Innumeracy and Sharks

Here’s a brief snippet from a conversation about the recent spate of shark attacks in North Carolina as I heard yesterday morning (approx 6AM, 7/4/15) on CNN.

George Burgess (Director, Florida Program for Shark Research):  “One thing is going to happen and that is there are going to be more [shark] attacks year in and year out simply because the human population continues to rise and with it a concurrent interest in aquatic recreation.  So one of the few things I, as a scientist, can predict with some certainty is more attacks in the future because there’s more people.”

Alison Kosik (CNN anchor):  “That is scary and I just started surfing so I may dial that back a bit.”

This marks another great teaching moment spinning out of innumeracy in the media.  I plan to drop just those two paragraphs on my classes when school restarts this fall and open the discussion.  I wonder how many will question the implied, but irrational probability in Kosik’s reply.

TOO MUCH COVERAGE?

Burgess argued elsewhere that

Increased documentation of the incidents may also make people believe attacks are more prevalent.  (Source here.)

It’s certainly plausible that some people think shark attacks are more common than they really are.  But that begs the question of just how nervous a swimmer should be.

MEDIA MANIPULATION

CNN–like almost all mass media, but not nearly as bad as some–shamelessly hyper-focuses on catchy news banners, and what could be catchier than something like ‘Shark attacks spike just as tourists crowd beaches on busy July 4th weekend”?  Was Kosik reading a prepared script that distorts the underlying probability, or was she showing signs of innumeracy? I hope it’s not both, but neither is good.

IRRATIONAL PROBABILITY

So just how uncommon is a shark attack?  In a few minutes of Web research, I found that there were 25 shark attacks in North Carolina from 2005-2014.  There was at least one every year with a maximum of 5 attacks in 2010 (source).  So this year’s 7 attacks is certainly unusually high from the recent annual average of 2.5, but John Allen Paulos reminded us in Innumeracy that [in this case about 3 times] a very small probability, is still a very small probability.

In another place, Burgess noted

“It’s amazing, given the billions of hours humans spend in the water, how uncommon attacks are,” Burgess said, “but that doesn’t make you feel better if you’re one of them.”  (Source here.)

18.9% of NC visitors went to the beach (source) .  In 2012, there were approximately 45.4 million visitors to NC (source).  To overestimate the number of beachgoers, Let’s say 19% of 46 million visitors, or 8.7 million people, went to NC beaches.  Seriously underestimating the number of beachgoers who enter the ocean, assume only 1 in 8 beachgoers entered the ocean.  That’s still a very small 7 attacks out of 1 million people in the ocean.  Because beachgoers almost always enter the ocean at some point (in my experiences), the average likely is much closer to 2 or fewer attacks per million.

To put that in perspective, 110,406 people were injured in car accidents in 2012 in NC (source).  The probability of getting injured driving to the beach is many orders of magnitude larger than the likelihood of ever being attacked by a shark.

CONCLUSIONS AND READING SUGGESTIONS

Alison Kosik should keep up her surfing.

If you made it to a NC beach safely, enjoy the swim.  It’s safer than your trip there was or your trip home is going to be.  But even those trips are reasonably safe.

I certainly am not diminishing the anguish of accident victims (shark, auto, or otherwise), but accidents happen.  But don’t make too much of one either.  Be intelligent, be reasonable, and enjoy life.

In the end, I hope my students learn to question facts and probabilities.  I hope they always question “How reasonable is what I’m being told?”

Here’s a much more balanced article on shark attacks from NPR:
Don’t Blame the Sharks For ‘Perfect Storm’ of Attacks In North Carolina.

Book suggestions:
1)  Innumeracy, John Allen Paulos
2) Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely

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2 responses to “Innumeracy and Sharks

  1. All very reasonable, but have you ever seen Kosik surf? Maybe she really is better off dialing that back a bit. 🙂

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