On April 25th, Dave Martin, a 66-year old swimmer from Solana Beach, California, was killed by a shark at San Diego County’s Tide Beach. Four days later, Adrian Ruiz, 24, was killed by another shark off Troncones Beach, Mexico.
Two attacks in a row. Now we can all get get stressed about what’s going to happen the next time we venture into the water, just as we did after watching Jaws for the first time. But did you know that you have a greater chance of being killed by a falling coconut than being chomped by a shark?
Fifteen times greater, according to George Burgess, director of the Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File. And sharkophobia is the least of it. As author Dan Gardner points out in his new book Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, many of our worst nightmares are, if not exactly groundless, certainly highly exaggerated.
Gardner points out that statistics simply do not bear out many of our most commonplace fears. For instance, stand outside the average Canadian elementary school around drop off and pick up times (make it quick because a teacher, principal, or parent will likely ask you to leave) and count the number of vans, cars, SUVs, and trucks that have been employed to ferry a child or two. (How do I know? I’m one of the parents in the line.) Yet between 2000-2001, RCMP reported that abductions by strangers in all of Canada, including neighbours and friends of parents, numbered five in total. Thus the risk is 1 in 5.8 million in Canada, and 1 in 655,555 in the U.S. On the other hand, childhood deaths in a car accident are one in 29,070, or 26 times more likely to happen than stranger abduction.
Which means that vigilant parents are actually increasing the risk to their children by driving them to-and-fro, rather than simply letting them walk or catch the bus home. But try to tell that to a mom or dad who’s convinced that predators lurk around every corner.
Fear of terrorism is another area Gardner explores and discounts as disproportionate in the light of reality. What’s his solution to overcoming irrational fears? “Stop and think.”
That’s easier said than done, though, given that many of our fears become rooted early in life. The grade five children in Mrs. Deborah Thorvaldson’s class in South Surrey, B.C. are all in agreement — sharks are scary. Other things these 10 and 11 year olds fear include snakes, cramped/small/tight places, God, death in general, losing one’s family, falling down stairs, needles, global warming, and the black plague. The most common of all fears? Spiders.
I discussed the topic of fear with my class of grade nine to 12 students (ages 14 through 18 years). They also fear sharks, spiders, and losing a family member, but add some new ones: the unknown, things one is not in control of, fear of failing at something, dying with regret, drowning, people seeing the real self, and the existence of hell.
I brought up the topic to a different group of students, and after the class was finished, a student approached me and asked: “What is fear?”
According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, it’s “an unpleasant, often strong emotion caused by expectation or awareness of danger,” so I responded accordingly (having looked in the dictionary a day prior).
“What causes fear?” he then asked.
“Feelings, emotions inside,” I responded. “Our bodies respond.”
“I’ve been giving this topic a lot of thought,” he said. “When we don’t know something, we fear it.”
Thus, to know is to not fear, we agreed, or at least to lessen the fear.
So maybe the answer isn’t so much “Stop and think” as “Get informed.” More information, for example, would have helped Nicholas White, who was trapped in an elevator for 41 hours in October, 1999, and whose ordeal has become the latest internet sensation:
White told ABC TV’s “Good Morning America” that knowing even the time of day would’ve helped him cope: he didn’t have a watch. I’d add that knowing when he was going to be rescued would’ve helped even more. Knowing it was a bad choice to take a smoke break at 11 p.m. on a Friday in a deserted building might have helped the most. But hindsight, as they say, is often 20/20.
Should we all now add falling coconuts to our list of fears? Well we could, but we could also check out the real facts around coconuts, as The Straight Dope did, and realize that, actually, they’re not that all scary either. By learning more about what frightens us, we might find peace — or at least reassurance that the world isn’t out to get us.
No, not even sharks.