Statistics vs Stories?

By Robert Bernstein   |   October 13, 2020

As a teen in the ‘70s I had very little money to pursue my many passions. So I was grateful for various suppliers of surplus electronics that I used to build my creations. I was surprised one day that one of my favorite suppliers was having a going-out-of-business sale. I showed up at the event and he was not there, but his wife was.

His wife said that she had gotten a knock on the door and the official had said that her husband was dead. He had been flying solo and she assumed his plane had crashed. “No, ma’am. We don’t know anything about a plane. He was hit head on by a drunk driver and died instantly.” On his way home from the airport.

Fast forward to 1994. I was about to take a commuter plane to Sacramento to visit family. I was told that even though these tickets were non-refundable, they would make an exception. Why? Because there had recently been a crash of a commuter plane in the news. Airlines were letting people cancel their flights with no penalty.

The result was that many people died from this “generous” policy. Why is that? Because thousands of people canceled their flights and travelled by car instead.

The Chicago Tribune had an excellent article on December 18, 1994 entitled “Commuter Airline Safety: Looking at the Real Danger.” Author Stephen Chapman noted that driving is 80-100 times more dangerous than flying in a commuter plane. He was angry at the Transportation Secretary who said “statistics have little meaning at a time like this.”

Chapman wrote, “Actually, it is precisely at times like this that statistics and other mundane facts have the greatest meaning, since they can be exceptionally useful in dispelling mindless fear. The duty of the Transportation Secretary is to inform travelers of the real risks they face, instead of assuming that their visceral responses provide an infallible guide.”

The Transportation Secretary went on to say that he was calling for increased standards for commuter plane equipment and pilot training. What could be wrong with that? For one thing, it will raise the cost of commuter plane flights. Which could cause more people to drive instead of fly. Which actually ends up causing more injuries and deaths.

For another thing, it is not a rational allocation of resources. Suppose you had a finite amount of money to spend to reduce transportation deaths and injuries. How would you prioritize it? Reducing the already near-zero danger of flying?

Maybe it makes sense to direct that money toward safer cars and roads? But maybe there is something even more effective? How about if we took some of the hundreds of billions of dollars spent each year to subsidize private motor vehicle travel and air travel and used it instead to build a modern high-speed rail system?

High-speed rail would actually be faster than flying for about half of all current flights in the U.S. That is, if you include the travel time to the airport and the time spent in security and waiting for your flight.

And high-speed rail would be many times safer than driving in a private motor vehicle. Not to mention much faster and much kinder to the environment.

Why do we have the policies that we have? We hear so many sensational stories, complete with images, of horrific plane crashes that it biases our perception of what is safe.

I will give two more examples. Parents drive their kids to school because of some vague sense that it is “just not safe” for their kids to walk or bike to school. I am not sure if they think the kids will be abducted by space aliens or if they even think of anything in particular. “It is just not safe” is a story repeated among parents based on the exceptionally rare case of a stranger child abduction. These events are as rare as being hit by lightning.

But the children suffer real mental and physical harm by never having the exercise and autonomy to “just be kids.” How do you have a story or graphic image of early onset diabetes or depression?

In another example, people move from cities to suburbs because cities are full of scary criminals. (You know, people with darker skin.) But they end up driving more by living in the suburbs. They overestimate the risk of crime and underestimate the risk of being injured or killed in a traffic accident. All because they trust stories rather than statistics.


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