Death Odds: Anything Scares Me

Last month when the fearbola epidemic was at its height, I began to wonder what the odds really were of dying from such a disease—not Ebola, mind you, because I wasn’t actually worried about it, given that ebola isn’t very easy to catch.

But there are many other diseases, like malaria and tuberculosis, that kill millions of people a year. Even the flu results in thousands of deaths every year in the U.S. (the CDC’s estimated range is wide, from 3,000 to 49,000—depending on which year and how you crunch the numbers). Ebola fatalities in the U.S.? One.

This is not to minimize the horror of a disease like ebola, or the fact that well over five thousand people in the world have died from it this year. It’s just to point out that, with all the hype, it’s hard to know what to be afraid of. Two schools in Ohio closed because a staff member flew on the same aircraft as a nurse who contracted (and later recovered from) ebola. Not on the same flight, mind you, but on the same plane later the same day. If we followed that policy concerning the flu, our schools would be perpetually shut down because chances would be high that someone would have been on an airplane that at some point transported a sick person.

Besides, what are the odds of dying from a flu you catch on an airplane as opposed to dying because that airplane crashes? If you compare the mid-range fatalaties of the flu in the U.S. in a given year and compare that to flying, flying is much, much safer than getting sick. The odds of dying in a commercial plane crash in a given year is one in 11,000,000. Even if you account for people who fly a great deal, or particularly bad years for airline safety, you’re still far safer on an airplane than most other things, like on a bicycle. My husband cycles for long distances, several times a week, and it certainly looks dangerous to me—partly because few people seem to have caught on that bicycles are actually supposed to be on the road (Did you hear about the St. Louis area mayor who purposefully hit a cyclist with his car? That’s another post). All of it, motorcycles included, is safer than riding in a car.

Yet we keep driving. According to David Ropeik in How Risky Is Flying?, “People are also more sensitive about risks that are catastrophic, which kill people all at once in one place, than we are about risks that are chronic, where the victims are spread out over space and/or time. Plane crashes, therefore, get more media attention than, say, heart disease, which kills 2,200 people in the United States each day, just not all in one place at one moment.”

Now many of us in St. Louis have been at risk of our own epidemic: Fergbola. With an announcement expected any day about whether or not officer Darren Wilson will be indicted for the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in August in Ferguson (just ten miles from me), anxiety is pervasive. Restaurants are closing early, businesses are taking all their paperwork home every night, and I’ve talked to a number of families who plan to leave town when the mayhem starts. But will there be mayhem? How do we know whether we really need to be afraid?

Turns out we put too much stock in our imaginations. As Paul Slovic writes for The Washington Post, “People’s sense of risk has little to do with mathematical probability.” We judge risk based not on statistics, but on whether the activity or disease is unfamiliar, invisible, increasing, not adequately understood by experts and evokes feelings of dread. That would explain why we worry about a few ebola deaths when there are 32,000 gun deaths in this country every year. Guns in America are, sadly, not unfamiliar, invisble, or inadequately understood.

That also explains the far greater fear most people have of terrorist attacks than appliances. But it turns out that Americans are as likely to be killed by their own furniture as hit in a terrorist attack.

So what should we fear? I’ve included a fun infographic from SelectQuote Life at the bottom of this post, but here are the essentials I found in my research (not scholarly, I remind you—but I did my best to compare numbers from different sources):

Chance you’ll be killed in an airplane: One in 11 million

Bee sting: One in 5.5 million

By a shark: One in 3.7 million

Lightning: One in 1.9 million

Train: One in 1 million

Tornado: One in 450,000

Car crash: One in 5,000

Sadly, none of these death odds compare to the odds of dying of heart disease or cancer.

You have a one in six chance of dying of heart disease and a one in seven chance of dying of cancer.

Let’s compare that to a really depressing statistic: Odds you’ll win the Powerball grandprize? One in 175 million. We have a much better chance of being hit by an asteroid (one in 74 million). . . yet we keep rolling the dice, so to speak. We’re far more influenced by our fear of the unfamiliar or catastrophic than we are by probability.

For my part, I find the numbers reassuring. They remind me that much fear is perception. Putting too much stock in perceived danger is a waste of time and energy. America, like me, sometimes has an overactive imagination, and it’s human nature to get a little too caught up in the media and the chatter and the hype (the feartainment, shall we say? Okay, I’ll stop).

We’re all going to go, and we don’t know when or how. We can prepare. . . a little. But the best we can do is trust our highest instincts, not our basest fears. As Gertrude Stein said, “Anything scares me, anything scares anyone but really after all considering how dangerous everything is nothing is really very frightening.”