Irrational Fears have Consequences

People have a lot of beliefs that aren’t true

As someone who is obsessed with sharks, I spend a lot of time listing for people the things that are more likely to kill them then a shark.

What I find bizarre about these conversations, is that no one who asks me, “Aren’t you afraid to swim with sharks??” has ever seen one in the wild.

I often return the question. “Aren’t you afraid of riptides?”

Here’s the thing: Almost everyone who is afraid of sharks knows someone who has had a drowning scare, if they haven’t themselves.

That’s kind of weird, isn’t it? You are 132x more likely to drown then be attacked by a shark. Collapsing sand is more likely to kill you! (Though honestly that’s a really terrifying thing- and still more common then shark attacks!).

But people aren’t just terrible at risk assessment when it comes to nature. Some experts think that 9/11 caused an uptick in car travel. This was likely due to a fear of flying (even though it was and still is the safest form of travel). An increase in people on the road, led to an increase in accidents. One expert estimates almost the same number of people killed in 9/11 were killed in the increase in accidents (Just in the increase in accidents, according to the CDC cars kill ~16x more people then 9/11 each year).

And people have a very pessimistic view of the world we live in, even though, by almost every measure, it’s improving. Poverty is at an all time low, and we are currently in the least violent time in all of history.

Do you know why so many people die of cancer now? They live long enough to get it. People have stopped dying of communicable diseases and in general have more access to health care. That’s a pretty big deal, that we generally take for granted.

Okay, but we all know humans are terrible at risk assessment…

The problem that I have with poor risk assessment is not that people don’t know these stats or have irrational fears, but that poor risk assessment leads to poor choices.

Let’s get political for a second and go back to our fear of terrorism. Here in the USA, we have a pretty strong fear of terrorism, even though it’s still pretty unlikely to kill us.

That fear, while understandable, can create counterproductive results that increase the likelihood of terrorism. It creates a feedback loop.

And let’s go back to that car crash stat from the CDC. Why do people find that number acceptable? Why don’t they demand that we make changes the way we travel? Especially when mass transit is greener and safer. It’s because people largely  feel that mass transit is less safe then driving, even though the complete opposite is true. This means people are still dying from car accidents at unacceptable rates. This is also counterproductive to a growing cultural desire to cut our carbon footprint (or in my case nap on the way to work).

And that fear of sharks I mentioned? That leads to shark culls in Australia, which often catch threatened species, and rarely catch the few species responsible for attacks. This also takes funding and attention from more pressing issues. For instance, there isn’t a lot government funding dedicated to combating the epidemic of drunk individuals drowning. If the goal is to truly project people from water-related threats, drum lines don’t make sense. That’s a lot of money to not save a lot of people.

While I can empathize with people’s irrational fears (I’ve certainly got my own!) it’s completely irresponsible to base any policy on these fears or to support people who feed that irrational fear.