How To Be Less Afraid of Everything With Visualization

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The basic reality is that the risks that scare people and the risks that kill people are very different.” – Peter Sandman, the New York Times via Freakonomics

One of the things that scares me these days is how scared everyone seems to be. Of everything.

We’re scared to let kids walk to school. We’re scared to fly. We’re scared of strangers. We’re scared of pandemics. We’re scared of, quite literally, everything. Our food, our jobs, our parents, our friends, our future, our social status. Lead in toys. Cadmium in toys. Toys that are too small. Toys that are too large. Having too many friends. Having too few friends. Location based services. Violence on TV. Sex on TV. Real people on TV. Pick anything: someone, somewhere is afraid of it. And if it’s at all popular, the odds are good that lots of people are going to be afraid of it. Seriously: we’re afraid of dictionaries now.

The only thing we have to fear is fear, indeed.

Some of the fears above are quite rational and based on reasonable assessments of risk. More often, they are not.

Kids walking to school? Turns out they’re at least as safe as their parents were. Flight? “You could board 20 flights per year and still be less likely to be the subject of an attempted terrorist attack than to be struck by lightning.” Strangers? “Stranger danger” may actually be terrible advice. Pandemics? Well, we’re actually long overdue for one, so I’d remain concerned on that front.

The only thing that will cure what ails us is, sadly, a systemic, national epiphany. As Schenier said following the pantsbomber’s failed attack:

I think it’s necessary to convince the public to refuse to be terrorized. What frustrates me most about Abdulmutallab is that he caused terror even though his plot failed. I want us to be indomitable enough for the next attack to fail to cause terror, even if it succeeds. Remember: terrorism can’t destroy our country’s way of life; only our reaction to terrorism can.

The question is how we, as a society, more realistically estimate risk.

Pure numbers clearly aren’t working. It’s not as if anyone has ever argued that the odds of an individual being involved in a terrorist attack are high, and yet we pour millions upon million into systems designed to prevent what happened last time, subjecting ourselves in the meantime to ever more humiliating forms of inspection. And doing anything to rectify the situation would be, effectively, political suicide.

But why should we expect any different? As a species, we’re not much with raw data: we need patterns or pictures. Even better, is context. And yet we’re still generally trying to reassure people with raw numbers; maybe a pie chart or two if they’re lucky. Which can’t be expected to make much of a difference, because seeing is believing.

Consider this chart, which comes to you courtesy the ISAF here.

What do you see? If you’re a person, probably not a lot. Maybe you notice there actually aren’t all that many fatal attacks. Maybe that Florida’s numbers are consistently high. But what about year to year? State to state? How about over time? Are attacks up or down? Tough to say. Unless you can present the data visually, which we can. Here’s one view using the recently launched Tableau Public:

Total Shark Attacks/Fatal Shark Attacks, By Year, 1990 – 2008
Total Shark Attacks/Fatal Shark Attacks, By Year, 1990 - 2008

What can you extract from that? Several things. First, you can see that the total number of attacks is trending upward year over year. Second, that there is little correlation between the volume of total attacks and the number that are fatal. And speaking of: this chart also tells us that roughly two people per year have been killed by sharks in the states where the majority of the attacks occur. That’s two more people than anyone would ever want to see, but on a percentage basis, the odds of dying aren’t remotely high – in spite of what the media might lead you to believe. Remember the “Summer of the Shark?” Seem a little odd to you that that occured during a year when attacks actually declined by 7%?

If we had the data handy, as well, we could easily layer in deaths from bee stings or lightning, as both kill more people each year than sharks. People should know this, of course, because it’s been repeated so often that it’s a cliche, and yet they don’t, or they choose to forget it. Why? Maybe it’s because we don’t show it to them, we tell it to them. Facts and numbers are much easier to forget than pictures.

What about the states? Are attacks in Florida really that much more common?

Total Shark Attacks, By State, 1990-2008
Total Shark Attacks, By State, 1990-2008

Certainly seems that way, doesn’t it? Not that it’s a huge surprise, Florida being the country’s primary beach destination. Still, if you’d asked me, I would have guessed that between California’s surfing and North and South Carolina’s beaches, one of them would rival Florida for the dubious distinction it now holds. But that’s not what the data tells us, or more accurately, shows us.

Big picture, applying visualization can certainly not expect to make people unafraid of obvious scary things. But if it could merely help them to be more appropriately afraid, it’s a big, big win. Is data visualization by itself a cure for the human tendency to fear what they can’t understand or control? We both know the answer to that. But I do think that if we can continue to improve our ability to communicate data, visually, in more meaningful ways, we may yet see some progress. Where progress equals less fear.

Though I’m not sure how I’d capture that in a graphic.


  1. In “Virus of the Mind”, Richard Brodie actually uses shark attacks as a great example of how the media inevitably amplifies people’s fears. He hypothesizes a chain of islands where each island has a single shark attack per year. Suddenly, the 1,000 islands in the chain get a news network. Rather than hearing about one attack per year, people are hearing about three shark attacks per day. The total number of shark attacks have not increased, but the risk of shark attack is suddenly a daily topic of conversation. I think similar effects are in many ways what drive the paranoia in our society.

  2. Not for nothing, but your graphics did not make anything clearer. In fact, your first graph was very scary; all those blue shark fins running across the graph!

    Maybe a different type of graph would have been better? I don’t know what. My experience is that “normal” people don’t respond to graphs. Just like lottery odds mean nothing. But, a newscasters tone of voice, lurid headlines, or extreme viewpoints get attention. Perhaps its our animal nature: when we’re drinking at the water hole, only the panic in others gets us running. Imagine the tribal chief holding up vector diagrams of the giant saber tooth tiger about to devour us? Ho hum.

  3. @jbetancourt: sorry to hear it. the graphs were no more useful to you than the spreadsheet? really?

    at any rate, respectfully disagree that “normal” people don’t respond to graphs. we all do, every day. think pie charts, bar charts and so on: they’re in the papers. opinion polls, and so on. they are intrinsically more approachable than raw numbers, in my view.

    again, they’re not a panacea, but i think the kind of visualizations done by pros like Flowing Data or Information is Beautiful are really excellent at communicating data, and i think we’ll see a lot more of it.

    if it failed, here, that’s on me, not the medium.

  4. Great post. I agree about the rampant scare-mongering out there. People need to see the data and not just listen to the scare-mongers.

    When I saw your headline my mind read “virtualization” instead of “visualization” and I thought: “Wow, virtualization technology has come a long way!”

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