“A shark attack is an attack on a human by a shark. Every year, a number of people are attacked by sharks, although death is quite unusual. Despite the relative rarity of shark attacks, the fear of sharks is a common phenomenon, having been fueled by the occasional instances of attacks, such as the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916, and by sensationalized fiction and film, such as the Jaws series. Many shark experts feel that the danger presented by sharks has been exaggerated, and even the creator of the Jaws phenomenon, the late Peter Benchley, attempted to dispel the myth of sharks being man-eating monsters in the years before his death.” – “Shark Attack,” Wikipedia
For a variety of reasons ranging from dramatically better information availability to increasing cultural acceptance and advocacy of informed, data-driven decision making, rational thought is making something of a comeback. Or at least it seems more common today than it might have been in a past where intuition and tradition ruled the day. Rationalism has not come close to vanquishing its historical enemies, of course – human nature being what it is – but at least it’s perceived as a virtue these days (unless you’re a baseball writer).
Still, there persists a certain class of primal fear that – progress or no – effortlessly bypasses our logic centers. Some of these, of course, are entirely legitimate. If you’re in the water with a shark like the one above, you should be afraid.
But far more of today’s fears are entirely disproportionate to the actual threat involved. These I tend to discuss as Shark Attack fears.
Anyone that has seen Jaws, particularly as young as I did (thanks a lot, Dad), can identify with the visceral, elemental fear that a shark attack evokes. It was this emotion that Benchley and Spielberg leveraged to their respective commercial benefit. Massive commercial benefit.
Lost in the shuffle, however, was the actual likelihood of an attack itself – the probability of the fear becoming reality. Many of you are probably aware that you are more likely by far to be killed by a bee or in a car crash than you are by a shark. You are, in fact, more likely to be killed by lightning than a shark.
And yet we remain instinctively terrified by the prospect of an attack. Why? Many reasons, but I’ll leave that to better, more qualified minds than mine to answer. But such examples are relentlessly common.
We remain – at least here in the US – collectively petrified of a terrorist attack. In spite of the fact that, like shark attacks, we are statistically terribly unlikely to be personally affected. We’re more likely to be killed by a bee, a car or even – yes – a shark than a terrorist. So petrified are we, in fact, that we have sacrificed the kind of basic civil liberties that were in the past regarded as Orwellian fiction.
We’re terrified for our children, too, when the numbers actually say that if anything, they’re at least as safe as they were before. Amber alerts notwithstanding.
And so on; I’m sure that each and every one of you can think of similar or better examples.
In each case it’s unlikely to be the fear that’s the problem. Like the 1918 flu victims that were killed not by the virus but by their own immune response, the asymmetric reaction to these fears is the real threat. The behavioral responses, which have unpredictable and often undesirable consequences.
If you kill all the large sharks, as it turns out, you remove one of the checks on the smaller predator population, and fish populations decline precipitously. If you try to assuage the population against the threat of terrorism with security theater, you inconvenience everyone and risk investing in the wrong areas. And if you raise your kids in a bubble, you deny them experiences that may prove vital later in life.
When I use the Shark Attack analogy these days, my subject is generally far more trivial in nature. It’s most often employed, for example, in conjunction with discussions of cloud reliability; my view is that cloud users are irrationally apprehensive of cloud uptime because, as Joshua puts it, “if you’d been doing this yourself you’d either have way more downtime or spend way more.”
But the problem is troubling in other, more meaningful settings. We’re not going to see the end of irrational fears in my lifetime, clearly. The question I’m pondering, however, is whether we’ll ever see them filtered according to their respective probabilities.
If we’re going to worry about something, let’s at least try to make sure it’s something worth worrying about.