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Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Neil deGrasse Tyson Is Right about the Numbers (and Our Emotions)

Science writer Neil deGrasse Tyson says human emotions tend to respond more to spectacle than data. He's right.

Image Credit: NASA [Public domain]

Numeracy Matters

On Sunday, science writer Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted:

His numbers are roughly correct.

Moreover, his bottom line is important.

The kinds of deaths that get attention are not always those with the largest numbers of fatalities. All of the causes he lists above have more. Handguns are close but even those are for any 48 hour period and it’s unlikely that we will have El Paso/Dayton-style mass shootings every 48 hours. It’s precisely the fact that such mass shootings are rare (although, of course, not nearly rare enough) that leads to the publicity they get.

Learn From Errors

Various people have expressed their upset at Tyson, but when they go beyond upset to actually argue, they typically fail.

For example, one responder wrote:

You can learn from errors

You can heal from flu

You can love life

You can drive safe[ly]

But even if you choose to live a safe healthy life you can do nothing against an American terrorist. You can’t even make a choice because a stupid white virgin boy has decided that you must die.

Yes, you can learn from errors, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t die. You can heal from flu, but many people, despite often good medical attention, don’t. You can love life, but it’s not the life-lovers who are typically at risk of suicide. And you can drive safely, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get T-boned in an intersection by some bozo who runs a red. So just as you often can do nothing against an American, or even a foreign, terrorist, you often, despite your best efforts, might get killed by medical error, flu, and unsafe drivers.

Tyson’s most important point is his last sentence, and many of the people who are upset at him are proving his point.

This article is republished from The Library of Economics and Liberty. 

  • David Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an economics professor at the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California. He is editor of The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund) and blogs at