The Outlier Fallacy: Keeping Our Accusatory Gaze on Individuals, and Not Systemic Inequity

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and a celebrity—both of which speak to his exceptional talents, especially in the context of being a black man in the U.S.

In many ways, Tyson is the anti-Sheldon (the fictional nerd genius of The Big Bang Theory), and his celebrity as a scientist serves as a powerful model against corrosive racist stereotypes.

I am but a redneck with a doctorate (EdD) that most in the hard sciences, like Tyson, would brush aside, and my scholarship and public work as a social scientist also land me squarely well below the credibility bar against Tyson’s stature as a hard scientist and celebrity.

None the less, I must offer a friendly rebuttal to Tyson on a recent Tweet:

To which I replied:

Despite his status as an astrophysicist, his wealth of knowledge as a scientist, Tyson’s celebrity, I fear (much as is the case with Oprah), has clouded his better sensibilities.

The celebrity class in the U.S. often uses that celebrity to hold forth well beyond their areas of expertise (see as the king of this practice, Bill Gates). And Tyson very well could have good intentions here, and I concede he may not deserve being held liable for the codes of his Tweet (How many read “broken childhoods” as code for “living in poverty” and/or “single-black-parent home”?)

Tyson’s public is rife with those who cling to successful blacks who reinforce their racism: OJ Simpson, Ben Carson, Bill Cosby, Clarence Thomas, Charles Barkley, to name a few.

And so Tyson is holding forth as a Great American Winner, and winners often believe that the primary cause of their success is in their own character and effort; winners, in other words, are apt not to consider the role of the rules in their winning—notably rarely considering that the rules could be unfairly tilted in their favor.

So there are two fundamental flaws in Tyson’s Tweet: First is the implication that in the U.S. we are not already focusing on “those who succeed in spite”; and second, “those who succeed in spite” are outliers, and thus, both in the hard sciences and the social sciences more problematic than the potential source of understanding human behavior.

Tyson’s suggestion is trapped within the rugged individualism/bootstrap myths of the U.S. and then speaks to the same—but coming from Tyson, his argument feeds some nasty racial and racist narratives as well (If only we could inculcate in all blacks the character and effort that the black winners [outliers] have…).

People who succeed have character traits that trump people who fail—goes the narrative. And thus, all we need to do is fix those people who do not succeed.

This outlier fallacy fails as science, but it also keeps the accusatory gaze on individuals. While Tyson suggests we focus on winners instead of losers, either option is flawed in that it allows systemic forces to be ignored even though systemic forces (not individual qualities) are often the primary cause of outcomes.

Let’s recalibrate Tyson’s Tweet just a bit to see the problem: Why don’t we study black men who do not find themselves in the criminal justice system instead of studying black men who are incarcerated to understand criminalization?

This proposal, of course, puts the gaze entirely on black men, and fails to recognize the first level problem—the criminal justice and policing systems in the U.S. are significantly inequitable for black Americans.

If our goal is equity and social justice for people trapped in poverty and for so-called racial minorities in the U.S., as well as seeking ways to support children better who are living broken childhoods, Tyson’s musing ignores how we already are failing both goals and promotes an outlier fallacy driven by the white gaze, something fostered among the winners who cannot allow themselves to question the rules that created their winning.

Especially in this time of Trump, seeking equity and justice cannot afford a celebrity class blinded by its celebrity. “Those who succeed” and “those who don’t succeed” are not the sources of where our gaze should be; those are outcomes driven by a game that is rigged.

Let’s reconsider the rules of that game and not the participants, whether they succeed or not.