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Just the facts?

In the wake of the appalling mass shootings last weekend, Neil DeGrasse Tyson (the pre-eminent scientist/communicator in the US) tweeted some facts that were, let’s just say, not well received (and for which he kind of apologised). At least one of the facts he tweeted about was incorrect (deaths by medical errors are far smaller). However, even if it had been correct, the overall response would have been the same, because the reaction was not driven by the specifics of what was said, but rather by the implied message of the context in which it was said. This is a key feature (or bug) of communications in a politicized environment, and one that continues to trip up people who are experienced enough to know better.

Why bring this up here? Two reasons: First, I still come across scientists active in public communications in the climate realm that insist that their role is simply to give ‘just the facts’ and that they do so in a completely objective manner. Second, I often see people using ‘facts’ rhetorically to distract, diminish and devalue arguments with which they disagree without ever engaging with the arguments substantively. Thus it’s worth picking apart what is happened to Tyson with an eye to improving self-awareness on how ‘facts’ are received by the public and to help recognize, and maybe defang, the rhetorical use of irrelevant ‘facts’ as distractions. It should go without saying that, of course, I support basing discussions on truth, but any real discourse is far more than a mere recitation of facts.

Why isn’t a recitation of facts objective? The ‘fact’ is, that there are far more facts that can be brought up at any one time than there is time or energy to do so. Thus any intervention in a public discussion that is nominally fact-based has already been filtered – choices have been made in what is being presented, when it is being presented, how and why. All of these choices are subjective, and are affected by one’s own values and assessment of whether any intervention will be effective with respect to your goals. No facts really stand alone, all of them require explicit or implicit context to be made sense of.

For instance, “CO2 concentrations have exceeded 410 ppm” is a fact but for the importance of this to be clear, the reader might need to know that CO2 is a gas, in the Earth’s atmosphere, and that historical levels were much lower but now are rising fast, and that it affects long-wave absorption of radiation in the atmosphere and that this is a big part of what maintains the Earth’s climate, and that the last time CO2 was so high was perhaps in the Pliocene (3 million years ago) when temperatures were perhaps 3ºC warmer and sea level was ~25 meters higher than now. That’s a lot of implicit context for a simple ‘fact’.

If readers have a different context, an equivalently factual statement such as “CO2 concentrations have reached 0.041% of the atmosphere”, might have quite a different (intended) implication. And indeed, I see this one used all the time, with the implicit context that 0.041% is more obviously a small number, and that (implicitly) small concentrations can’t possibly have an impact (notwithstanding all the times when they do), and thus discussion of human-related causes of the CO2 rise is a waste of time.

I recall an episode when Joe Bastardi, trying to diminish the importance of rising CO2 for climate, described it as a ‘colorless, odourless, and tasteless gas’. These statements are correct, albeit that they are totally orthogonal to concerns about it’s increasing radiative effect. When I criticized his subsequent conclusions, he responded by claiming I actually agreed with him on most of his statements!

The implicit context of statements of fact has been extensively discussed in the philosophy of argumentation (notably by Toulmin), and is described as the ‘warrant’ for any conclusion. In the two examples above, a different ‘warrant’ is being appealed to. (Read Walsh (2017) for a good discussion on this topic in a climate context). Since warrants are frequently not spelled out, they are both a source of implicit bias and confusion. Different audiences can perceive different warrants, or none, and, especially on social media, can often assume the worst.

Claims, then, of pure fact telling, are thus correctly suspect. And worse, tit-for-tat exchanges of facts, each with differing implied warrants are almost totally pointless since the tacit (and conflicting) contexts are not being addressed.

At best, interventions like Tyson’s are ‘tone deaf’, since the implied warrant (‘people die all the time, so don’t worry about these’) goes directly counter to the more widespread value of empathy for the victims, and concerns that nothing is being done about these kinds of events. Any intervention that doesn’t acknowledge the reasons why people care (that acknowledges and shares their values) is going to be controversial (at best).

To conclude, facts don’t just stand on their own, and purveyors of facts are actually relying on implicit warrants that are values-based. If the goal is to generate more light than heat, these warrants need to be explicitly acknowledged and discussed (and that goes beyond mere facts). Conversely, if people are tossing out irrelevant facts, countering with other facts isn’t going to be productive. Either examine the implicit warrants and values, or just move on.

References

  1. L. Walsh, "Understanding the rhetoric of climate science debates", Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, vol. 8, pp. e452, 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/wcc.452

103 Responses to “Just the facts?”

  1. 1
    nigelj says:

    CO2 is a colourless, odourless gas etc. This seems to be a case of “lies by omission”.

  2. 2
    Dan DaSilva says:

    People who are offended by Tyson’s comments are the same people who believe Global Warming Alarmism. They do not want to deal with facts because of an easy fact that does all their thinking for them. That is the “consensus” and this fact fits their personal ideology and it shows how much they care.
    Even scientists have this mindset and are offended by facts. Tyson let his scientific brain take over for one ill-fated moment and he stated facts. Tyson apologized for these facts because his followers were having a cognitive breakdown. The problem with people who worship Tyson and Climate Scientist is that they can not handle the truth when it does not align with their feelings. Feelings are everything in the world of the left.
    So when dealing with science and in the words of Joe Friday please “just the fact ma’am”.

  3. 3
    Dan Miller says:

    Regarding the note in the piece about “small concentrations can’t possibly have an impact,” I made a short video comparing CO2 in air to ink in water in order to show that, indeed, things in small amounts can have a big impact…
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81FHVrXgzuA

  4. 4
    David Appell says:

    Joe Bastardi is orthogonal to science, as far as I can tell.

  5. 5
    Bruce Tabor says:

    Thanks Gavin,
    Please give Tyson a break. Public communication of science is hard, especially for someone in Tyson’s position, and especially if the science has a political context. You have to somehow make complex science comprehensible and compelling, while at the same time walk a political tightrope and maintain your equanimity while under continual assault from all sides often for the smallest peccadilloes – and not just from your opponents, but your fellow scientists. Ask Jim Hansen.

    Perhaps we should leave it up to the professional politicians, especially those who grasp the significance of, say, climate science and make the issue their life’s work. Al Gore for example. But the guy never seems to get the science just right.

    Let’s wait for the perfect science communicator and human being and vacate the field until then.

    Sheesh!

  6. 6
    nigelj says:

    Dan DaSilva @2

    “People who are offended by Tyson’s comments are the same people who believe Global Warming Alarmism. ”

    Wrong. I wasn’t offended at his comments and I accept the consensus on climate change (after looking carefully at both sides of the issue). I just thought his comments were odd and out of place, not sure what he was trying to achieve. Such killings are terrible, and it was not the time or place to be rationalising the issue, that would naturally upset some people.

    “Feelings are everything in the world of the left.”

    Amazingly ridiculous comment. The right are just as emotive and instinctive as anyone, obviously so. You consistently lack objectivity Dan.

  7. 7
    Carbomontanus says:

    Hr.Schmidt

    I think I can contribute here:

    “FAKTA!…DATA!…BASTA!…SVADA…PRAVDA!…MAKTA!…”

    Riddle: What is so frappingly similar with all theese big Words?

    (correct answer: They all mean exactly the same)

    “Makta” in Norwegian is Power or being in charge cfr. might or mighty.

  8. 8
    James Charles says:

    “Feelings are everything in the world of the left.”

    Says the amygdala challenged.
    “Conservative fears of nonexistent or overblown boogeymen — Saddam’s WMD, Shariah law, voter fraud, Obama’s radical anti-colonial mind-set, Benghazi, etc. — make it hard not to see conservatism’s prudent risk avoidance as having morphed into a state of near permanent paranoia, especially fuelled by recurrent “moral panics,” a sociological phenomenon in which a group of “social entrepreneurs” whips up hysterical fears over a group of relatively powerless “folk devils” who are supposedly threatening the whole social order. Given that conservatism seems to be part of human nature — just as liberalism is — we’re going to need all the help we can get in figuring out how to live with it, without being dominated, controlled and crippled by it.”
    https://www.salon.com/2014/07/29/secrets_of_the_right_wing_brain_new_study_proves_it_conservatives_see_a_different_hostile_world/

  9. 9
    kathleen says:

    What most people have neglected to note about Tyson’s comments is the tremendous emotional burden that school -aged children suffer now, and in turn, their parents and teachers who are trying to deal with these fears. Parents are rightly very upset that their very small children are being put through “active shooter” drills, and virtually everyone in the US now curtails some activities for families or themselves out of fear of becoming a victim of gun violence. This is or course adding onto most Americans rational fear of walking through parts of the cities where they live, being alone at night in cities, parking lots, bus stops, etc. The “costs” of mass shootings in the US are not just the death toll and their ranking by the media. It has become an intolerable mental burden and warping of American civic life.

    Not being a scientist I frequently find myself trying to persuade scientists these days to adopt a “Yes, and…” approach to gaining support for action to address climate change. Obviously there are hardened enemies of making necessary changes, but a great many people — millions — are ready to undertake many changes in their life.

    Please do NOT leave the politics up to the professional politicians, even those as committed as Al Gore. Most of them are listening to corporate donors, not scientists. Instead, bringing as many ordinary people as possible into “climate activism” by encouraging them to do whatever they can — plant trees, save bogs, don’t eat imported meats, eat fewer meat meals per week. Take an interest in whether your workplace or a child’s school is following good energy efficient practice. Building a huge non-ideological, non-partisan body of people who are personally invested in furthering good climate outcomes is the only way politicians in the democracy will EVER respond to scientists warnings, because a majority of the citizenry is demanding it from them.

    It must be frustrating to be a scientist and be surrounded by people who don’t know what you are talking about, who are ignorantly trying to pick their way through this, even try to pick apart what you are saying because they cannot face such a frightening picture of the future. Most of them will never understand what you are saying, but if you think it is important to plant trees or dispose of an air conditioning property, you have an opening, a chance to form an alliance that could lead to the right kind of global movement, embraced by locals, that you want and need.

  10. 10

    DDS 2: So when dealing with science and in the words of Joe Friday please “just the fact ma’am”.

    BPL: Okay, here are the facts. 1) Global warming is real. 2) Human technology causes it, mainly the burning of fossil fuels. 3) It’s the worst crisis human civilization has ever faced outside of nuclear war.

  11. 11
    dpy6629 says:

    I too think you are too hard on Tyson.

    The hysteria about these tragic events is driven by mass media sensationalism, hyper partisanship (another hook to attack and blame your opponents), and a long frustrated desire to restrict gun ownership.

    More generally, there are always many tragic problems that we could address and limited resources. Opioids are a problem that is under reported as is the seriousness of homelessness. There seems to be a media wall of “silence.” Both dwarf mass shootings, as tragic as they may be, but do not generate the clicks of the more dramatic events.

    Red flag laws are probably a good idea and might address this problem at a minimal cost. Reigning in the entertainment industry and its more and more graphic violence is OK with me. But, we also need to address the much more serious problems of violence and addiction that are destroying literally hundreds of thousands of lives every year in the US. Tragically in the case of homelessness its ideological blindness that prevents the recognition of the causes and the cures for the problem.

    There is nothing wrong with placing current events in a broader context. If anything its needed to counter a truly biased media. The modern era is full of hysterical and exaggerated demands for action to “fix” something accompanied with emotional appeals.

  12. 12
    Nemesis says:

    Gavin Schmidt, I highly appreciate your intelligence, awareness and honesty. Thanks very much for that article.

    Just like the ecosystem, human communication is falling apart. Sheer chaos ahead.

  13. 13
    Thomas William Fuller says:

    Tyson’s performance was no worse than that of many of your colleagues, Gavin. The fact that you have been marginally less bad than them perhaps explains your current position.

    Tyson was criticized not because of the facts he introduced and the fact that you don’t really realize that would be telling were it not typical. The facts he tried to introduce were a)irrelevant to the context of those reacting to a massacre and b) shockingly insensitive to the grief being experienced by the relatives of victims.

  14. 14
    Mal Adapted says:

    Dan DaSilva:

    People who are offended by Tyson’s comments are the same people who believe Global Warming Alarmism.

    Does that mean people who ignore Tyson’s implicit warrant are AGW deniers?

    I wasn’t offended by Tyson’s gaffe and his somewhat grudging apology, but I did wince, because I’ve come to regard him as an ally and I want his interventions to be effective. In no way do I blame Gavin for using him as an example, however. Gavin’s explicit warrant is to remind us of “the implicit warrants and values” of our own and others’ comments in public fora. For which I thank him! If presumed allies make genuine political mistakes, we should think twice before leaping to defend them. And while it’s important IMHO to correct false or misleading facts, it may be more important to expose the warrant for introducing them, whether it be narrow AGW-denial or a wider culture war. Taking care to avoid logical fallacies, of course: we’re supposed to be smarter than the deniers 8^D.

  15. 15

    I may be just repeating what Gavin says, but I think the point presented here is extremely important. In any context more is communicated than the surface of the message, and in the absence of a real-life relationship the context is mostly imagined. So the meaning of the message is partly projected there by the reader, and sometimes redefined uncontrollably by reactions of others as may have happened in the Tyson case.

    Examining implicit warrant and values correctly is hard across ideological boundaries. Even harder it is to express values that resonate positively on the other side.

    Ideological disconnect and distrust is maybe the major roadblock of online climate advocacy. (There is the same problem with arguing against doomsday scenarios. One is easily interpreted to be ideologically suspicious.)

    Face-to-face, or at least a real-life relationship on the background of online communication makes it much easier.

  16. 16
    Al Bundy says:

    Tyson should have concluded with the repetition of his opening: I abhor the mass murders. That makes his opening line “real” as opposed to throwaway.

    Note that Obama correctly said that bathtubs are more dangerous than terrorists. If you dis Tyson you best paint Obama with that brush, too.

    I ask, if you had a trillion dollars would you spend it creating evildoers (by your definition) while trying to prevent a few hundred deaths by the evildoers you create or on preventing the destruction of the biosphere while moving all those potential evildoers to like you and so to not become evildoers? (Re-phrase for the white-supremacists who did the two deeds being focused on. Hatred is a recursive two-way street. Those bozos were just responding to Drumpf’s dog whistles.)

    Or, if you had a trillion dollars would you spend it making vehicles safe? Handing out anti-slip tub decals? Man, I can think of a zillion better ways to spend Big Bucks than to go on a testosterone binge. Remember, everybody believes “We are the Good Guys!” That includes Canadians, Iranian hardliners, and even (believe it or not) GOPpers! I love the USA and am ever so pissed at GOPpers for throwing MY country in the toilet just because they hate demographic shifts. Dudes, lily-white with lots of closets in which to stuff Others ain’t coming back. (And if you were as not-a-racist as you claim the demographic shift wouldn’t bother you, eh? And if you abhorred socialists more than you love whiteness you wouldn’t be begging Norwegians to come on over, eh?)

    A planet divided is easier to burn (but makes gerrymandering way more effective).

  17. 17

    DA said:

    “Joe Bastardi is orthogonal to science, as far as I can tell.”

    Bastardi also apparently got punked at last month’s Heartland Conference by a bad Trump impersonator. The video is embarrassing, unless it was all a setup — which would of course make it performance art and thus orthogonal to science.

    president-trump-impersonator-calls-heartland-climate-denier-conference

  18. 18
    Ken Fabian says:

    @3 dan miller – I’ve used that very comparison myself, tho without a video to demonstrate – I’ll link to yours in the future.

    Whilst all analogies are just analogies, this one does visibly show changes to the way the passage of light (EMR) is changed by small amounts of a mixed in substance.

    I think re the matter at hand – any effective spokesperson for taking the climate problem seriously will have their utterances scrutinised closely by the climate responsibility opponents, and not only those utterances related to climate. Discrediting voices of/with perceived authority has been a powerful tool for undermining public confidence in the expert advice. As has been framing the issue as responding to extremist demands rather than directly addressing decades of consistent expert advice, which has remained essentially the same whether commissioned by conservatives or progressives. Much easier to rally opposition to extremists than opposition to, say, the carefully considered advice of the US National Academy of Sciences.

  19. 19
    Russell says:

    Gavin:
    However hyperbolically Niel may respond to hype in the news cycle, 2/3 of Bastardi’s statement is incorrect. He was dead wrong to describe C02 as an’ odourless, and tasteless gas’.

    We all enjoy its taste in saturated solution, but even whiff of it at 30 % rather violently reminds us of what it is : an organic acid anhydride.

    While people don’t much notice CO2 at metabolic concentrations, mice do, and some moths and, lamentably, mosquitos, can detect its variation at the part per million level.

    The climate wars are bad enough without dragging in other polemics, witness how the Columbia School Of Journalism revival meeting that revamped The Guardian‘s climate style manual usshered in the cringe-worthy debut of Woke Climatology in Vogue

    https://vvattsupwiththat.blogspot.com/2019/07/new-conde-nast-climatogy-journal-for.html

  20. 20
    nigelj says:

    I’ve seen one or two people use the absolute temperature scale to describe global warming, probably because it conveniently gives the impression of a smaller increase than the conventional notation. Theres no sensible reason to use such a scale.

  21. 21
    Nemesis says:

    Erm, does everyone realize the difference between victims of medical errors, car accidents ect and sheer (racist) hate KILLING/MURDER? I hope so. If not, just ask some prosecutor about the details.

  22. 22
    Lynn says:

    My stats professor tells of getting a card when he graduated — personified numbers coming up to the mic and speaking, talking bows, with the caption, “The numbers speak for themselves.”

    He used that to explain that the numbers don’t speak for themselves, but require context, etc.

  23. 23
    Radge Havers says:

    argumentum ad factoid

    It seems as though Tyson has gotten flippant and smug in his old age. He should know better.

    The complacent old coot is nodding off at the wheel if you ask me.

  24. 24
    MartinJB says:

    DDS: You are so wrong. I saw plenty of conservatives on Twitter getting all in a tizzy over NDT’s comments. Nice try.

  25. 25

    #3–

    Yeah, the video is good. I have a conceptual version: imagine an (almost*) Olympic-sized swimming pool which holds 500,000 gallons of water.

    Since CO2 is currently ~410 ppm, and the pool holds half a million gallons, clearly you should be able to pour 205 gallons of black ink into that pool, no problem! It’s “too small to have an effect.”

    Or so I’m assured, anyway. Even if that would represent 41 of those 5-gallon plastic tubs painters use.

    *https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olympic-size_swimming_pool

  26. 26
    S Browne says:

    Interesting opinion piece on ‘facts’. Especially from a website that touts itself as: “Climate Science – Climate Science from Climate Scientists”. What’s the implicit warrant of that statement? Maybe “We have the real facts and nothing but the real facts.”

    Science is a tedious process of accretion of observational data. Periodically scientists try to connect and explain those data points via theories, test those theories with more observational data, make predictions based on those theories, and verify whether the predictions are observed to be correct. This is followed by rinse, wash, and repeat cycles ad infinitum. Notice that nowhere does the word ‘fact’ appear. All facts and theories are conditional statements to be superseded at some point by other facts and theories.

    Climate science has many more wash and rinse cycles to go before it has the ability to make predictions with any kind of accuracy and precision. In the meantime, what people make of so-called facts is driven more by their political beliefs and world view than anything else.

  27. 27
    Nemesis says:

    @S Browne

    “… rinse, wash, and repeat cycles ad infinitum.”

    You mean like the rinse, wash and repeat cycles of the funny/criminal oil industry and it’s scientific apparatus?:

    https://www.smokeandfumes.org

    You know, politics or not, the harsh FACTS will always win and I love it:

    I don’t even need science (nor politics) to realize where capitalist empire will end quickly, I just look out the window, seeing the ecosystem falling apart rapidly. Politics is denying and/or downplaying most of these hard facts for decades and I guarantee, the final awakening will be hellish :)

    Call it science, call it politics, call it whatever you like to call it, I call it the real cooking pot of Nature and I love it. See you and your beloved ones there soon.

  28. 28
    Nemesis says:

    Addendum to my recent comment:

    We have a saying in Germany:

    ” Da, wo der Schmerz ist, da ist das faktische Leben.”

    Translation:

    ” Life de facto is where the pain is.”

    The deniers might blather on their way to the climate/extinction boneyard as loud as they like to blather, the Alt-Right might jump on the bandwagon openly as they do right now (in fact, they infiltrated the public climate debate a long time ago already^^), but they can never escape the pain, they can never escape Life de facto in the beautiful cooking pot of Nature. Ah, I LOVE Nature and it’s harsh facts even more than science, let alone funny politics. Let me talk straight:

    I love Hell as the burning Fire of Truth is to be found in Hell, not in some funny heaven filled with sweet lies and smoke and mirrors.

    The pain is real, the cooking pot of Nature is real, flesh and bones are bloody facts no one will escape from, sing halleluja 38)

  29. 29
    Nemesis says:

    Correction of my recent comment:

    “… sing halleluja” should be “sing hElleluja”.

  30. 30
    Nemesis says:

    Just the facts, the facts are never really that hard to predict if you are willing to open your ears, eyes and mind amidst Real Hell:

    ” How climate change could fuel the far right

    … Add it all up and we’re left with multiple signs that a world enduring climate change could be one in which the far-right thrives as never before.”

    https://theweek.com/articles/857811/how-climate-change-could-fuel-far-right

    Call the coming (short-lived) status quo “Climate/Eco Dictatorship of the far right”^^ Exactly those who denied anthropogenic climate heating endlessly will act as the “saviours” :)) Anyone surprised?^^ Com on, it’s just the way real Hell works, hehe. Anyway, the global climate/extinction crisis will be the end of the far right resp the Alt-Right and their beloved ones as well ;) After that? Anarchy and chaos and then:

    The Great Silence upon raped Mother Earth.

    Lay back and relax as the facts will always win, that’s the real beauty of facts in the cooking pot of Nature. So be it! I cast a Spell on Empire and I mean it!

    Luciferian regards,
    Nemesis

  31. 31
    Killian says:

    …for which he kind of apologised).

    Incorrect. He fully apologized. Your perspective makes you guilty of the same sort of error you are trying to highlight: The full context. That context includes the speaker and their communicative style, personality, intent, etc.

    You said,

    the reaction was not driven by the specifics of what was said, but rather by the implied message of the context in which it was said.

    No, it was driven by the general ignorance and illogic that drives discourse in what Paul Kennedy would call this Acquisitive Era. Tyson’s tweet was about irrational risk assessment and the effects on policy. It didn’t imply anything; it was obvious. However, most people are irrational in their risk assessment. And that was his point: it is damned difficult to solve problems we are collectively irrational about.

    You said,

    At best, interventions like Tyson’s are ‘tone deaf’, since the implied warrant (‘people die all the time, so don’t worry about these’)

    , and reveal why your criticism is completely wrong: You, like most of America, had no clue what he said because you weren’t thinking in terms of risk – though it was absolutely clear it was his intent – but assumed an intent to diminish and belittle the losses. But how do you jump to such a pejorative, nasty assumption of such a terrible intent by a person not known to be such a soulless fool?

    You made the same error this response indicates, from the FB page you linked to:

    Alex Webb Of the things listed, they included death as a result of:
    Negligence, illness, mental illness, accidents, and finally,
    The intentional and illegal taking of a human life by another.

    You’re surprised at the response to likening these things to one another?

    You forgot to include the 100 or so people who will die of old age.

    But he did not “liken” them at all. He was not comparing anything qualitatively except that our sense of risk is irrational. To assume he meant to cdiminish the pain and anguish of those people, their terror, via comparison other manners of death would mean he intended to harm others with his tweet – clearly not his intent. The problem is the darkness in the hearts of the commenters and criticizers who find ill intent where they wish to, or can’t avoid seeing it because of their own “headworms.”

    Couching your comments as miscalculation or naivete does not improve them; you missed his meaning like the rest of the those criticizing. Your full comment was,

    At best, interventions like Tyson’s are ‘tone deaf’, since the implied warrant (‘people die all the time, so don’t worry about these’) goes directly counter to the more widespread value of empathy for the victims, and concerns that nothing is being done about these kinds of events.

    , and it is insulting to Tyson as a human being. People die all the time, don’t worry about these? That’s abjectly poor analysis of his intent. Again, since when does he have a reputation for laughing off others’ pain and suffering?

    Tyson said,

    In the past 48hrs, the USA horrifically lost 34 people to mass shootings.

    Horrifically. How does that in any way minimize the losses or pain?

    On average, across any 48hrs, we also lose

    Also lose. Also horrific. Also loss. Also pain.

    500 to Medical errors
    300 to the Flu
    250 to Suicide
    200 to Car Accidents
    40 to Homicide via Handgun

    Does the 500 error matter to the context? Not even a little. Are these other ways of dying not also horrific and mostly preventable? And the last highlights his point: More die by handgun, but there is far more activism against assault weapons. The handgun kills far more, but the assault weapon is the target of virtually all the activism and vitriol. Does that strike anyone as rational?

    This makes Tyson’s point *obvious*: We are irrational about risk and it affects our policy and resource decisions negatively, which he phrased as,

    Often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data.

    The error here, Gavin, is yours and many millions of others who did not think with clarity, but spoke with assumptions and undeserved critcality which are the result of their own headworms, i.e. personal issues, biases, beliefs, etc. And that tendency is exactly what he meant to address, and did…

    if one was paying attention.

  32. 32
    Adam Lea says:

    The primary issue with Tyson’s comments is not that it offended me personally, but that it is yet another tedious example of the fallacy of relative privation. It is equivalent to saying that no problem should be tackled as long as there are worse problems. To people who love to use this fallacy, I say to them “If I punch you in the face, should I tell you not to complain about it because plenty of people get murdered?”.

    The other problem is that the comments fail to distinguish between accidents, and natural causes, and human malice, as though they are all equal just because they all cause death.

  33. 33
    Steve Milesworthy says:

    Sometimes “facts” like these obscure other facts.

    Billions are spent on avoidance of medical error, flu vaccines and car safety. The money is being spent because the risks are recognised. What extra money is being spent preventing random gun violence?

    Another thing that confuses people is when past risks end up seemingly not causing as much damage as predicted, which can help them conclude that current risks are less serious than is claimed. e.g. the ozone hole, acid rain and the Y2K bug. The “alarmists” were “wrong” because people listened to the alarms and took action.

  34. 34

    n 20: I’ve seen one or two people use the absolute temperature scale to describe global warming, probably because it conveniently gives the impression of a smaller increase than the conventional notation. Theres [sic] no sensible reason to use such a scale.

    BPL: Scientists use it. I use it, in planetary astronomy. All my published work on planetary temperatures uses it. I agree it can be misused to give an impression that global warming is minor, but informed people know its the difference in temperature that matters anyway, and that’s the same whether expressed in kelvins or degrees C.

  35. 35

    SB 26: Climate science has many more wash and rinse cycles to go before it has the ability to make predictions with any kind of accuracy and precision.

    BPL: Here are 17 correct predictions climate science has made so far. I understand there are others accumulated since I compiled this list:

    http://bartonlevenson.com/ModelsReliable.html

    Just because we don’t know everything, does NOT mean we know nothing.

  36. 36
    Windchasers says:

    All facts and theories are conditional statements to be superseded at some point by other facts and theories. Climate science has many more wash and rinse cycles to go before it has the ability to make predictions with any kind of accuracy and precision.

    [needs citation]. This was stated as a fact, but lacks supporting evidence.

    And I disagree that “all facts and theories are conditional statements to be superseded at some point by other facts and theories.” This might be true in some sense — we gain greater knowledge, and our theories in the future will be more comprehensive — but this does not negate what we know now. Future theories do not overturn what we know now, but expand on it.

    Despite Einstein’s Law of Relativity, I was still taught Newton’s laws of motion in college physics. Why? Because it’s still quite accurate enough for the vast majority of situations I’d encounter. Einstein’s findings didn’t overturn what Newton had discovered except at some edge cases.

    Likewise… don’t hold your breath waiting for mainstream climate science to be overturned. Sure, there are uncertainties — and climate scientists can tell you exactly where they are and why they’re still uncertain. And these uncertainties are incorporated into our estimates of climate sensitivity.
    If you’re positing something else, some major element contributing to climate that scientists have overlooked, you’re going to need to bring evidence.

  37. 37
    Kimberly Dick says:

    I found Tyson’s comments to be a particularly interesting trash fire. His intent, I assume, was to attempt to put the deaths into context, to highlight the fact that humans seem to see certain kinds of deaths as more impactful than others. If lots of people die one at a time across the country, few people notice. But a much smaller number dies in a single circumstance, and people take notice.

    But trying to point this out right after a mass shooting is not only insensitive, it ignores some incredibly important context. The increased psychological effect of mass shootings vs. larger numbers of individual shootings is a fact of life, and it means that mass shootings do widespread harm far beyond the individual people involved in the incident. The epidemic of mass shootings in the US has led to police being stationed in schools, which hasn’t done anything to reduce violence in schools but has resulted in a drastic increase in arrests of students, particularly non-white students. It has also resulted in widespread active shooter drills, which though understandable, surely cause widespread psychological harm to an entire generation.

    The body count is not the only damage of importance.

  38. 38
    jb says:

    S Browne at 26

    Assuming that everything you said about the scientific process is correct (meh), the question then becomes: Do you know enough about the work that has actually been done to conclude with such certainty that “Climate science has many more wash and rinse cycles to go before it has the ability to make predictions with any kind of accuracy and precision”?

    Do you even know what you mean by “any kind of accuracy and precision?”

  39. 39
    Dominik Lenné says:

    Tyson may have been kind of unsensitive. I read a couple of the answer tweets, and some where pretty thoughtful, exploring the dimensions of communication.
    Had a discussion with an intelligent and successful man (a surgeon) about climate change, population growth and related matters, and he was quite ignorant, unlogical and defensive. It dawned on me, that one strong motivation of people is, to avoid loosing their face, avoid defeat, at any cost. This is the relationship level of communication. Now you can call them dumb – I’d call them just human.
    The art, the great art, is to allow somebody to concede that you have a point without making him/her feel, that he/she lost a battle.

  40. 40
    nigelj says:

    S Browne @26, climate science has made plenty of accurate predictions, as in the following historical account, which also includes some spectacularly failed predictions by the sceptics.

    https://johncarlosbaez.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/successful-predictions-of-climate-science/

  41. 41
    nigelj says:

    Steve Milesworthy @33 “Another thing that confuses people is when past risks end up seemingly not causing as much damage as predicted, which can help them conclude that current risks are less serious than is claimed. e.g. the ozone hole, acid rain and the Y2K bug. The “alarmists” were “wrong” because people listened to the alarms and took action. ”

    Yes exactly right, and add things like the ebola outbreak in Africa and the bird flu, except that the alarmists were actually largely wrong about the y2k bug. However it was a matter of computer technology rather than science. Countries that did nothing much to fix the y2k issue didn’t suffer horrendous computer problems from what I have read.

  42. 42
    nigelj says:

    Kimberly Dick @37, I agree on the whole. Clearly more people are killed by driving accidents or drowning than mass shootings or terrorism in places like America, yet mass shootings and terrorism grabs the headlines and does lead to the risk of an over reaction and hysteria. Not that we should ignore the problem of course. So Tyson has a point, but I think he just chose the wrong time to open that discussion. It was insensitive but that seems his only sin.

    Having said that, mass shootings and terrorist attacks are perhaps so scary because of their gruesome nature and unpredictability. We know driving is a risk and we factor that in to our lives, and it will probably always be a risk, but mass shootings and terrorism is no accident or failure of technology;it is deliberate and designed to terrify. There’s a psychological difference for how some people react, and shooters and terrorists know this and exploit it.

  43. 43
    Russell says:

    Tyson’s “kind of apology” to the outrage triggered by his tweet suggests intersectionality may link global warming and heated debate.

    How else could the snowfake population increase so mightily in the face of AGW?

  44. 44
    David B. Benson says:

    nigelj @41 — I assure you that the Y2K problem was only resolved by the efforts of a great many programmers.

  45. 45
    Nemesis says:

    You guys can’t imagine how these american right wing mass shootings are percieved in Europe. I’m very happy that I live in Europe where mass shootings are almost none existent because, unlike in America, we don’t hoard guns at home. Now go and make fun of Europe because we are helpless as we can’t defend ourselves against “muslim” terror, like even Obama made fun of us in a press conference and countless other Americans make fun of us.

    This kind of anti muslim resp anti migrant bullshit propaganda got it’s ugly roots in America mostly. Stiring up the fear of migrants, may it be muslims or mexicans or whatever migrants, is a desease and Trump et al, the NRA and the alt-right fuel it willingly and profit from it. Just walk on on that path and you might see some kind of civil war in America in the not too distant future.

    Let me talk just facts like Tyson did:

    2996 american citizens have been killed on 9/11, while roughly 35 000 american citizens die year by year of car accidents and around 300 000 american citizens die of obesity every single year: https://www.wvdhhr.org/bph/oehp/obesity/mortality.htm

  46. 46
    Steve Milesworthy says:

    42 nigelj

    “Countries that did nothing much to fix the y2k issue didn’t suffer horrendous computer problems from what I have read.”

    Possibly straying a little too far off-topic. I’ve seen this claim. “Countries” in this claim generally include South Korea which did spend a lot of money but proportionally less than, say, the US. But SK already had a much more modern software infrastructure. Y2K was a lot about legacy systems which were a bigger problem in the USA and Europe.

    I know my organisation at the time was dependent on several very old systems where issues were found. The problem was that up front no one could honestly say where the issues would exist so there was a lot of work just catching up on software inventories (which had ongoing business benefits).

    Then of course there is the fact that people who don’t prepare for the worst are often protected from their failure by those who have prepared.

  47. 47

    S Brown, #26–

    BPL (#34) and nigel (#40) already refuted more than adequately the untruth that climate science isn’t usefully predictive. I’d only add that the permanent Model-Observation comparison page here at RC is useful in this regard as well:

    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/climate-model-projections-compared-to-observations/

    But additionally:

    All facts and theories are conditional statements to be superseded at some point by other facts and theories.

    So, when do you expect the value of g to be “superseded”, and by what?

    Climate science has many more wash and rinse cycles to go before it has the ability to make predictions with any kind of accuracy and precision. In the meantime, what people make of so-called facts is driven more by their political beliefs and world view than anything else.

    Well, that statement, at least, seems to be more driven by political beliefs and world view than anything else. It certainly doesn’t have a good basis in ‘facts’–mutable or otherwise.

  48. 48

    I think the salient point about the Tyson tweet that has remained unarticulated so far is that intention matters to humans. A bedrock principle in criminal (as opposed to administrative*) law is what’s called “mens rea”, usually translated as “guilty mind.” It matters, deeply, whether someone’s death was the result of an intentional act or not (as well as whether the one acting recognized its moral reprehensibility).

    In the case of the Tyson tweet’s alternative causes of fatality, “intentional” fails to describe medical error, flu, and car crashes. It does apply to handgun homicides, of course, but I’d see that as a case closely allied to the mass shooting issue. It also applies to suicide, which again is allied to the (IMO) excessive availability of guns, but that case does at least avoid the moral obloquy of a person imposing an existential choice on someone else. So, in my view, Tyson’s alternatives are a mix of apples and oranges, with maybe a couple of limes thrown in for good measure.

    *Practical tip: Traffic offenses are administrative, and intent is irrelevant. So if you want to go to court to assure the judge that you didn’t intend to speed, don’t bother–from his/her perspective, it doesn’t matter. In that context, it is indeed “just the facts.”

  49. 49
    Killian says:

    Re #32 Adam Lea said it is yet another tedious example of the fallacy of relative privation. It is equivalent to saying that no problem should be tackled as long as there are worse problems.

    No. Wrong. That is a fair takeaway *from your perspective,* but it was not at all the intent of the tweet.

    See my comment above.

    The other problem is that the comments fail to distinguish between accidents, and natural causes, and human malice, as though they are all equal just because they all cause death.

    Also incorrect. See my comment above.

    37
    Kimberly Dick says:
    12 Aug 2019 at 12:06 PM

    I found Tyson’s comments to be a particularly interesting trash fire. His intent, I assume, was to attempt to put the deaths into context, to highlight the fact that humans seem to see certain kinds of deaths as more impactful than others. If lots of people die one at a time across the country, few people notice. But a much smaller number dies in a single circumstance, and people take notice.

    Kimberly Dick said But trying to point this out right after a mass shooting is not only insensitive

    I don’t think there is ever a time our irrational society would have accepted that tweet. You can assume there is, but based on what? People don’t like having their irrationality held up to look at, simple as that.

    The issue is far less the tweet and far more the unwillingness and inability to problem solve in favor of almost anything else.

    it ignores some incredibly important context.

    I doubt he ignored anything. Big assumption. Poor judgement is likely a more accurate framing for your perspective.

  50. 50
    Eliot Axelrod says:

    More people die from opioid overdose in this country than from car accidents and gun deaths combined, but mass shooting is in the news, and that’s is what has many people upset.

    Tyson was a bit tone-deaf. He came off as a know-it-all when he was probably trying to give some needed perspective.

    He’s done so much good in terms of educating the public about science I think he deserves a lot of slack.