At least 31 people were killed in back-to-back mass shootings over the weekend — first in El Paso on Saturday, then in Dayton, Ohio, 13 hours later — leaving the country shaken and refueling the national conversation on access to firearms.
On Sunday, in the wake of the shootings, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist who leads the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, posted a tweet comparing statistics on other causes of death in comparison with gun deaths, writing: “Often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data.”
For people still reeling from the tragedies, however, his perspective didn’t provide much comfort. What’s more, it was difficult to determine the accuracy of the data he shared.
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
In the post, Dr. Tyson listed how many Americans die on average over two days from several causes: medical errors, flu, suicide, car accidents and homicide by handguns. He said 34 people had recently died in mass shootings. (Besides those in Texas and Ohio, there were attacks in Virginia and Maryland.)
Many criticized the response and its timing as insensitive. Others condemned the astrophysicist for implying that intentional attacks and accidental deaths were comparable.
“The flu doesn’t target people based on their race,” one commenter wrote on Twitter, alluding to the racist motivation behind the El Paso shooting, which federal law enforcement officials are investigating as a hate crime.
“This is the most heartless tweet in history of social media,” another responded on Twitter.
On Saturday, a gunman opened fire at a Walmart in El Paso, killing 22 people. In Dayton’s popular Oregon District, another gunman killed nine people Sunday morning. More than two dozen others were injured in each of the shootings. After the attacks, President Trump condemned racism and white supremacy on Monday morning in public remarks from the White House.
[For the latest updates, read our live briefing on the Dayton and El Paso shootings.]
Dr. Tyson, who has not deleted the tweet, published an explanation on Facebook early Monday morning, acknowledging, “I got this one wrong.”
“My intent was to offer objectively true information that might help shape conversations and reactions to preventable ways we die,” Dr. Tyson wrote. “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.”
Dr. Tyson, responding to The Times in an email, declined to comment further and said he put everything he could think to say in his Facebook post.
Aside from the tweet’s tone, the accuracy of his statistics is unclear because he did not provide a source or time period for the numbers he cited or his methodology for arriving at the averages.
This is not Dr. Tyson’s only recent run-in with controversy. An article published on the website Patheos late last year shared the stories of two women who accused him of sexual misconduct. The article also recounted the accusations of a third woman, who said he had raped her when they were both graduate students. Dr. Tyson has described the first two cases as harmless gestures and has denied that any rape occurred.
The American Museum of Natural History said last month that it had completed an investigation into his behavior and that he would keep his job at the helm of the planetarium. He was also investigated by National Geographic, which aired his television series, “StarTalk,” and by Fox Broadcasting, which jointly airs “Cosmos” with National Geographic. Those companies said in March that his shows would return.
Elizabeth Harris contributed reporting.