The news vs. probability

Say your local newspaper reports somebody from your city being struck by a lightning about four times a year. How safe would that make you feel?

This is entirely likely if you live in a large city. The odds of being struck by lightning are about 1 in a million per year(1 in 1,171,000 to be precise). So if you live in a city that has 4.8 million people, odds are that 4 of your fellow city dwellers experienced a rude shock from the heavens last year. However, reading about a person being struck by ligthning 4 times a year in a newspaper makes the event seem a lot more likely than a 1 in a million chance.

This problem is made even worse with terrorism.

The odds of a person being killed by a terrorist in the US is 1 in 3,200,000. That is about three times lower than a lightning strike. Yet, sensational news coverage of terrorism makes this seem much likelier. Terrorism has been a constant hot topic in US politics. The US has spent upwards of a trillion (with a ‘T’) dollars on homeland security alone, since 2001.

All of that expenditure toward something that is thrice as rare as lightning strikes.

Some news reports distort our understanding to such a large extent that we are better informed by not reading them.

Inspiration: Open Borders

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