#Shark attacks, bee stings and #fake news


Has anyone else noticed that there have been a number of media reports about shark sightings closing beaches in Victoria this summer? More than usual? The NSW coast, the Eyre peninsula and waters off Cape Leeuwin are more typically the favoured locations for sharks and subsequent attacks on swimmers and surfers. Victorian waters feature far less frequently – until now. This activity generates a buzz in the media offices as journalists have something to write about at a time when usually not much else is happening.

First things first for the journalist: include a photo like this one.hqdefault

Then include something about bee stings. Almost every article on potential shark attacks carries the same snippet along the lines of people are irrationally scared of sharks and in fact we are more likely to die from a bee sting than a shark attack. These quotes all come from published media and respected outlets:

Studies show that lightning is a far greater killer than sharks, at least in the United States. From 1959 to 2008 nationwide, 1,930 people were killed by lightning, while only 25 died from shark attacks. In Texas during that same time period, 208 fatalities occurred from lightning strikes compared to only 1shark attack death.  The drive to the beach is far more dangerous than any shark encounter, says Texas A&M University at Galveston marine expert Andre Landry.

The odds of winning the lottery are probably far better than getting attacked by a shark. The Shark Attack File folks compute that the odds of getting killed by a shark attack are 1 in 264 million.

 

Compare that to 50 to 100 people killed worldwide each year by bee stings (bees kill more persons annually than all venomous animals combined), and about 100 people die each year from an allergic reaction from eating peanuts, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation.

I wonder how much knowledge of basic statistics there is among journalists writing about likelihoods. The absolute number of deaths by various causes (eg bee stings, lightning strikes, shark attack) gives no information about likelihood without knowledge of the number of people exposed to the risk of death. If I never go in the sea, my risk of shark attack is zero. But for those people that do go in the sea, the risk is not zero. At any given beach, under certain weather conditions, time of day and in the presence of large sharks, perhaps the risk of death by shark attack is quite high, depending on the number of people in the water and mood of the shark. I can imagine that sharks sometimes get out of the wrong side of the bed in the morning and some large bruiser with a headache and an attitude could be cruising around looking for trouble or some surfer to have a go at.

Meanwhile, the number of people on land areas where the bees are could well number 100s of millions. I’d rather walk among busy bees than swim among angry sharks. Fake news meets statistics.

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