Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Fear and Statistics

Ted Talks are very interesting.  I've listened to several and have always been enlightened by the topic and often fascinated, regardless of the topic.

One of the TED Talks that I continue to go back to is What Fear Can Teach Us by writer Karen Thompson.  She spoke on the connection between fear and imagination.  And what she reveals continues to resonate with me.  Particularly her discussion of the whaleship Essex.

The whaler Essex was part of the inspiration for Moby Dick.  On November 20, 1820, after an already plagued journey, the Essex was struck by a sperm whale in the Pacific Ocean, nearly 2,000 nautical miles off the coast of Chile.  The whale crushed the bow, driving the vessel backward, and leaving the Essex to quickly go down by the bow.

After spending two days salvaging what they could, the 20 American sailors on the vessel set out in their three small whaleboats, with rudimentary navigational equipment and very limited supplies of food and fresh water.

The crew had few options ahead of them.  Closest land was the Marquesas Islands, nearly 1,200 miles to the west, which might have been reachable on the supplies that they had.  They had heard frightening rumors of cannibals on the islands, however.

Another option was to sail Northwest to Hawaii, but there was a fear of the storms that would be encountered given the time of year.

The last ditch option, the most difficult, and longest option, was to sail south for 1,000 miles to get around the trade winds and then use the Westerlies to turn to South America, which would be another 3,000 miles to the East.

Whatever option they chose was plagued by specific fears:

  • The Marquesas brought the potential of cannibals,
  • Hawaii brought certain battering with the storms, and 
  • South America brought an almost certain eventuality that supplies would run out.
Whichever fear they listened to governed whether they lived or died.  They could give into a gruesome possibility or a certain doom.

Upon a vote, they chose the longer and more difficult journey to South America.  Herman Melville, who would use the Essex as inspiration, would write "all these sufferings of these miserable men of the Essex might in all human probability have been avoided had they immediately after leaving the wreck steered straight for Tahiti.  But they dreaded cannibals."  After more than two additional months at sea, the crew had run out of food and were still quite far from land.  When the survivors were finally rescued, less than half the men were left alive and some had resorted to their own form of cannibalism.

Why did they dread the possibility of cannibals so much more than the likely probability of starvation?  Why did they respond only to the most lurid, most vivid, and easiest to imagine fear?

We have a similar problem in society today.  We are governed by the most lurid, the most vivid, and the easiest to imagine fears, instead of those that are more statistically likely to happen.  This is used to great effect by politicians, to rally people around a cause and draw support.  

We can see this in the people who refuse to travel because of a fear of planes.  Or those that refuse to travel abroad because of a fear of terrorist attack.  Despite the fact that you are more likely to be injured or die in a car than the plane and are more likely to be crushed by furniture than the terrorist attack.

We can see this as well in our obsession with guns in this country.

Gun safety at home generally requires the gun be stored unloaded in a locked cabinet, with ammunition stored in a separate locked location.  I've linked to safety tips from the National Shooting Sports Foundation that contains this specific advice.  There are even laws in certain locations that require this type of storage.  And this is done to prevent accidental discharge in the home, whether by the gun owner or others, particularly children.  

The problem is that such storage makes a gun very impractical for home defense.  If the gun must be unloaded and locked in a separate location from the ammo, then that requires precious time to obtain the gun, the ammo, to load it, etc. in the event of a home invasion.  So the narrative goes.  To be useful for home protection, the gun should be loaded and ready for a moment's notice, right?  Because that is the fear.  The fear the gun is supposed to assuage.  The fear of being attacked in one's own home and needing to defend oneself and their family.

But the statistics do not bear out this fear.

There have been at least 70 unintentional shootings by children in 2018, so far; at least 897 since 2015.  There are nearly two million children that live in homes with guns that are not stored responsibly.    This accounts for nearly 65% of unintentional child gun deaths.  And that is just accidental gun discharges; not even touching intentional gun use in domestic violence or suicide.  And those are the statistically most likely scenarios in which a gun will be fired in the home - unintentional discharge, intentional shooting in domestic violence, or suicide.  NOT for home protection.  Guns in the home are 22 times more likely to be involved in accidental shootings, homicides, or suicide attempts.  For every one time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were 4 unintentional shootings, 7 criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.

If you looked at Chicago for example, in 2011 precisely one homicide listed "burglary" as the motive.  Nationwide, there are 100 burglary-homicides every year.  100 out of 323.13 million people, or a rate of 0.00003%.   The numbers do not bear out the primal fear of home invasion.  And yet it is what rules our consciousness.

A rational look at the likelihood of events would move everyone to safe storage, to prevent the more likely occurrence.  But we are governed by the irrational.  The statistically less likely.  The primal fear.  

Perhaps it's time to own up to that fear.  To admit it, to recognize that it isn't always the most rational one, and to move on from it.  That way, maybe we can actually start productively talking about it.

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