24 x 7

Recently, I read a post about how the children of the ‘70s survived, despite all the problems they encountered: recalled toys, like lawn darts; not wearing seat belts; no helmets; and leaving kids unattended. Lawn darts caused a few injuries and one death; 12 high school and college students die annually from football, but a lot more play football than threw lawn darts.  It might not have been unreasonable to ban them.  Given football’s propensity to cause brain damage, I think the game must change, a tall order in this country.

We don’t need helicopter parents, not letting their children discover the world for themselves.  Kids need to experiment.  But some experiments we know aren’t a good idea, and we don’t want kids repeating them.  Diving into unknown water is one of those.  Not wearing a seatbelt is another.  I remember when cars didn’t have seat belts; people who first encountered seat belts in cars thought they were weird, like we were going to go flying.  On holiday weekends, we saw in the paper numbers of dead (hundreds) from motor vehicle accidents.  Since 1960, the absolute death rate has fallen, despite a near doubling of population.  The actual death rate per 100,000 is half of what it once was.  Seat belts are the major reason.

Helmets save lives, too.  Recently in my city, an 18 year-old girl hit her head after falling off a skateboard.  She got back on, a little while later was short of breath, collapsed and died.  This was almost certainly due to an epidural hematoma, with the classic lucid interval, and could have been prevented by a helmet.  Anecdote?  Sure.  But data support helmet safety.

Second hand smoke may not have caused cancer yet in the generation born in the ‘70s, but they are still young.  Wait until they become 50 or 60, and some who never smoked die from lung cancer.

The issue is not that you got away with it, and therefore it was safe.  That is Challenger-type of thinking. Challenger was unsafe to fly at the ground temperature it was at.  We had plenty of evidence to suggest that, but no catastrophe had occurred, so launch was allowed.  The issue is probability.  The probability I will die in a motor vehicle accident is very low.  But I can make it lower by wearing a seat belt, which then makes the airbag useful.  The probability I will get cancer from second hand smoke is low, but I can make it less by not being around it.   Smokers can live long lives and non-smokers can die young, but the probability is against such an occurrence.

I continued to write that in my youth, we had 3 TV channels, not hundreds.  We did not have Nancy Grace, Fox News, or Keith Olbermann.  Last year, after the Asiana crash at San Francisco, we had extensive coverage, where experts were continuously asked to offer opinions about something about which they had limited facts.  “Dead air” is an ironic killer in 24 x 7 news, and it has to be filled, but if the filler is conjecture, and if it is repeated often enough, the conjecture becomes treated as fact.  Politicians have known that for decades.

If child abduction and murder by strangers were 26 times higher than it is now, we would have a national campaign to protect children.  Come to think of it, we do.  And it works.  The problem is that a child is 26 times more likely to die in an auto crash and 20 times more likely to die at the hands of a family member than a stranger.  But 24 x 7 coverage of an Amber Alert overplays the idea that children are always in imminent danger, when they aren’t.

The idea that we are just seconds away from death at any moment, “It could happen tomorrow” on The Weather Channel, the idea that but for a super hero or a first responder, our lives could be snuffed out in a second, is wrong.  We need counts of deaths, we need proof of dangers, if we can determine such, and they must be peer-reviewed.  Mike to The Weather Channel:  the most dangerous weather system on Earth is a stalled high pressure system.  Heat-related fatalities comprise a plurality of weather related deaths in the US, drought is the cause of more than half of all worldwide weather-related deaths.  Showing storm chasers near electrical storms does not help teach people that lightning annually kills more people here than hurricanes, even with Katrina’s toll factored in.

Such 24 x 7 coverage often pits two “experts” against each other in the name of equal time, whether or not the science is equal.  Climate change is an example. Or, it asks multiple experts to speculate, when speculation may be outright wrong, either because the facts aren’t clear or the reasoning isn’t.  In a country with over 300 million people, there are daily tragedies.  Indeed, each of us in our own lives has tragedy strike numerous times. On an average day, most of us have things happen that we don’t like.  It is probability, and low probability outcomes with large numbers of events lead to a significant expected value of these uncommon outcomes.

There is significant news every day.  It would be nice if it were reported and then left alone until further information becomes available.  Breaking news is not helpful if it glues people to the TV screen, with experts trying to comment upon things they can’t effectively comment upon.  It is akin to diagnosing a patient based upon what they write in a letter or say over the phone.  A good doctor will use extreme caution here.  A good journalist should, too.




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