Forget about Jaws – your kids are in greater danger from the television set

Alf was greatly comforted today by a newspaper report about sharks.

He last dipped his toes in the ocean a few decades ago, after Mrs Grumble took him to see Jaws.

But it seems he should be much more wary about getting too close to television sets and – maybe – vending machines.

The NZ Herald put him straight with a story that says Steven Spielberg has a lot to answer for.

We now believe we must be extremely wary of all sharks, because if they become aware we are there, they will seek us out and attack, usually with gruesome consequences.

“Not so,” says Sydney scientist Christopher Neff.

That image, he says, is nothing more than Hollywood hype, which has been reinforced by decades of emotive language and sensationalist reporting.

“Swimmers are in the way, not on the menu,” says the University of Sydney researcher who – in what is believed to be a world first – is doing his PhD thesis on the politics of shark bites and other close encounters.

“There is no evidence that any shark species develops a taste for human flesh.”

Alf remains just a tad wary, because this Neff feller says his research is not complete, although he nevertheless is calling for an end to the term “shark attack”.

While not dismissing the seriousness of shark bites, which often have dramatic and even lethal consequences, Neff says authorities and the media should concentrate on giving accurate and helpful information.

One example of this, he says, would be telling people that shark numbers increase in summer in places such as the Parramatta River and Sydney Harbour.

Another would be advising people not to swim in those areas for three days after heavy rain because the rain creates sewage overflows and the sewage attracts sharks.

In Australia, on average one person has been killed by a shark each year over the past 50 years.

New Zealand’s shark death toll is much lower.

Mrs Grumble dipped into the Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand and learned that –

Since 1852 there have been 44 recorded unprovoked attacks in New Zealand (compared with 39 in the whole of Europe since 1847). A third of New Zealand attacks occurred between Ōamaru and the Otago Peninsula, probably because sharks are attracted by the high numbers of seals, dolphins and pilot whales in that area.
Sharks to avoid

Great white sharks have been responsible for most of the 11 fatal attacks in New Zealand where the shark has been identified. Other species known to have caused fatalities are mako and bronze whalers. More than half of the victims were swimming, a quarter were snorkelling, and the remaining quarter were either surfing or standing in shallow water.

In other words, since 1852 there has been one fatal attack every 13 years. You are much more likely to drown than be mauled by a shark.

A map spotlights each area where a shark attack has been recorded.

Eketahuna can boast being a shark-attack-free zone, although one attack is recorded off the Wairarapa coast.

A report from the US in recent days said fatal shark attacks worldwide last year reached their highest level in two decades, though there were none in the US.

The data come from the University of Florida, which released its International Shark Attack File report for 2011.

Ichthyologist George Burgess said the 12 fatalities could show tourists are venturing to more remote places with less access to immediate medical care.

The number of deaths in 2011 doubled from 2010.

A total of 75 attacks were reported worldwide, close to the decade average.

So no shark deaths were recorded in the US.

But the deaths of four Chicago-area children since late October after TVs toppled on them have prompted calls for more safety measures and increased awareness.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission says 169 children 8 and younger died between 2000 and 2010 from falling TVs. In all, 245 children died in that period after being crushed by TVs, furniture or appliances. More than 22,000 were treated for tip-over injuries each year from 2008 to 2010.

Gary Smith, a pediatric emergency physician in Columbus, Ohio, and president of the Child Injury Prevention Alliance, said requiring retailers to sell safety straps or mounting brackets with TVs would reduce the problem.

“We wouldn’t purchase a car without seat belts,” he says. “We shouldn’t sell TVs without appropriate safety equipment.”

Another relevant item of news looked at statistics which suggest vending machines are twice as likely to kill you as a shark.

The yearly risk (in the United States) of dying from a shark attack is roughly 1 in 250 million. In contrast, the yearly risk of dying from a vending machine accident is roughly 1 in 112 million. The vending machine is indeed roughly twice as lethal as the shark!

Mind you, the writer of this item noted that the vending machine statistics are averaged over everyone in the United States.

In most places in the US, such as Kansas, people are nowhere near a body of water with sharks.

The comparison of the risk to a vending machine, while true as far as it goes, ignores highly relevant information—such as whether one is swimming in the same bay as a shark.

The comparison also ignores important information about vending machines. After all, how do people die from a vending machine? Vending machines are not known carcinogens. I imagine that the machine takes someone’s money and malfunctions. The customer then shakes it to free the snack, whereupon the machine tips over and crushes the hot-tempered purchaser. As the doctors say, “Don’t do that then!” Keeping cool in this difficult situation probably reduces the vending-machine death risk to zero.

This problem of implicit but essential statistical information is wonderfully illustrated in the cartoon at the top of this post.

It might also explain the zero shark attacks in Eketahuna.


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