Afterthoughts: The Odds

When it comes to stories, the less likely, the better.

A headline caught my eye the other day: “More people have died from selfies than shark attacks this year.” Yes, since 2014, 49 people around the world have died while trying to take a photograph of themselves, outpacing fatal shark incidents by a fair margin (sharks bag roughly eight humans a year, worldwide).


Lest you think this is one of those imaginary tidbits invented to scare Snapchatters, data-services company Priceonomics dug into three years of news reports to number-crunch the phenomenon. It found that 75 percent of the selfie victims were male, with an average age of 21. Falling from heights while distracted was the most common cause, followed by drowning and tangles with trains. One incident involved a Cessna pilot who lost control of his aircraft while futzing around on his phone at low altitude. In another, a boy in India took down six others with him when the small boat they were standing on for a group shot flipped over. People used to worry about the long-term effects of radiation from their cell phones—who knew they could kill in the blink of an eye?


The selfie thing caught my attention because I saw it as we were putting together our February cover feature on sharks. Or, rather, Sharks! Two viral stories united by a common theme: that the incidents in question are both scary and vanishingly rare. Why do humans so enjoy reading about scenarios they’ll realistically never encounter?


Maybe it’s because reality is a lot less exciting. If we’re talking about the most common causes of death, statistically speaking, it’s gonna be your own clogged heart that finally topples you. Maybe cancer or emphysema will get you first, but most likely—a heart attack.


Who wants to think about that? I’d rather distract myself from the inevitable by reading about the three people a year who run afoul of tipped vending machines or rogue Champagne corks. The long odds distance the horror, making it more like a movie, or the dark flipside of the thrill you get when dreaming about winning the lottery—it’ll never happen, but … what if?


It’s no wonder the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week has become an annual national phenomenon. Or that movies like Jaws and Sharknado have turned into cult favorites. Sharks capture the imagination. They’re mysterious, they’re one of the few animals that could challenge our dominance at the top of the food chain. And in Hawai‘i, especially, surrounded by ocean, the thought of running into an apex predator on our next beach day tends to grip the mind, particularly when the number of attacks has jumped in recent years. The chances of getting attacked may still only be one in 11.5 million, but we worry.


So they’re entertaining, sure, but is there any utility to reporting on these kinds of improbable stories? Maybe. If it’s about freak selfie accidents, hey, a little finger-wagging at those crazy kids and their iPhones seems harmless enough, at least.


But, sometimes, what seems like a one-in-a-million kind of story looks entirely different when you look at it from a different angle. We think of sharks as deadly, but consider the larger situation: Humans kill an estimated 100 million sharks every year. Some are deliberately culled out of a misguided sense of revenge, more are hunted for their fins, and still more are caught by accident in commercial long-line fishing operations. This has real-life, serious environmental impact.


In cases like this, packing some real scientific information into an otherwise thrilling story about killer sharks can only be a good thing.


All I know is, I’m staying away from murky water and treacherous ridge hikes—better to stay inside and read about them. Why risk being that one in a million, after all?