Americans increasingly want scientists involved in discussion of policy, something that would be great if wanting them also involved listening to them. The American pastime that is still true today, though, is selectively endorsing what scientists have to say when the truth is convenient.
This phenomenon is recently well exemplified by public outrage over a statistics-delivering tweet by one of America’s finest voices in science, Neil deGrasse Tyson. An online tsunami involving multiple Twitter-verified people condemned Tyson’s tweet as insensitive and tone-deaf, many claiming Tyson does not deserve respect due to his tweet.
Terrorism Panic Returned
One of the top tweets in response to Tyson’s post is this post relating the issue to America’s reactions to terrorism, speaking as if how America completely altered airport screening in response to terrorism was a good thing. This is incredible: I thought for sure America has learned from the TSA, the NSA, and their various unsavory paternalistic friends how incredibly costly it is (in both money and human dignity) to act on overreaction to the horror of well-media-covered terrorist acts when a nation has many more quiet problems claiming far more lives. Yet here comes this esteemed post asking that this reactive yoke on American wellbeing that hasn’t even left us yet be brought back. The sort of people that would’ve told the few congresspeople who opposed the Iraq War that they’re being insensitive towards the victims of 9/11 are still here.
Criticism that it was insensitive or tone-deaf for Tyson to post these statistics in the wake of the El Paso and Dayton mass shootings is very unfounded. Whereas Tyson went out of his way to make it clear he thinks this country should not have to deal with mass shootings (except to people who think use of the word “horrifically” sometimes applies to acts they’re okay with), most commenters are explicitly denouncing the bringing up of medical errors, disease, suicide, accidents, and other gun deaths. This reaction to the far more people who died of the other causes is vastly more cold than Tyson’s actual acknowledgment of the problematic nature of the commenters’ tragedy of choice. If anything, those criticizing Tyson along these lines have a shortage of empathy for the people who died of medical errors, disease, suicide, accidents, and other gun deaths as recently as those that died in the mass shootings did. Many that responded went so far as to silently remove “other gun deaths” from the list of death causes Tyson cited to claim that there’s an important difference between intentional tragedy and accidental tragedy, a doubly-faulted claim that was maliciously framed to cherry-pick the items from the list they could feasibly apply their ill-conceived argument towards.
This case demonstrates a frequent trait of the sort of people that cry tone-deaf: they only care about the tone of those speaking against their favorite issues. Their often-worse personal insensitivities are defects they choose to remain oblivious to. And unfortunately, the internet outrage machine enables these people to effectively carry out their anger, when the time is right.
Emotions Should Matter
Emotions should matter. Most of us, if not all, can agree that emotional wellbeing is important to the human. It’s good to be aware of how to phrase things in ways that don’t rub off badly.
But from reactions, it’s clear that there’s no way this information could’ve been phrased in a way the public would’ve been happy with. What was attacked was the information’s presence itself, when Tyson clearly put an effort into phrasing the statistics in a way that acknowledged recent tragedy. No one is forced to read Tyson’s tweets, but the bringing of facts letting people know of many more people that are often overlooked was considered just too much to even see the light of day.
And this is where emotional reaction oversteps its appropriate bounds: when emotion guides our actions and decisions in ways that turn out to be the more harmful choice, when it screams “say no to facts”. And this is precisely the problem Tyson was trying to bring attention to.
And in the end, Neil deGrasse Tyson ended up apologizing for bringing facts to the public. Why aren’t there more scientists involved in policy? Oh right, because it’s an environment hostile to scientists.