The Sciences

The immediate aftermath of tragedy

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitJan 9, 2011 12:00 PM


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Yesterday, as you are no doubt aware, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 17 others were shot by a gunman at a constituent meet-and-greet. As I write this (late Saturday night), 6 people have died -- including a small child. Like everyone, I was shocked when I heard. I happened to be reading Twitter, and saw a link about it. For quite some time it was being reported that Giffords had been killed, but this was later amended to her being in surgery. As I write this, she is out of surgery and the doctors are optimistic, which is a thin ray of hope in this otherwise terrible situation. My heart is heavy with all this, and my sincere and deepest condolences go to family and friends of those hurt and killed. I'll note that Mark Kelly, Representative Giffords' husband, is a NASA astronaut and is scheduled to command the last flight of Endeavour -- the last flight of the Shuttle program -- to the space station. I have not heard anything from NASA yet on what this will mean for that flight, though a brief statement about the shooting itself was issued by NASA Admin Charles Bolden. I want to take a minute and talk about what I saw on Twitter in the hour or two after the shooting was announced. Rep. Giffords is a Democrat, and one of the first comments I saw was about the Tea Party and how they must be a part of this. For those unaware, in the media the Tea Party members have been played as a fringe group of angry, mostly racist whackos. I've mentioned them a few times here on this blog, mostly to point out their overwhelmingly antiscience stance (or, in the case of one or two, gross misunderstanding of the Constitution). Obviously, I am no fan of that political party. Also implicated was Sarah Palin. Last year, her political action committee (PAC) put together a graphical ad -- still up on her Facebook page --that shows a map of the US with crosshair targets placed over 20 Congressional Democrats' districts... one of which was Rep. Giffords. As I understand it, she also made a series of tweets, where one linked to that ad, and another one telling conservatives "don't retreat - instead RELOAD". No wonder a lot of folks on Twitter were so ready to point at Palin. And other cases of Tea Party and right-wing fomenting abound (including this unbelievable event held by Rep. Giffords' 2010 opponent, "Get on Target for Victory in November Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly"). Let me be clear: I find that sort of rhetoric repulsively abhorrent. And with so much of it around, and so much of it targeting Giffords specifically, it's natural to assume that it's at least partly to blame for what happened in Arizona yesterday. But the thing is, even as I write this, many hours after the event, we don't know what motivated the shooting (though what evidence we do have indicates the shooter was apparently mentally ill), and we certainly didn't in the immediate hour after the news broke. There might be a connection, but there might not. We didn't and still don't have any good evidence either way... and what we do have is circumstantial. At the time, I could see that the rumor mongering on Twitter was about to blast off (the misreported news of Giffords' death was started in the mainstream media but burned rapidly through Twitter), so I thought it wouldn't hurt to say something. Speculation on Twitter is a positive-feedback loop that works on a very short timescale, and can quickly escalate way beyond what the evidence supports. So I tweeted this:

Let me be clear: it is way too early to know motives here, and speculation is counterproductive.

I followed up with some specifics and a discussion with some other people; you can find the discussion on Twitter if you care to. I wasn't too surprised to get some support for this, nor to get attacks. A lot of people were convinced Palin (and the others mentioned above) were setting up an atmosphere where violence was inevitable. That may be true, but we don't know what led up to this specific event. And I want to be clear: don't confuse my not wanting to jump to conclusions with me saying Palin's actions and statements don't play into this at all. It's entirely possible they do. It would be foolish to deny it. But without any evidence it's equally as foolish to simply assume they do. The shooting and the rhetoric are, for now, related but separate issues. Connections may come later, or they may not. Certainly, I would very much like to see the hateful speech gone from politics, and perhaps, if any good will come of this awful event, a spotlight will be focused on that issue. I just watched a short segment on CNN where they discussed this very topic, and I was surprised to see them being careful and saying the rhetoric may not be connected to the shooting, but also careful to say that it's past time we do discuss the tone of politics these days. Perhaps there's something to be hopeful for yet. I suppose my point in all this is that it's completely understandable that people want to vent and point fingers after a horrible event like this. The temptation for me is great as well, especially given my own predisposition against some of the people involved in the discussion. But we have to be very careful when evidence is scanty, because it's all too easy to fill in the gaps with whatever our biases want. And that is why we must be even more vigilant, even more ready to use critical thinking in the wake of tragedy. It's OK to grieve, it's OK to be horrified, and it's OK to be angry. I'm angry, damn angry. But we cannot let that impair our judgment. It is times like these that we are most likely to rush in, to make snap judgments, and to make mistakes. And in a situation as serious as this, that is the thing we can least afford.

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