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The Things We're Scared Of Vs The Things We Should Be Scared Of

You're not going to be killed by a shark or terrorists.

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1. What you're scared of: Terrorism

Smoke rises from an explosives-laden military vehicle driven by an Islamic State suicide bomber, March 12, 2015. Thaier Al-sudani / Reuters

Politicians often describe terrorism as an "existential threat" to the West, or to our way of life. But it's really not. Almost 18,000 people died in terror attacks in 2013. That was obviously horrible, and a large rise from the previous year. But according to the Global Terrorism Index, which came up with the 18,000 figure, nearly 15,000 of those deaths were in just five countries: Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. That means that outside of those countries, there areall manner of things that are more likely to kill you: fireworks, for example, claim 14 times as many lives per year.

What you should actually be scared of: Antibiotic resistance

Now this is a proper existential threat. "Superbugs", ordinary germs that have evolved a resistance to the antibiotics we use, are already implicated in around 700,000 deaths a year. A review by the UK government estimated that by 2050, that figure will have risen to 10 million.

Even worse, if antibiotics become useless, much of modern medicine will become unworkable. Major surgical procedures such as caesarean sections and open heart surgery rely on the use of antibiotics, as does chemotherapy.

What you should actually be scared of: The sniffles

Above violence in the WHO's list were diabetes (988,000 deaths), diseases of the genitourinary system (848,000 deaths), and lower respiratory tract infections (3,884,000 deaths). Even the flu might be more of a threat. Influenza kills between 250,000 and 500,000 every year, and you probably don't live in constant fear of the flu.


3. What you're scared of: Ebola

Ebolavirus. ThinkStock

The world has been understandably shocked by the outbreak of Ebola in west Africa. Since it began, about 15 months ago, there have been more than 10,000 confirmed deaths, according to the US Centres for Disease Control. But while Ebola gets the headlines, it's far from the most deadly disease even in Africa. It's also extremely unlikely to become a global threat, because it isn't a very infectious disease.

What you should be scared of: Mosquitoes

More than a million people die every year from mosquito-borne diseases. Malaria is the biggest killer, but even the little-discussed yellow fever kills around three times as many people every year as Ebola has in this outbreak: Around 30,000, almost all in Africa. Dengue fever and chikungunya fever also cause large amounts of death and suffering.

4. What you're scared of: Nuclear power


Nuclear energy has a bad image. In a 2011 Ipsos poll, taken after the Japanese earthquake which damaged a nuclear plant in Fukushima, it was shown to be less trusted than any other means of producing energy. People are genuinely scared of it.

But it's amazingly safe. The Chernobyl disaster – nearly 30 years ago now – killed 56 people directly, and is estimated to have killed another 4,000 from cancers caused by radiation. Another, less widely known, disaster, an explosion at the Kyshtym plant in 1957, killed an unknown number – Neil Schlager, in his book When Technology Fails, puts it at around 8,000, although others put it at just 200 or even lower. Even at the highest estimates, though, nuclear power has killed fewer than 15,000 people in its history (and Fukushima killed precisely nobody).

What you should actually be scared of: Coal power

Meanwhile, coal power kills, according to one study, 100,000 people a year in India alone from air pollution. Another study at Tsinghua university found that 670,000 people die in China for the same reason. Estimates vary, because good data is hard to get hold of, but it will certainly be in the hundreds of thousands.

Another way to look at it is how many deaths are caused per unit of electricity created. According to Forbes magazine, for every trillion kilowatt-hours of nuclear power made (the US uses about four trillion kWh a year), about 90 people die. That figure is 170,000 for coal.


5. What you're scared of: Stranger danger


About 100 children are abducted by strangers in the US per year, according to the child-safety expert Gavin De Becker's book Protecting the Gift. There are 70 million children or so in the US. That means your child has roughly a 0.00014% chance of getting abducted in any given year.

Of course, it's hard to get an intuitive grasp on numbers that small, so…

What you should actually be scared of (sort of): Child heart attacks

…for scale, De Becker gives the comparison of heart failure in children. Almost no one worries about their child spontaneously having a heart attack, but according to the journal Circulation: Heart Failure, there are 0.87 cases of "new onset" heart failures per 100,000 under-16s. In the US, that translates to about 600 per year, or about six times as likely as your child being abducted.

"Out of nearly seventy million American children, fewer than a hundred a year are provably kidnapped by strangers. A child is vastly more likely to have a heart attack, and child heart attacks are so rare that most parents (correctly) never even consider the risk," says De Becker.

6. What you're scared of: Flying


Flying is almost certainly the safest available form of transport, apart from, possibly, trains. In 2013, "More than 3 billion people flew safely on 36.4 million flights," according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), with 210 fatalities. Three billion divided by 210 = 14,285,714. The average flier has about a one in 14 million chance of dying each year. Those are good odds.

What you should actually be scared of: Driving

According to the World Health Organisation, 1.24 million people died on the roads in 2010. That works out as 18 deaths per 100,000 people per year. You are about 2,500 times more likely to die on the road than you are in a plane, and even if you're a frequent flier, the risk is still negligible compared to driving.

Our fear of flying itself has deadly consequences. In the year after 9/11, the number of Americans flying dropped by between 12% and 20%, while the number driving went up dramatically. But because driving is so much more dangerous than flying, one professor of risk, Gerd Gigerenzer, estimated that an extra 1,595 people died that year, in accidents on the roads.

What you should actually be scared of: Almost literally anything else

Here is a brilliant list of 20 things that kill more people than sharks. On that list: Volcanoes; texting; deer; hot dogs; bathtubs; and roller coasters. You really don't need to worry about sharks, at all.