“Often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data,” Tyson wrote in a Sunday tweet comparing the weekend tragedies to other common ways people die. Among his examples were medical errors and car accidents, which Tyson noted will cause hundreds of casualties in any given 48-hour period.
The backlash was swift, and many found Tyson’s tweet ill-timed and devoid of empathy. Some people seek solace from public figures in times of crisis, and even though Tyson called the shooting horrific, thousands of people had flocked to his Twitter account to show their disapproval.
“To call this disappointing from someone as smart as @neiltyson is a massive understatement,” one user wrote. “Can we not strive for fewer medical errors AND fewer mass shootings at the same time? Can we not want a better flu shot AND fewer gun deaths? Be better than this, Neil.”
Others took exception with Tyson’s comparison of the mass killings to the flu, which can be stymied with vaccines. In contrast, no such measures exist for victims of mass shootings and gun violence.
Tyson attempted to clarify his stance in a Monday afternoon Facebook post, titled “TweetStorm.” The “largely preventable” causes of death he’d enumerated the day prior, he said, was an effort to “offer objectively true information that might help shape conversations and reactions to preventable ways to die.”
He also reiterated his original point: The general public tends to react with great fervor to “spectacular” incidences of death, while more typical deaths garner a less-emphatic reaction.
“Where I miscalculated was that I genuinely believed the tweet would be helpful to anyone trying to save lives in America,” he wrote. “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.”
Tyson’s sardonic, facts-above-all personality has rubbed people the wrong way in the past — and he has earned a reputation for gleefully pointing out the scientific flaws in movies, songs and other things people generally enjoy.
But this time around, he missed the mark in his messaging.
“I personally value knowing with precision and accuracy what reaction anything that I say (or write) will instill in my audience,” he wrote. “And I got this one wrong.”