That which does not kill us, dominates the news.

Kelly Clarkson notwithstanding [1], it’s widely recognized that German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” I would suggest a slight modification to reflect current times, and maybe the human psyche, by saying “that which does not kill us, gets more attention than that which does.”

One of the best visualizations I’ve seen supporting that concept is below and appears in a posting from Our World in Data [2] – “Does the news reflect what we die from?” [3]

The chart unambiguously illustrates the disconnect between actual causes of death and what we search for in Google and what appears in the New York Times or The Guardian. And the disconnect cuts both ways. The things that kill us get relatively low attention, while there is a vanishingly small chance we’ll die from what gets the most attention.

What kills you versus what’s in the news

As you can see in the stacked bar at the left side of the chart, the most frequent cause of death is heart disease (30.2%). In contrast, the New York Times devotes only 2.0% of its coverage to heart disease. Going the other direction, the New York Times devotes more than a third of its coverage (35.6%) to terrorism when, in fact, terrorism doesn’t even cause enough deaths in the United States to make it on the chart. The article notes that terrorism is responsible for less than 0.01% of deaths.

We see the effect in action every day. Reading the New York Times or watching the news, one is inundated with stories about terrorism. An unbiased observer from another planet watching the news could reasonably infer that terrorism was the major cause of death on the planet. Who knows, maybe that’s why extraterrestrials have avoided contacting us.

I have this mental image of a person that captures the situation for me. I picture an overweight, hypertensive diabetic in rural America who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day but frets over an attack at the local Farm and Fleet by an Islamic suicide bomber. Unfortunately, I suspect that describes a fair number of Americans.

We must be moths

Humans seem to be drawn to sensational, infrequent events like archy the moth was drawn to the cigar lighter flame. [4] It’s not a novel observation that people prefer to hear about the bizarre rather than the mundane. Afterall, who would want to watch a network news broadcast that talks about commonplace things? The phenomenon of our thirst for the bizarre is captured in the familiar expression, “Dog Bites a Man’ Is Not News. ‘Man Bites a Dog’ Is News” [5] For whatever reason, it seems we humans have a craving for cynical and negative news. [6],[7]

Perception is reality

I’ve previously written about the perception of risk as described by Paul Slovic. [8] The key point is that people do not perceive risk based on reality. Events that have a high “dread factor” that occur infrequently are perceived to be a greater risk than commonly occurring events that are actually riskier. As an example, parents probably spend an inordinate amount of time protecting their children from “stranger danger” while at the same time allowing them to ride a bicycle without a helmet. Fortunately, an exceedingly small number of children are ever accosted by a stranger, but when they are, it’s an unarguably, undeniable tragedy – it’s dreadful. However, kids riding bikes without helmets end up in the emergency department every day. Some never make it that far.[9],[10]

The great amplifier

Long before there was Facebook or Twitter, way back in 1988 before the first Internet Service Provider (ISP) was launched [11], Kaperson published “The Social Amplification of Risk: A Conceptual Framework” [12] He posited that merely discussing a given situation among a group tended to increase the estimation of the risk associated with the situation. A lot has happened since 1988 in the area of social interactions. I imagine that Facebook and Twitter are great enablers for the social amplification of risk.

Imagine a world driven by evidence and logic

Can you imagine a world where people made logical decisions based on evidence? I don’t think we’ll ever see that – it’s our species destiny to make decisions based on emotions instead of facts. No matter how much we try, I think were genetically destined to be creatures ruled more by motivated reasoning than logical analysis of facts. [13]

I imagine if there were Vulcans [14] and if they made memes, there would be one based on the Royal Statistical Society’s 2017 International Statistic of the Year – an average of 69 Americans dies each year at the hand of… lawnmowers. [15],[16] Can you envision a viral Facebook posting about the great lawnmower conspiracy? After all, they DO kill far more Americans than foreign terrorists. But then, so do lightning strikes and toddlers with firearms. [17]


[1] The album, “What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger)” by Kelly Clarkson https://www.songfacts.com/facts/kelly-clarkson/what-doesnt-kill-you-stronger

[2] Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/

[3] As is the case with most of the content from Our World in Data, the article is content-rich and well-written. It’s definitely worth reading. https://ourworldindata.org/does-the-news-reflect-what-we-die-from

[4] the lesson of the moth, a poem by Don Marquis http://www.donmarquis.org/themoth.htm

[5] Variously attributed to John B. Bogart, Charles A. Dana, Amos Cummings, Horace Greeley, Jesse Lynch Williams, Billy Woods, Doc Wood, Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe, Joseph Pulitzer, and of course – Anonymous. https://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/11/22/dog-bites/

[6] Consumer Demand for Cynical and Negative News Frames, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1940161214524832 (PDF: https://www.cpsa-acsp.ca/papers-2013/Trussler-Soroka.pdf)

[7] Psychology: Why bad news dominates the headlines. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140728-why-is-all-the-news-bad

[8] Decisions based on Perceived Risk can be hazardous to your health. https://confrontingmediocrity.net/2013/11/15/decisions-based-on-perceived-risk-can-be-hazardous-to-your-health/

[9] Fatal bicycle accidents in children: a plea for prevention. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8437084

[10] Injury-Control Recommendations: Bicycle Helmets. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00036941.htm

[11] History Of The World — Our Version http://www.theworld.com/world/about/history/our_version

[12] The Social Amplification of Risk: A Conceptual Framework https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1539-6924.1988.tb01168.x

[13] Belief-based thinking: Irrational fear of GMOs and Donald Trump as President. https://confrontingmediocrity.net/2017/02/20/belief-based-thinking-irrational-fear-of-gmos-and-donald-trump-as-president/

[14] Vulcans https://www.startrek.com/database_article/vulcans

[15] RSS Press Release (PDF) http://www.rss.org.uk/Images/PDF/about/press-releases/2018/18-12-2017-THE-RSS-ANNOUNCES-ITS-STATISTIC-OF-THE-YEAR-FOR-2017.pdf

[16] IDD-10 Code: W28 (Contact with powered lawnmower) https://wonder.cdc.gov/ucd-icd10.html

[17] The Freakonomics Of Extreme Extreme Vetting https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-freakonomics-of-extre_b_11821634

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