Bite Me!

From the Department of Bad Statistics:  The New York Times just published an article titled “Afraid of Snakes? Wasps and Dogs are Deadlier.”  It supports this claim by citing the number of deaths due to encounters with various animals between 2008 and 2015. According to the article, the number of Americans who died from snakebites during this period was 48, compared to 272 from dogs and 478 from stinging insects.

Even if we agree that wasps and dogs caused more deaths over this timeframe, they are not necessarily deadlier.  Most people have far fewer encounters with snakes than with bees (whose food sources are everywhere) or dogs (whose owners are everywhere).  I may spot a snake around here every two or three years.  And when I do, I give them a far wider berth than I do dogs.  Both of these factors are likely to play a part in the relatively low number of snakebite deaths among the general population, compared to those from bees or dogs.

I think the New York Times could have framed this story in a less sensational and more informative way, but it just goes to show how journalists and scientists have different aims and often abide by different rules.  Afraid of scientists?  Journalists are deadlier!

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One Response to Bite Me!

  1. Enrique says:

    Excellent point. The NY Times writer (N. Bakalar) commits the “base rate fallacy” in his piece. Yes, dogs and bees kill more people than snakes in absolute terms, but we need to compare “base rates” — how many encounters do people have with dogs and snakes! The lower snake-bite death numbers may simply reflect the lower base rate number of encounters we have with snakes …

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