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Statistics and the fear of flying

I was browsing through the shelves of my local book shop this afternoon.

I saw a book by Stephen Pinker.

I have a couple of his books already so I wondered if I was about to spend more money and add to his pile of royalty payments.

It so happened that I looked at the chapter on terrorism..and he quoted some numbers.  After 9/11 more than 1500 people died on the roads of America because of a decision to drive rather than fly.

There was more chance of dying from a bee sting than…well all sorts of meaningless comparisons were made  BUT what really startled me was that something like 100,000 people died of accidental causes in ONE YEAR in the USA.

So I looked around the web to see why numbers aren’t very persuasive and I found this: I hope you find it helpful.

People are also more sensitive about risks that are catastrophic, which kill people all at once in one place, than we are about risks that are chronic, where the victims are spread out over space and/or time. Plane crashes, therefore, get more media attention than, say, heart disease, which kills 2,200 people in the United States each day, just not all in one place at one moment.

 Then there’s the factor the researchers call dread, which is basically a measure of suffering. The more awful/painful/nasty a way to die it is, the more afraid of it we are likely to be. What happens to people in a plane crash feels pretty high up on a list of awful/painful/nasty ways to go. It sounds a lot worse—and scarier—than dying of heart disease, for example, even though the likelihood of dying from heart disease is much higher (1 in 400 per year, for the average American).

 The challenge, then, in making an informed decision about the risk of flying, or any risk, is to balance three components—the numbers about that risk (especially those that are most relevant to you), all the other things we know and our life circumstances, and the affective feelings the risk triggers.

That way the choices we make, to fly or drive for example, will include what is right for each of us but will also hopefully be more in line with the scientific facts, and that should help us live healthier and longer lives.


How Risky Is Flying?  By David Ropeik  Posted 10.17.06 NOVA




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