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Astrophysicist and TV personality Neil deGrasse Tyson received heavy backlash for comparing the number of people killed during mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, to the number of people who die from other causes.
"In the past 48hrs, the USA horrifically lost 34 people to mass shootings," Tyson wrote in an Aug. 4 tweet. "On average, across any 48hrs, we also lose … 500 to Medical errors, 300 to the Flu, 250 to Suicide, 200 to Car Accidents, 40 to Homicide via Handgun."
In the past 48hrs, the USA horrifically lost 34 people to mass shootings.— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) August 4, 2019
On average, across any 48hrs, 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.
"Often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data," he added.
Tyson’s tweet amassed tens of thousands of retweets and likes, but the reactions were largely negative, with many social media users criticizing the post as tone-deaf and highlighting differences between mass shootings and the other causes of death Tyson cited.
"The flu doesn’t target people based on their race," said one popular reply.
"No one person caused 500 medical errors," said another.
In the face of such heavy backlash, Tyson apologized for his tweet on Facebook. But he still maintained that his numbers were correct.
Without weighing in on the appropriateness of Tyson’s tweet, we decided to check his statistics. Our finding: The numbers are generally in the right ballpark.
Tyson did not respond to a request for comment submitted through his website.
This claim is difficult to verify because death certificates don’t leave room for hospitals to admit to medical errors, which could include problems with medical diagnosis, record-keeping, drug administration, surgery or blood transfer.
But Tyson’s number matches what some studies have said.
A 1999 report from the U.S. Institute of Medicine estimated that, on average, about 98,000 people die each year from medical errors in United States hospitals. Taking that 20-year-old estimate at face value would mean that, on average, about 268 people die from medical errors every day and about 537 people die every 48 hours.
More recent reports have suggested that casualties due to medical error might be even higher.
In a 2016 study, researchers at Johns Hopkins University made estimates based on medical death-rate and hospitalization data from 2000 to 2008 and attributed 250,000 deaths per year to medical errors.
Another 2013 study from the Journal for Patient Safety estimated that more than 400,000 patients per year die in hospitals as a result of "preventable harm."
These findings would put medical error behind just heart disease and cancer as the third-leading cause of death in the United States.
However, some researchers have called into question the findings of the Johns Hopkins study, arguing among other things that it’s hard to believe such a high proportion of in-hospital deaths are the result of medical errors.
This claim would be more precise if it said 300 people died from "influenza and pneumonia," rather than simply the flu.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 55,672 Americans died from "influenza and pneumonia" in 2017. That’s about 153 per day and 305 per 48 hours, on average.
The flu is a highly contagious viral infection, and pneumonia is an infection or inflammation of the lungs. The two diseases are different but related, with the flu being a common cause of pneumonia, according to the American Lung Association.
The CDC’s numbers for 2017 are the best data available based on information reported on death certificates.
Other estimates the agency has made using mathematical models have suggested that the flu was associated with an even greater number of deaths in more recent time periods.
This claim is accurate.
According to the CDC, there were 47,173 suicides recorded in the United States in 2017. That means there were about 129 suicides per day, on average, or about 258 per 48 hours.
In 2017, there were 37,133 fatalities caused by motor vehicle accidents in the United States, according to the NHTSA. On average, that amounts to about 102 per day, or about 203 every 48 hours.
Meanwhile, the CDC counted 38,659 deaths from motor vehicles in 2017, or about 106 per day and 212 every 48 hours, on average.
This claim matches up with numbers from the FBI.
Data for murder victims from the FBI indicates that there were 7,032 homicides involving handguns in the United States in 2017, which translates to an average of about 19 deaths per day and 39 per 48 hours. That’s more than the number of homicides by rifles and shotguns.
All together, the FBI recorded 10,982 murders involving some type of firearm in 2017, which lines up to about 30 on average every day and 60 on average every 48 hours.
The CDC’s tally for firearm homicides — based on what’s reported in death certificates — is even higher. The agency said there were 14,542 in 2017.
Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter, Aug. 4, 2019
Neil deGrasse Tyson on Facebook, Aug. 5, 2019
USA Today, "Neil deGrasse Tyson apologizes for tweet about mass shootings: 'I got this one wrong,'" Aug. 4, 2019
The New York Times, "Massacre at a Crowded Walmart in Texas Leaves 20 Dead," Aug. 3, 2019
The New York Times, "Gunman Kills 9 in Dayton Entertainment District," Aug. 4, 2019
ABC News, "In bloody August weekend, gun violence beyond mass shootings," Aug. 4, 2019
National Library of Medicine, "To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System," accessed Aug. 5, 2019
Journal of Patient Safety, "A New, Evidence-based Estimate of Patient Harms Associated with Hospital Care," September 2013
The Guardian, "Study on medical error as third cause of US deaths criticized as 'precarious,'" June 3, 2016
Physicians Weekly, "Misinterpretation of Medical Error Deaths from BMJ Paper Continues," Aug. 15, 2016
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, "Suicide Statistics," 2017
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Deaths: Final Data for 2017," June 24, 2019
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Estimated Influenza Illnesses, Medical visits, Hospitalizations, and Deaths in the United States — 2017–2018 influenza season," Dec. 18, 2018
American Lung Association, "What Is The Connection Between Influenza and Pneumonia?" April 3, 2018
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, "Quick Facts 2017," July 2019
FBI, "2017 Crime in the United States: Expanded Homicide Data Table 8," accessed Aug. 5, 2019
PolitiFact, "Do 250,000 Americans die every year because of mistakes made during surgery?" June 29, 2016