Neil deGrasse Tyson said something stupid

It happens. We all say stupid things now and then. But this gaffe was spectacularly ill-timed — he’s trying to diminish the emotional response to our Weekend O’ Mass Murder.

Yes? And? If I’m told someone died of a medical error, I will be distressed and say we should reduce the frequency of those errors, and doctors and hospitals will agree and point to efforts to prevent them. Those same doctors will tell you about vaccination and treatment programs to reduce deaths due to flu. There are suicide hotlines and therapists who strive to help people who want to kill themselves. We require licensing and training before you are allowed to drive a car, and we pay fleets of police to enforce traffic laws. The police are also paid to prevent criminals from killing people and to arrest those who do. Those terrible deaths? Society is trying to do something about them.

Mass shootings, not so much. People are grieving and terrified and even, dare I say it, emotional about these incidents because they are so arbitrary, because we would be helpless in those situations, and because nothing is being done to prevent them. Limited regulation, gun manufacturers gleefully peddling instruments of destruction to the public, and a criminal organization, the NRA, dedicated to opposing all restrictions on gun availability…so people are rightfully angry at this continuing madness. Don’t try to minimize it. Placidity in the face of preventable horror allows it to continue, while anger gets shit done.

That was a bad tweet. But there’s something even worse: Tyson’s apology. Oh my god. It’s horrible. For one thing, it’s not an apology. He regrets nothing he did, but gosh, all you other people — you should appreciate the information he has bestowed upon you.

“My intent was to offer objectively true information that might help shape conversations and reactions to preventable ways we die,” his note read. “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.

“So if you are one of those people, I apologize for not knowing in advance what effect my Tweet could have on you,” he continued. “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.”

Don’t you realize that he was trying to be helpful? He admits he got something wrong…how his audience would react. He still doesn’t appreciate the difference between a flu death statistic and a specific event in which a racist murders a group of people for the color of their skin.

Neil, you need to learn how to apologize. Here’s a helpful video. I apologize in advance if it triggers resentment on your part, and for not knowing how you will react to helpful advice.

Or perhaps you’ve already researched the topic of how to make an apology and encountered this video.

If so, I have to tell you that that one is satire. It’s what not to do. Your apology seems to follow the template with surprising accuracy, unfortunately.


  1. Saad says

    Almost all of those are apples and not the orange that is a hateful individual planning and carrying out gruesome murders of strangers. Very poor display of reasoning from NDGT. Tsk, tsk.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    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.

    Most people would have learned this well before adulthood.

  3. PaulBC says

    Mass killings have a disproportionate effect on society because they are not errors or accidents. They change people’s expectations and behaviors. They also cause the redirection of resources in ineffective ways such taking up valuable education time doing gun violence drills instead of addressing the root cause.

    But maybe the real point is that they are preventable. Other countries do not have our problem at the scale we have, and the reason for it is clear.

    If I’m dying of a rare disease, it’s little solace to know that more people will die of the flu this year. If I’m also told that there’s a cure for it that has been banned in the US, I have right to be angry about it. And mass gun violence isn’t even that rare. This is a case where minimizing the “emotional” response is counterproductive. We should be angry. Complacency is what got us to this point.

  4. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Trevor Noah on The Daily Show gave an excellent response to NdGT’s first tweet. Noting that all the other deaths he listed we are TRYING to do something about, while the one NdGT dismissed was one the Senate is refusing to do anything about. Automibile deaths was the easiest to list all the things we do to reduce the danger, while guns we do nothing.

    back on topic:
    NdGT at least avoided a notpology, by admitting he f’d up. Still left it as halfpology [tm]

  5. garnetstar says

    How could anyone not see that it’s not the number of people killed that is the source of emotion, but how they were killed, and why? That emotion is appropriate in cases (and so many cases) in our society of viciousness towards others, culminating in murders? And reaching to the level that lives are at risk if one shops, goes to nightclubs, goes to houses of worship, concerts, or school?

    You’ve just shown your own callousness, Neil.

  6. microraptor says

    Shorter NTDG apology: Sorry, folks. People weren’t paying attention to me so I had to say something.

  7. says

    The one statistic that NTDG listed that is worth comparing, is homicide by handgun. I’m not sure where he got these numbers, because by my count, the number of gun homicides in 48 hours is ~80 (but maybe some of those aren’t handguns). Plus another 55 deaths by gun suicide.

    The point you should take away is that gun control will save many more lives than just the ones you hear about in the news.

  8. militantagnostic says

    I wonder if the 500 deaths per day from medical errors comes from the bogus study that ORAC has taken apart more than once.

  9. kome says

    Whataboutism is never appropriate. If you want to participate in a conversation that other people are having, participate in that conversation those people are having rather than try to make everyone talk about the thing you want to talk about. There are seven billion people on this planet, and you can likely find some people who want to have the conversation you want.

  10. killyosaur says

    @militantagnostic yup it is. And a whole bunch of medical professionals (Orac/Dr. David Gorski included) have been pointing out and criticising.

  11. microraptor says

    kome @10: My go-to for someone who tries to engage in Whataboutism is “if you were in a car wreck and had to have a leg amputated, would you be comforted if while you were trying to come to grips with this someone walked up and started telling you about the people who’ve lost both legs in a car wreck?”

  12. benedic says

    “200 to Car Accidents”
    Could be instructive to analyse the idea of “accident” involved in the word applied to crashing motor vehicles. A euphemism perhaps, that suits all concerned and shuts down serious remedies.

  13. Curious Digressions says

    His original comment comes across as rational-splaining. Saying that people shouldn’t be upset by this thing because other things are so much worse, so stop acting so ~~emotional~~. That implies that responding emotionally is problematic. In my opinion, that’s false. It’s commonly used to deflect earned anger. It implies that other problems negate the impact of a different problem; also false. Finally, it implies that a person can and should only be be concerned with the worst problem. If the concern isn’t for the worst problem, it’s misplaced, so shut up (koffDear Muslimakoff).

    Did he actually call his second statement an apology? It sounds more like an explanation of his thought process. He does say “I apologize”, but it comes across pretty clearly that he thinks he was in the right or, at worst, had bad timing. It’s possible that he doesn’t see the issue with 34 mass shooting deaths or why people would be so upset about it. That does say something about him. I an curious how many deaths in a mass shooting it would take for him to feel that outrage is justified.

    If he intended to convey optimism that people are capable of continuing to live in the face of greater horror than two mass shootings in 24 hours with a death toll of 34 people, as demonstrated by these examples, he should be apologizing for his terrible communication skills.

  14. Jazzlet says

    Bendic @#13
    In the UK car crashes are now referred to by the police and other authorities as Road Traffic Collisions or RTCs replacing the old terminology of Road Traffic Accidents or RTAs for that very reason; they are very rarely actually accidents, but nearly always the result of excess speed, alcohol or drug use, phone use, being too tired or any other thing that causes, as the offence says, ‘driving without due care and attention’

  15. PaulBC says

    Curious Digressions@14

    Did he actually call his second statement an apology? It sounds more like an explanation of his thought process. He does say “I apologize”, but it comes across pretty clearly that he thinks he was in the right or, at worst, had bad timing.

    Maybe he means it in the sense of offering an apologia (excuse or defense) (see Not likely, but it’s funny that we use a word that originally meant almost the opposite of what we want from an admission of wrongdoing and expression of regret.

  16. VolcanoMan says

    I dunno. I mean, Tyson’s tweet does kind of reek of “what-aboutism.” People have been pulling that crap forever to diminish whatever horrible tragedy to which they don’t want people paying attention. But I have no reason to think that Tyson’s intent here is to distract, OR diminish the justified reaction to this weekend’s tragedies (and the plague of similar events that seems to uniquely affect AMERICA, and no other developed country to the same degree). And from what I understand of his politics, I believe that he is himself AGAINST the cult of the gun in America which is the main obstacle (aside from the very existence of the 2nd Amendment and the way it’s been interpreted by the courts) to a comprehensive legislative solution to this kind of problem. In fact, he did mention suicide in his ill-conceived tweet, and looking at the data, the vast majority of those are suicides that succeed due to the use of a gun. Gun control advocates for decades have been pointing out that 1) while mass shootings are BAD, they are fairly anomalous crimes that share almost nothing in common with most other firearm fatalities, and 2) that some proposed measures that, if enacted, might prevent a few mass shootings, will not necessarily do anything to stem the tide of gun owners (and their relatives) who choose to end their lives with a perfectly legal gun (over 20,000 people every year, ~5,000 of whom are under 35 years old).

    One other area I think is worth talking about, is that social policies that improve the welfare of average Americans, that provide a better safety net and allow people to undertake certain initiatives (like gain a university degree) without incurring great financial risk, will almost certainly reduce violent crime (including mass shootings). If peoples’ lives weren’t so shitty, if they didn’t have asshole politicians scapegoating minorities to get elected, if politicians listened to social scientists and proposed actions that would ACTUALLY solve some of the problems facing the country today…less people would be in a position where they WANT to murder strangers. Most mass shooters aren’t mentally ill (despite what the great orange fascist says)…they’ve been manipulated, their fears and resentment have been stoked by politicians and pundits. They are the symptom of a disease: stochastic terrorism, which WORKS because America has this asinine “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” culture that blames people for not succeeding in life.

    Anyway, yeah, it probably wasn’t the greatest time to appear flippant with respect to massive gun violence…I found his tweet to be both callous and disrespectful. But I would have been a lot more sympathetic to him had he gone after Trump and his Trumpanzees, Fox News, the various right wing Youtube pundits, etc…they didn’t pull the trigger, but there’s a reason mass shootings are rising in America, even as almost all other violent crime is diminishing. If American politicians had the courage to raise taxes (a LOT) and use the money to commence a massive infrastructure modernization scheme (putting millions of Americans to work), as well as to pay for the university education of anyone who is accepted to study at an accredited institution…I think less people would be susceptible to the politics of resentment that Trump has encouraged.

  17. Pierce R. Butler says

    On average, across any 48hrs, we also lose… 300 to the Flu …

    Eh what? Per the CDC, the US loses 6,516 to flu annually. That works out to ~18/day, 36 in 48 hours.

    Personally, I find getting one’s facts accurately (at least within an order of magnitude) outweighs considering them unemotionally. No, I didn’t check Dr. dGT’s other numbers.

  18. says

    One might argue about what is more important, but if you’re wrong both on the emotions and the facts, you’re probably just plain wrong.

  19. DanDare says

    We seem to have had this happen a lot. Something is wrong and then some one points out some fact that is supposed to make it all clear. People get upset and the apology that follows is “sorry you were upset, I’ll be more sensitive with the facts. But you really do need to know this “. Ignores the relevance of these facts, the meaning of things and the narrowness that is avoiding other things. Rationality Rules comes to mind, and Dawkins “Dear Muslima”.