Sadly, the news this morning is that another commercial air flight is missing and probably down somewhere over Mali. Coming on the heels of the tragedy in the Ukraine, this has many people convinced of some pretty strange things.
Before I go on, let me just say that in no way do I wish to downplay the tragedy of the loss of life in plane crashes. On the other hand, I think it is important that people understand that we should not overstate or over-dramatize this crash, even in the context of the tragedy of MH17.
Yet, if you’ve checked in on the trending topics section of Facebook, you will see examples of people doing just that: overstating and over-dramatizing and, in general, being completely irrational. For instance, there’s this - a pretty typical reaction so far:
That’s right. The world is ending. Because a plane (may have) crashed. Or because two crashed within a relative short time. Well, I should say, because the media is now providing us with a very nice availability heuristic of plane crashes. But more on that later. First, let me give you an availability heuristic of my own; here’s another FB screenshot:
So, here we have not only the end of the world (and reinforcement of that idea from someone), but we also have the idea that “getting on a plane lately is a bit like PLAYING RUSSIAN ROULETTE”) because 1 in several million is now “a bit like” 1 in 6.
Granted, there have been several horrible crashes this year. In fact, according to the International Business Times, 2014 “is on track to be a pretty bad year.” This article was written shortly after the disappearance of MH370, when the number of air fatalities was around 400. That number is now closer to 1,000 according to the Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archive (I am not sure if this morning’s crash is included in their data yet. I imagine it won’t be until there can be conclusive proof the plane did crash).
Now, this sounds horrifying and you might be tempted to believe you should not get on a plane this year…until you realize that these numbers are still one-half of the number of fatalities in car accidents in any given month of 2010 in the United States alone.
But, since not every car crash is given international news coverage, we don’t stop to think about how much more dangerous car travel is than air travel. Then again, due to the absolute failure of the educational system to teach people how to rationally approach the news, or how to examine data (or even know how to look for it, if they choose to actually look for it), we’re left with a sort of hysteria that grips the internet when a tragedy occurs.
It’s the same with homicides in most small- to medium-size towns and cities. Each news story comes with the requisite hand-wringing online about “what the world is coming to”.
Well, nothing actually. The world is not coming to anything. None of this is a sign of the end of the world.
It’s just a sign that you’ve heard about something that happened, and it seems to match a belief you already hold. Of course, that is an entirely different topic….