler (@EvanHandler) August 4, 2019
Others, like New Yorker staff writer Jelani Cobb, compared the mass shooting victims to victims of ethnic cleansing and race-based lynching.
This is really not the time to be the smug counterfactual guy. Medical errors don’t evolve into ethnic cleansing. The flu didn’t lynch black people to keep them from voting. You’re ridiculously blithe to the implications of ideology-driven violence. https://t.co/yMeXEAdixq
— jelani cobb (@jelani9) August 4, 2019
The band Smash Mouth tweeted, “F**K OFF!!! There’s your data!!!”
FUCK OFF!!!! There’s your data!!!!
— Smash Mouth (@smashmouth) August 4, 2019
Far-left transgender activist Charlotte Clymer mocked Tyson’s approach to data while advocating against the Second Amendment.
“You: I’ve been shot by someone who exploited existing gun laws that are too lax. Rational adult: We should have common sense gun laws that prevent this from happening again. Neil deGrasse Tyson: Vending machines have killed at least 37 people. You should really calm down,” Clymer tweeted.
You: I’ve been shot by someone who exploited existing gun laws that are too lax.
Rational adult: We should have common sense gun laws that prevent this from happening again.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Vending machines have killed at least 37 people. You should really calm down.
— Charlotte Clymer🏳️🌈 (@cmclymer) August 4, 2019
Evan McMullin, the #NeverTrump candidate in 2016, noted the power of terrorism.
“Neil, I’m a big fan of your work and I get your point, but it overlooks the destructive impact of terrorism that, by design, extends beyond its death toll. Terrorism broadly attacks our way of life by inspiring fear, eroding public trust and requiring compromises of our freedoms,” he tweeted.
Neil, I’m a big fan of your work and I get your point, but it overlooks the destructive impact of terrorism that, by design, extends beyond its death toll. Terrorism broadly attacks our way of life by inspiring fear, eroding public trust and requiring compromises of our freedoms. https://t.co/Fqcj9ChAxj
— Evan McMullin (@EvanMcMullin) August 4, 2019
Many of the loudest voices against Tyson belonged to activists intent on using these tragedies to pursue a political agenda, especially gun control.
Many seemed to be putting words in his mouth. Tyson did not say that mass shootings are not bad — he just sought to provide a larger context.
The very fact that the American public and the media freak out at these shootings provides a disgusting incentive for the unhinged terrorists to keep them up. If a marginalized angry individual knows he can drum up attention by committing an evil act, he is more likely to do it.
Americans should mourn the deaths of the 34 killed in mass shootings this weekend. Putting things in perspective does not involve minimizing tragic deaths or horrific evil. But refusing to give terrorists a platform may help disincentivize terror. If Americans can put things in perspective, mourn the dead but not devote wall-to-wall coverage to every mass shooting, that may help prevent these tragedies. If coverage can focus on the heroes who save lives in these situations and deprive the shooters of the attention they desperately crave, that will likely do far more than endless sermonizing about gun control.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.