The flying odds are (but may not feel like they are) ever in your favor

James Fallows points out that the saga of Flight MH370 reinforces ideas about the dangers of flying, even though plane crashes are quite rare:

First-world commercial air travel has become so extremely safe that when something does go wrong, figuring it out can be a huge challenge — which heightens the mystery and, for many people, the terror of these episodes, by making them seem so random. You’re sitting there grumbling about the discomforts of modern flight — and then, for no apparent reason, your plane is the one headed into the sea…

I remember that when the 777 was introduced it was such a sales success and was expected to live such a long service life that some people speculated the fleet could actually make a billion flights. Of course, you don’t need to make a billion flights to draw the magic short one-in-a-billion straw. But it is something to think about. Transport flying is now so safe that the long time standard of 10 to the minus 9th may not satisfy the public.

The sobering point here is again that the very safety of modern air travel makes these episodes both intellectually and emotionally even more difficult.

Why does flying seem so threatening when driving is a much much more dangerous daily activity?

1. Passengers on an airplane have no or little control over their circumstances. Car drivers, in contrast, feel like they have a lot of control though is is part illusion: they can’t control the people around them or the conditions.

2. Plane crashes can involve dozens or hundreds of deaths. A larger death toll from a single event seems far worse than the amalgamation of lots of individual deaths. Think about the difference about the murder toll in Chicago on a yearly basis (spread throughout the calendar) versus the Newtown shootings (one event, worsened because the children couldn’t do anything about it).

3. The media grabs on to tragic events like this and keeps them in public view for weeks. In contrast, single deaths or smaller incidents get short mentions unless they involve unusual circumstances.

All together, the odds of dying in a plane crash are very small. That doesn’t mean those odds carry the same emotional and social weight.

Does urbanization in America explain the declining deaths by lightning strike?

Here is an interesting research question: is urbanization responsible for the sharp decline in Americans who die by lightning strike each year?

In the lightning-death literature, one explanation has gained prominence: urbanization. Lightning death rates have declined in step with the rural population, and rural lightning deaths make up a far smaller percent of all lightning deaths. Urban areas afford more protection from lightning. Ergo, urbanization has helped make people safer from lightning. Here’s a graph showing this, neat and clean:

And a competing perspective:

I spoke with Ronald Holle, a meteorologist who studies lightning deaths, and he agreed that modernization played a significant role. “Absolutely,” he said. Better infrastructure in rural areas—not just improvements to homes and buildings, but improvements to farming equipment too has—made rural regions safer today than they were in the past. Urbanization seems to explain some of the decline, but not all of it.

“Rural activities back then were primarily agriculture, and what we call labor-intensive manual agriculture. Back then, my family—my grandfather and his father before that in Indiana—had a team of horses, and it took them all day to do a 20-acre field.” Today, a similar farmer would be inside a fully-enclosed metal-topped vehicle, which offers excellent lightning protection. Agriculture has declined as a percent of total lightning-death-related activities, as the graph below shows, but unfortunately it does not show the per capita lightning-death rate of people engaged in agriculture.

Sounds like more data is needed! I wonder how long it would take to collect the relevant information versus the payoff of the findings…

More broadly, this hints at how human interactions with nature has changed, even in relatively recent times: we are more insulated from the effects of weather and nature. During the recent cold snap in the area, I was reminded of an idea I had a few years ago to explain why so many adults seem to talk about the weather. Could it be related to the fact that the weather is perhaps the most notable thing on a daily basis that is outside of our control? As 21st century humans, we control a lot that is in front of us (or at least we think we do) but can do little about what the conditions will be like outside. We have more choices than ever about how to respond but it prompts responses from everyone, from the poor to the wealthy, the aged to the young.

Why we talk so much about the weather

The headline at “Blizzard may be ‘life threatening.’” There were similar headlines throughout the day on the front page of Yahoo! (with the latest version of the story here). Yes, there are predictions for a big storm but why do we talk about the weather so much?

My own thoughts: for the average American adult, the weather is perhaps the only constant in our days that we feel we can’t control. With a certain level of income, most Americans can handle day-to-day matters pretty easily: food is easy to obtain, we have generally large and nice shelters, transportation (by car) is available to many, jobs are decent and give us something to do (even with recent higher unemployment figures). Wars are distant and we know that many in the world face much tougher conditions. But we can’t control the weather. A blizzard bearing down on us reminds us that there are some areas in life of which we can only respond. There is a Christian theme in here if we take a moment to ponder it: we are ultimately not in complete control of our lives, this is okay, and perhaps we should remind ourselves of this more often.

(Additionally, the weather is a common, safe topic that can pull people together. It is hard to be offensive or rude when bringing up the weather. Since we all have to deal with it, it can help bring about group solidarity if we have a neutral topic to fall back on.)

An emerging portrait of emerging adults in the news, part 1

In recent weeks, a number of studies have been reported on that discuss the beliefs and behaviors of the younger generation, those who are now between high school and age 30 (an age group that could also be labeled “emerging adults”). In a three-part series, I want to highlight three of these studies because they not only suggest what this group is doing but also hints at the consequences.

Almost a week ago, a story ran along the wires about a new study linking “hyper-texting” and excessive usage of social networking sites with risky behaviors:

Teens who text 120 times a day or more — and there seems to be a lot of them — are more likely to have had sex or used alcohol and drugs than kids who don’t send as many messages, according to provocative new research.

The study’s authors aren’t suggesting that “hyper-texting” leads to sex, drinking or drugs, but say it’s startling to see an apparent link between excessive messaging and that kind of risky behavior.

The study concludes that a significant number of teens are very susceptible to peer pressure and also have permissive or absent parents, said Dr. Scott Frank, the study’s lead author

The study was done at 20 public high schools in the Cleveland area last year, and is based on confidential paper surveys of more than 4,200 students.

It found that about one in five students were hyper-texters and about one in nine are hyper-networkers — those who spend three or more hours a day on Facebook and other social networking websites.

About one in 25 fall into both categories.

Hyper-texting and hyper-networking were more common among girls, minorities, kids whose parents have less education and students from a single-mother household, the study found.

Several interesting things to note in this study:

1. It did not look at what exactly is being said/communicated in these texts or in social networking use. This study examines the volume of use – and there are plenty of high school students who are heavily involved with these technologies.

2. One of the best parts of this story is that the second paragraph is careful to suggest that finding an association between these behaviors does not mean that they cause each other. In other words, there is not a direct link between excessive testing and drug use. Based on this dataset, these variables are related. (This is a great example of “correlation without causation.”)

3. What this study calls for is regression analysis where we can control for other possible factors. It would then give us the ability to compare two students with the same family background and same educational performance and isolate whether texting was really the factor that led to the risky behaviors. If I had to guess, factors like family life and performance in school are more important in predicting these risky behaviors. Then, excessive texting for SNS use is an intervening variable. Why this study did not do this sort of analysis is unclear – perhaps they already have a paper in the works.

Overall, we need more research on these associated variables. While it is interesting in itself that there are large numbers of emerging adults who text a lot and use SNS a lot, we ultimately want to know the consequences. Part two and three of this series will look at a few studies that offer some possible consequences.