Ethics Dunce: Neil deGrasse Tyson (Again) [Repaired]

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

28 thoughts on “Ethics Dunce: Neil deGrasse Tyson (Again) [Repaired]

  1. I find it interesting that you’re reacting so negatively with this one, Jack; I think Tyson’s original tweet was kind of dumb in that he didn’t anticipate the blowback and had to rely on the cheesy apology, but fundamentally, the original tweet is not devoid of merit.

    Part of what we deal with every time one of these things happens is something approaching mass hysteria, egged on by politicians desiring votes and a news media bent on hyping to create clicks (in that context, spectacle is not an inappropriate choice of words).

    Much of my work regularly engages me with risk management and insurance folks. There’s a big difference between ACTUAL risk and PERCEIVED risk. In fact, some pursuits exploit this – think roller coasters, ropes courses, alpine skiing, etc. – in which confronting fears in a given situation is a huge part of the satisfaction participants experience upon having completed the activity.

    In many such activities, the ACTUAL risk is extremely low (well-designed and operated roller coasters are pretty damned safe, for example). Or, consider air travel – by passenger mile, probably the safest form of transportation ever devised. But many people still think it’s dangerous – and that’s the PERCEIVED risk. They actually have a much greater chance of getting snuffed during the ride to the airport. But they still believe that flying is more dangerous than driving.

    What Tyson was apparently trying to do here (I suppose it’s possible that I’m reading into this, but I don’t think so) was say “Hold on. Take a breath. Let’s really consider our odds of something like this happen to us or someone we know – because the odds that it will approach null. Let’s look at this carefully and keep things in perspective.”

    Tyson might be the wrong messenger for that sort of thing, so I suppose you could argue that it was unethical for him to deliver it. The message itself, however, is both a valid and important one – particularly when the social media mobs are gathering pitchforks and torches.

    • If that was what he was trying to say, it was incoherent. In fact, I still don’t see it. It reminded me exactly of Moore’s argument, which was, “Why be so upset with bin Laden and the Taliban? We see 3000 deaths all the time!” I don’t see what the mass hysteria point has to do with the examples of other deaths.It reads (to me) like an effort to trivialize, not to put in proper perspective.

    • I took it the same way you did, Arthur in Maine.

      Part of that was the airline example. I am afraid to fly (not that it has ever prevented me from doing so), but I know the chances of their being a problem are extremely low. I just fear the conditional probability. But, I figure that, if a plane is going to crash today, there are thousands of others that could crash; I could hardly be so lucky.

      But, I also saw a specific Facebook posts saying “they are targeting our concerts, they are targeting our casinos, they are targeting our churches, etc.” that made it sound like there was nowhere that was safe from guns.

      In that context, his perspective was a sterile look at death totals. No emotion, just facts.

      Now, it is not exactly a good analogy because, as many point out, his other examples were not intentional, or it is a known risk that is prepared for, etc.

      Yes, his tweet is not above criticism, but I did take it the way you did. And, considering I generally find the guy annoying, presumptuous, and condescending, I think I did pretty good on the cognitive dissonance scale in giving him the benefit of the doubt. (Or, maybe I just like him because all the obnoxious anti-gun people jumped on him and they annoy me more.)


    • I agree with Arthur. He fumbled the idea but the statement is really about not making important policy decisions when we are in the throes of, or overcome by, an emotional roller coaster. He is suggesting, rather inartfully, that we should not “do something” now, but reserve decision until we are clear headed and calm, considering all of the factors, the issues, and what best would serve the best policy.

      His apology was clumsy and insincere: “If I offended you, sorry” is not much of an apology because it means, “if I didn’t offend you, I’m not sorry”.

      The media response has been awful, with round-the-clock coverage, getting grieving families to tell stories of their loved ones, etc. Yet, Bob O’Rouke’s incessant pandering is at a whole new level of cynicism. I always thought the most dangerous place on the planet was between a camera and Shelia Jackson-Lee. Bob has rewritten that law in spades. He started out “standing with El Pasoans”. Now, he is full-on blaming Trump for what happened in El Paso. Who knew Trump called the shooter up on Friday and told him Saturday would be a good day to cause mayhem in El Paso. Go away, Bob. You are an embarrassment.

      I do think it is interesting that media and Bob are not blaming Trump for Dayton’s horror. Apparently, that was committed by an enraged family member involved in a family dispute, a Democrat Trump-hating Bernie/Warren supporting family to boot. Who knew?


  2. I apologize for the SNAFU with this post; I have no idea what happened. It was complete, it posted,but the last part would not stick, no matter how many times I revised and edited. Ultimately, I just started from scratch with a new version. Thanks to the two alerts I got that the thing was missing a chunk—I never would have suspected it other wise. On my control panel, it was all there.

    I bet this kind of thing happens to Hillary..

  3. I think his tweet suffered from the “Too Soon” syndrome.

    Putting death in perspective, especially when emotions are running high, is, I think, important, although, as you’ve pointed out, the flu is not nearly the same thing. But, somewhere in that message, is an urging for people to look at facts instead of allowing emotions to drive us.

    That is, after all, what we need right now while pundits and late night talk show hosts and Democratic Presidential Candidates and the Facebook friends of you and me both freak out over guns, guns, guns.

    So, poorly put and bad timing, yes, but I don’t think it’s nearly as unethical as some of his other statements.

  4. I think Tyson falls into the incompetence is unethical category. He’s just not very smart. I wonder what kind of undergraduate education he had. I think mine boiled down to four years of sart adults saying: “Think!”

  5. “Sure, automobile deaths are preventable, if we ban driving.”

    The vast majority are directly caused by human negligence and could be prevented with minimal care being taking by persons on the road: drunken driving, distracted driving, reckless driving\high speed weaving, fatigued driving, not wearing a seat belt, failure to use blinker, and so on. (Colorado added tokin’ driving, and reversed decades of declines in automobile deaths.)

    We’ve reached a point where automobile technology has made all but the most severe of accidents survivable, with minimal injury. It is human choices that lead to and directly influence the severity of automobile accidents.

    • Of course. But, how many people used to die in car accidents before wearing a seatbelt became commonplace? How many died because of drunk driving before MADD starting changing the conversation? We still have a lot of driving accidents, but I am a relatively young person and I still remember when it was worse.

      And we see social discourse changing gun ownership too. Yes, the U.S. is a county with a lot of guns, but the overall percent of gun owners is going down. Of course, this is of little import because a person intent on killing others can still get his or her hands on a weapon.

  6. I don’t have quite the same take.

    The ethics violation in this case is one of timing, and a failure to follow the Golden Rule. I think his intended point was that deaths by mass shootings is a comparatively small number in an attempt to help people get past the fear of being randomly murdered, but of course, this is mind-reading. He didn’t use statistics appropriately, focusing on one instance rather than the average numbers including all similar shootings.

    Shopping at a Walmart, however, is not considered an invitation to be slaughtered.

    Neither is driving down the road only to be killed by a drunk driver or a person texting their BFF, but both things happen all the time despite laws forbidding such behavior. Neither is sitting in your workplace in downtown Manhattan with a cup of coffee when a commercial aircraft driven by terrorists crashes into it. Just last October, less than 500 yards from my home, a man walked in to the Kroger and shot two people at random.

    We all know it happens, and Walmart is just another place where people can be in the wrong place at the wrong time. None of these things are “invitations to slaughter,” yet they all happen. This may not be the time, but at some point, we have to recognize that there are no safe spaces. Anywhere.

    How would that tweet shape any conversation?

    In the proper context and at the proper time, it could be used to rebut the Leftist trope that mass murders are a leading cause of death in the United States. Unfortunately, he used the wrong numbers to make a point that might be valuable when it comes to debating solutions, but not in the middle of a cycle of grief and healing.

    The tweet includes facts, but is not “true.” It is based on flawed logic.

    The flaw in his logic is not to take the distributed number of random murders over a 48-hour average period throughout the United States for comparison rather than the instant cases. Had he done so, the comparison between causes of death would’ve been even more stark, and just as inappropriate due to his tone-deafness.

    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.

    This is, unfortunately, exactly what it looks like. Your characterization of his apology is right on. He would’ve been better off not to offer one, as it wasn’t really necessary. Just take your licking, learn from it, and do better next time.

    Not really sure Tyson is capable of that, though…

  7. As others have said, I also think this isn’t quite as bad as it seems. Of course, I put this into context of my own life. This morning, my Facebook was flooded with “OMG we are going to all be killed the next time we go to Walmart unless we get serious gun control going right now!” Many people declared that they were too scared to go grocery shopping with their kids and were discussing ways to get food that didn’t involve going to Kroger or Walmart. The movie theater has been declared unsafe and that anyone taking their kids to the park should be considered an unfit parent, guilty of reckless endangerment. #NotMyPresident was a major tag in my feed this morning. The hysteria of my peers is high, for no good reason. This tweet, to me, seems like an attempt to get the masses to calm the heck down and engage brains. (Though at this point, I’m beginning to believe many people operate on pure emotion, not brains, so asking people to calm down and look at real risk is a fools errand.) Admittedly, I don’t think it was done well and Arthur in Maine does a much better job. Also, the apology stinks and causes more harm than good.

    • Tyson is also responsible for his own baggage. He often tweets snotty, “you peasants don’t have my brilliant perspective” tweets. i referenced the Christmas tweets—did you check them out? They are the context in which I read Tyson’s tweet, and deserve to be. They were…

      “Merry Christmas to the world’s 2.5 billion Christians. And to the remaining 5 billion people, including Muslims Atheists Hindus Buddhists Animists & Jews, Happy Monday.”

      and “Famous people actually born on Christmas Day — Gregorian Calendar: Clara Barton, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Buffett, Annie Lennox, Rod Serling, Sissy Spacek, Justin Trudeau; Julian Calendar: Sir Isaac Newton.”

      They are the same kinds of tweets, with the same message: “You all take this oh so seriously, but it’s no big deal when you’re an intellectual like me.”

      • And I agree, the baggage gets in the way. I also admit that the screaming on Facebook is dragging nearly every pro-gun argument up on the dissonance scale, for me. I still feel that this is more a case of a blind pig occasionally find an acorn. Blind pigs, and nearly anyone on Twitter are not known for their eloquence or clarity, which makes this harder to handle.

  8. Like others here, I read this not as “who cares about a mass shooting, other things are more dangerous!” but rather as a refutation to sentiments like the one several Facebook friends shared yesterday: “Welcome to America. Would you rather be shot by a white police officer or a white teenager?” It’s a contradiction to the “This is SO bad and SO pervasive we have to DO SOMETHING” mindset.

    As always, Tyson comes across somewhat condescending and above-it all. I think in that regard he’s a prime example of the Julie Principle- it’s just how he talks, there’s really no point in getting upset over it every time.

    • Would you rather be shot by a white police officer or a white teenager?

      Uhhh… that is not the racial charistic most associated with most of those killing others…

      • Oh haven’t you heard? All mass shooters are young white men, and it’s very trendy now to post on social media that you aren’t afraid of Black people or Muslims or (list however many other categories you like), but young white men terrify you.

          • And it is a lazy argument indeed – but it does a nice job of fitting the progressive argument. I’ve downloaded and parsed the FBI’s database on Active Shooter incidents. Of 223 incidents between 2001 and 2016 (there may be a more recent report but I haven’t incorporated that data yet), the breakdown is as follows with regard to the ethnicity of the shooters:

            122 White
            45 African American
            28 Hispanic
            9 Asian
            9 middle east
            4 African
            2 American Indian
            The rest from scattered around the world.

            Whites represent 54.7% of shooters. (Whites represent 72.4% of the population);

            African-Americans represent 20.2% of shooters (African Americans represent 12.6% of the population);

            Hispanics represent 12.6% of the shooters (Hispanics represent 16.3% of the population);

            Asians represent 4.0% of the shooters (Asians represent 4.8% of the population);

            Native Americans represent 0.9% of the shooters (Native Americans represent 0.9% of the population).

            You can draw your own conclusions.

  9. Jack is right. The difference between the flu and a mass shooting is that the latter is always attributable to malicious, intentional action.

    There is a point to be made. Mass shootings are a tiny fraction of criminal homicide. Even this article by the Guardian points this out.

    A debate conducted in the aftermath of mass shootings has also prompted a huge public investment in guarding and fortifying public schools against shootings, even though the typical school can expect to see a student homicide only once every 6,000 years, according to safety expert Dewey Cornell.

    Since the 1999 school shooting at Columbine high school in Colorado, the justice department has invested nearly $1bn to help put police officers in schools, though Cornell notes there is still little evidence that school security measures reduce crime.

    The political focus on mass shootings sometimes even undermines policies that are aimed at addressing the big picture of violence. Opponents of universal background checks have sought to undermine Democrats’ push for the reform by pointing out that mass shooters’ murder weapons are often purchased legally. But that’s not the point. Expanding background checks on private sales of guns is a strategy designed to help crack down on the illicit market in guns used in everyday gun violence.

    I wonder why the focus on mass shootings,.

  10. When even one of the most apolitical channels on YouTube condemns your tweet as being fairly terrible in the wake of these events, it’s fairly certain that your tweeter was an overall negative thing.

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