What Should Scare You More: Sharks or Big TVs?

(Photo: Allan Lee)

In SuperFreakonomics, we wrote about a media sensation in 2001 that came to be known as “Summer of the Shark.” A few particularly gruesome shark attacks in American waters had newspapers, magazines, and TV stations scrambling to out-shout each other about the danger. As we wrote:

A reasonable person might never go near the ocean again. But how many shark attacks do you think actually happened that year?

Take a guess — and then cut your guess in half, and now cut it in half a few more times.

During the entire year of 2001, around the world there were just 68 shark attacks, of which 4 were fatal. Not only are these numbers far lower than the media hysteria implied; they were also no higher than in earlier years or in the years to follow. Between 1995 and 2005, there were on average 60.3 worldwide shark attacks each year, with a high of 79 and a low of 46. There were on average 5.9 fatalities per year, with a high of 11 and a low of 3. In other words, the headlines during the summer of 2001 might just as easily have read “Shark Attacks About Average This Year.” But that probably wouldn’t have sold many magazines.

Now comes news that fatal shark attacks in 2011 “reached their highest level in two decades,” with 12 deaths.

But my guess is that this won’t inspire another round of U.S. media frenzy. Why not?

Because none of those deaths were in the U.S. (Here‘s the relevant shark data, via the Florida Museum of Natural History’s Ichthyology Department.)

But if you are on the lookout for the next media scare, consider this sobering statistic from USA Today about the danger of big TV sets: “169 children 8 and younger died  between 2000 and 2010 from falling TV’s.”


How many more shark attacks would happen if people weren't so afraid of them? Probably not a lot, but there would be more young children (better shark bait) swimming in shark infested waters.



It's a conditional risk!


Which is more dangerous though, swimming with a big TV, or swimming with a vending machine?


(When you say the hidden side of "everything," I take you at your word.)

Kashal Tee

Yeah, cognitive bias. I'd guess that the main reason is that one can control (to a certain extent) whether or not their TV is secured properly, but not whether or not a shark is lurking near by.

One can draw a parallell to death toll in relation to automobiles and airplane travels.


On an average day, the kids don't come home from school and eat a bowl of Cheerios sitting too close to shark-infested waters.


Let's try a back-of-the-envelope calculation (i.e. I'm going to guess the required numbers instead of looking them up.)
Given: 6 shark fatalities per year world wide. 17 TV fatalities per year in USA.
Guessed: 10% of world shark fatalities are from the USA. 1/3 of USA shark fatalities are kids. Average USA kid spends 10 hours/year swimming in the ocean and 10 hours/week watching TV = 500 hours/year.
So: 6*10%/3=0.2 USA kid shark deaths per year. Divide by exposure time and we have 0.02 deaths/year/annual exposure hour over the USA population.
For TVs we have 17 deaths/year divided by 500 exposure hours = 0.034 deaths/year/annual exposure hour.

So it is at least plausible that in *absolute terms*, TVs are about as dangerous as sharks (although I could easily be over an order of magnitude out due to my guesses.) Given the huge ratio of (worry about sharks:worry about falling TVs) I can't imagine we'd get any result other than that we worry about sharks way too much relative to how much we worry about falling TVs.

If your kids are swimming in the sea, you should be worrying about them drowning, contracting skin cancer or being killed in transport to/from the beach rather than sharks.


Ken Arromdee

I'm sure that deaths by falling into an active volacno were low, too. That doesn't make falling into active volcanoes a safe activity.

The proper measure of how dangerous sharks are is how many people are hurt by them *relative to the number of people exposed to them*, not how many people are hurt by them on an absolute level.


Back in the days of "tube" TVs there was a study and found that almost all accidental deaths involving a TV were cause by people falling off of one when they were trying to do something that should have required a ladder. So watch out for those TVs.

Joshua Gans

And combined with exercise TVs are especially dangerous.


Christopher Browne

I'm pretty sure that the highest levels of "died from falling TVs" took place when SCTV episodes were broadcasting with an intro that showed angry viewers throwing their TV sets out the side of an apartment building!

Jim in Frankfort

Sharks vs. TVs ... this comes down to the feeling of control. Same as flying vs. driving. We don't have control when dealing with Sharks and Airplanes ... except to avoid them altogether, so we are subject to the law of averages. However with TVs and Cars we tend to believe we are in complete control so the averages don't apply to us ... so we don't worry about it.