I think the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, which recently allowed pop scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson to continue in his job after credible allegations of sexual harassment, might want to reconsider. Not because Tyson is a harasser, but because he is an arrogant jerk with the ethical instincts of a lemur, who doesn’t think before he tweets, or presumably, speaks. The tweet above is smoking gun.
When you start sounding like Michael Moore—you may recall that Moore made similar comparisons to minimize the significance of the 9-11 attacks, which he couldn’t understand why everyone was all bent out of shape over—it’s time to start checking out the used-brain market. Tyson’s tweet is literally the “Comparative Virtue Excuse,” Rationalization. #22, the worst of the worst. He is arguing that the Dayton and El Paso massacres really aren’t so bad when you consider other deaths. If he’s this stupid, the Planetarium needs to start running help wanted ads.
20 killed in a single incident isn’t “spectacle.” It’s magnitude, and that’s material. It’s not just appearances, and alarm over a mass shooting isn’t the result of some kind of distortion. We know this is a big country, and individual incidents spread over about 330 million individuals add up. The El Paso shooting wasn’t a collection of shootings in multiple states, it was a single attack in a single Walmart. We know and expect that people will die from the flu, that medical procedures carry risks, that driving cars carries a statistical probability of fatalities, and that people kill themselves. (Would Tyson have reacted to the Jonestown horror by sharp-penciling statistics to show that there were more individual suicides in the US that day than the Jonestown body count, so it was no big deal? Presumably so. Heck, maybe he did…) Shopping at a Walmart, however, is not considered an invitation to be slaughtered.
Tyson’s tweet doesn’t provide solace, perspective, or illumination. It’s the snotty, superior reaction of a show-off lacking sensitivity or common sense.
Tyson was predictably shredded for the tweet, and issued an apology, writing,
“My intent was to offer objectively true information that might help shape our conversations and reactions to preventable ways we die. 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 … I got this one wrong.”
- How would that tweet shape any conversation?
- Those “deaths” are only preventable if one assumes that any system can be made perfect, that humans are infallible, and that society will accept totalitarian overbite of its activities to elevate safety and elimination of risk as its top priority. Sure, automobile deaths are preventable, if we ban driving.
- The tweet includes facts, but is not “true.” It is based on flawed logic.
- “I apologize for not realizing that many people are too emotional and dim to comprehend my perceptive reasoning.” Nice. On the Apology Scale, this is a Level 9 apology (10 is the worst):
9. Deceitful apologies, in which the wording of the apology is crafted to appear apologetic when it is not (“if my words offended, I am sorry”). Another variation: apologizing for a tangential matter other than the act or words that warranted an apology.
Tyson has one of the longest Ethics Alarms rap sheets for anyone not named Clinton or Trump. Was yesterday’s tweet worse than his infamous 2017 Christmas tweets? It’s a close call. I think so.
Pointer: Brian Doyle