Skip to main content

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Fear is a poor response to El Paso or Dayton

Written By | Aug 5, 2019
El Paso, Texas, Fear

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

WASHINGTON: Fear is more powerful than reason. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson learned that lesson yesterday. Tyson’s tweet after El Paso is something that was “true but unhelpful”.

Under furious bombardment, he apologized. He apologized for being reasonable. He reasonably attempted to put the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton into perspective, the better to approach gun policy rationally. As economist Walter Williams says, “compassionate policy requires dispassionate analysis.”

His point was?

Tyson’s point was simple: “Our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data.”

According to Tyson’s data, 200 people die in car crashes every 48 hours. We lose 40 to handgun homicides. In 2018, 387 people died in mass shootings or about two every 48 hours.

In 48 hours this weekend, 31 died in mass shootings.

El Paso, Texas, Massacre

Wikipedia –

If mass shooting deaths were spread out over the year, they would be simple handgun fatalities. And no one would notice them against the background of gun violence.

But they occur in clusters of four here, 20 there, and they are reported and re-reported and shared as headlines on the Drudge Report.

They can’t not be noticed. And they loom huge and terrifying.

As Tyson observes, our emotions – our fear – respond more to spectacle than to data – than to reason.

A fear of flying

That point doesn’t diminish the awfulness of slaughter. What happened in El Paso and Dayton should never have happened. If we can find reasonable ways to make mass shootings not happen, we should do it.

We can’t find those reasonable ways to stop mass shootings if our thinking is dominated by fear.

When airline disasters occur, there’s a measurable spike in anxiety about flying. Statistically, however, you’re more likely to die in an accident on your way to the airport than in an airplane. The press and public focus on the hazards of the rare and spectacular rather than the mundane and merely messy.

The psychology and business sense behind that are clear. On top of that, we really aren’t good at thinking in terms of statistics. Statistical analysis probably causes more anxiety than flying.

But the focus on the spectacular makes it hard for us deal effectively with our problems.

Irrational and irrational-er.

Fear drives two important perspectives to the U.S. gun debate.

One group is afraid that their homes will be invaded. Their daughters will be raped and killed, their parents murdered in their beds. They know that the police don’t really protect anyone and can’t prevent these crimes. The police only go through the mess to figure out what happened and arrest the perpetrators after the fact.

They want to be armed and ready to defend themselves and their families. If there’s a shooting at the theater or a restaurant, they want to be the good guy with a gun who stops the bad guy.

They will fight tooth and nail to keep all the firepower they need to prevent incidents that are wildly unlikely.

The other group is afraid that they’ll be shot at a concert.

Their children will die in a shooting at school, and their parents will be killed in church on bingo night. They’re afraid of people with guns, especially if those people are young, white males. The enemy is armed and dangerous, and they want him disarmed.

They fear mass shootings in public places and want to do what they have to to make schools and Walmart safe again.

Why so afraid?

People in both groups are as mad as the Joker. That is, they look at the world in a rational way, but assuming a distorted reality. They see the spectacle but not the mundane, and they over-emphasize the spectacle.

Understanding that doesn’t diminish the horror of a terror attack, an airline disaster, or a mass shooting. Home invasions, rape-murders, and school shootings are real, and people killed in them would have lived, if only …

But remember Tyson’s statistics and ask, why should these events drive the debate on gun violence and gun control? Why focus our energies and anger and fear on the improbable while ignoring the mundane?

Walk and chew gum …

A common objection to this line of thought is that we can deal with both. There’s no reason that the huge number of people dying in “regular” gun violence should stop us from dealing with mass shootings. We can reduce regular traffic fatalities while improving airline safety. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Perhaps we can, but kids still die while texting and we don’t treat it as a crisis. Gun violence is far more likely to kill a young black man than a middle-aged white woman, but middle-aged white people drive the discussion, not young black men. Mass shootings and school shootings are a crisis; everyday gun slaughter is just a problem to deal with.

Stopping mass shootings is a matter of banning assault rifles and silencing President Trump, but regular shootings are a complex problem of poverty and oppression and despair.

We aren’t thinking dispassionately. We can’t distinguish a real crisis – 40,000 gun deaths every year – from the spectacle. Tyson is right. The critics who accuse him of being cold and uncaring think the world suffers from too little emotion. That we have too little heart.

We have plenty of heart; now it’s time to engage our brains.

Before the next El Paso. Dayton. Gilroy.  Before the next time.

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. –,_Texas#/media/File:El_Paso_Skyline.jpg

Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.