People need to have a basic grasp of statistics or the meaning of numbers in large groups.  Folks see a headline about a shark attack or a death from terrorism and think, “wow, sharks and terrorists are big problems.”  That of course is not at all true.

Just for quick reference, hear’s what’s really most likely to gitchu:

  1. Heart disease: 614,348
  2. Cancer: 591,699
  3. Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 147,101
  4. Accidents (unintentional injuries): 136,053
  5. Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 133,103
  6. Alzheimer’s disease: 93,541
  7. Diabetes: 76,488
  8. Influenza and pneumonia: 55,227
  9. Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 48,146
  10. Intentional self-harm (suicide): 42,773

That’s from the CDC.

Note how, even at the top of the list, there is a huge different in likelihood between the first two and the last two.  You are ten times more likely to die of heart disease or cancer than you are from suicide (#10).

Terrorism is way way way way way down on the list.  You are far more likely to die from your prescription meds than you are from al Qaeda. You are far more likely to die from auto erotic asphyxiation than terrorism.  Where are the headlines?!?!

In spite of the fact that none of us get the previously common childhood diseases like smallpox or polio, there are people who passionately believe that vaccines are bad.  Walk around a country cemetery from last century and notice how many graves there are from kids under the age of 12.

And it’s not hard to imagine in the future when self-driving cars dramatically reduce traffic deaths, there will still be giant panic-inducing headlines every time some individual is killed in an autonomous vehicle.

The plural of anecdote is not data. — Unknown

Our news agencies unfortunately find the anecdote makes for much more compelling news than the data.

Until we learn to think statistically we will be prisoners of our irrational fears and will instead dramatically underestimate more banal but real dangers in everyday life.