In August 2019, a horrific mass shooting occurred in El Paso, Texas, in which 22 innocent lives were taken. While the nation was mourning and vocalizing their anger around the recent increase in mass shootings, Neil deGrasse Tyson decided to chime in on Twitter. In what would become an iconic tweet, he compares the number of lives taken in mass shootings within the last 48 hours with many other “worse” causes of death. These included the flu, medical errors, suicide, homicide and car accidents.
As you can imagine, the tweet stirred the general public and led to backlash. Many people accused Tyson of being insensitive and sharing irrelevant information. In a public apology, Tyson stated that his tweet was truthful and meant to target those who want to help America, but agreed that he had stated these truths at an unhelpful time. Beyond being insensitive, Tyson’s tweet is an example of bad data presentation. Here are some of the issues with Tyson’s tweet from the standpoint of a scientist.
First, scientists-in-training are taught to not present data out of context because this can mislead interpretation. In Tyson’s tweet, he presented facts without any context. For example, when Tyson references the number of deaths from medical error that occur in 48 hours, the geographical span of that data, the socioeconomic status of communities this data represents and the method of data collection are not included. Nor does Tyson explain what is meant by a death caused by “medical error,” which is a complex definition. Indeed, in all of the other statistics he cites, Tyson fails to mention crucial details of how the numbers were collected. Best practices for data presentation in science would provide this context.
Second, Tyson presents these examples of factors that lead to death in an effort to undermine the importance of deterring mass shootings. The fact that there are other factors that lead to more deaths per 48 hours than mass shootings does not mean that we shouldn’t devote emotional and mental energy toward curbing mass shootings. In purporting this, Tyson has committed the logical fallacy of relative privation (“not as bad as”), which dismisses an argument or complaint due to the existence of “worse” problems in the world. Finally, Tyson’s tweet compares accidental deaths with motive-driven deaths. Although it is arguably important to address both of these sources of death, they are generally regarded as different issues, both informally and under the law. Tyson directly compares motive-driven mass shootings to accidental deaths, without giving any credence to their differences.
In addition to poor data presentation practices, Tyson’s tweet clearly demonstrated a lack of emotional intelligence, something for which scientists and physicians are often criticized. Although we can always be better, in general scientists are more emotionally intelligent than we are given credit for. Emotions are big motivators for scientists, especially biomedical scientists, considering many of us likely have been personally impacted by the diseases we study. Many aspects of scientific training today focus on developing the ability to explain science to the general public. Despite this, figures such as Neil deGrasse Tyson become public representatives for the scientific community as a whole. Although they often do a good job of explaining complex scientific issues, it is frustrating to be lumped in with the stereotype that scientists lack empathy and only use facts to communicate the reality, leaving no room for emotional reception. Hopefully the next generation of scientific figureheads will have better communication skills, better represent the scientific community as a whole and serve as better role models for burgeoning scientists.
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