Search the Site

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.”