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Neil deGrasse Tyson is Correct about the Numbers

Summary:
Numeracy Matters Yesterday, science writer Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted: In the past 48 hrs, the USA horrifically lost 34 people to mass shootings. On average, across any 48 hrs, we also lose… 500 to Medical errors 300 to the Flu 250 to Suicide 200 to Car Accidents 40 to Homicide via Handgun Often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data. His numbers are roughly correct. Moreover, his bottom line is important. The kinds of deaths that gets 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

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Numeracy Matters

Yesterday, science writer Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted:

In the past 48 hrs, the USA horrifically lost 34 people to mass shootings. On average, across any 48 hrs, we also lose…

500 to Medical errors

300 to the Flu

250 to Suicide

200 to Car Accidents

40 to Homicide via Handgun

Often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data.

His numbers are roughly correct.

Moreover, his bottom line is important.

The kinds of deaths that gets 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.

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.

David Henderson
David Henderson is a British economist. He was the Head of the Economics and Statistics Department at the OECD in 1984–1992. Before that he worked as an academic economist in Britain, first at Oxford (Fellow of Lincoln College) and later at University College London (Professor of Economics, 1975–1983); as a British civil servant (first as an Economic Advisor in HM Treasury, and later as Chief Economist in the Ministry of Aviation); and as a staff member of the World Bank (1969–1975). In 1985 he gave the BBC Reith Lectures, which were published in the book Innocence and Design: The Influence of Economic Ideas on Policy (Blackwell, 1986).

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