Checking out Neil deGrasse Tyson’s comparison of mass shootings to other causes of death

Neil deGrasse Tyson attends the Webby Awards on May 13, 2019, in New York. (AP/Smith)
Neil deGrasse Tyson attends the Webby Awards on May 13, 2019, in New York. (AP/Smith)

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."

"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. 

Claim: 500 Americans die from medical errors every 48 hours.

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.

Claim: 300 Americans die from the flu every 48 hours

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

Claim: 250 Americans die by suicide every 48 hours

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.

Claim: 200 Americans die from car accidents every 48 hours

This claim is in line with the latest available data from the CDC and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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.

Claim: 40 Americans are killed in homicides by handgun every 48 hours

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.