4 Irrational Fears That Aren't as Irrational as They Seem
Are you irrationally terrified of something that most people brush off as a distant threat that will never have any sway over the direction of their life? A lot of people are, and we love to make fun of them for it.
Is every "you have a better chance of winning the lottery" type of phobia as silly as it seems, though? We talk about that on this week's Unpopular Opinion podcast ...
... where I'm joined by comic Al Jackson (Legit on FXX) and Danger Van Gorder from the band Countless Thousands. The first fear we explore is one of the most regularly dismissed phobias ...
You have a better chance of winning the lottery than being killed by a shark in the United States. That's the kind of statistic people like to throw around when some coward friend mentions the possibility of encountering one of nature's most efficient killing machines while swimming in the ocean.
Well, guess what? People win the lottery all the goddamn time. I understand that it doesn't happen with the same frequency as car accidents or cloudy days, but it does happen. People win the lottery, and no matter how silly people want you to believe the idea is, people do get attacked by sharks. If the threat wasn't real, Googling the phrase "protect yourself from sharks" probably wouldn't return 875,000 results. If a shark attack was something you never needed to worry about, the movie Open Water wouldn't exist.
Even Jaws was based on some truly unfortunate shit that really did happen.
The problem with this type of comparison is that it's usually taking the entire population into account. Figuring the landlocked citizens of Nebraska into shark attack numbers is absurd, as was pointed out by the Freakonomics people when that famous "vending machines cause more deaths than sharks" statistic made the rounds a few years back. There are so many factors that need to be considered before you can just toss that fact in your wallet and use it as universal shark protection.
For starters, imagine you're standing in 4 feet of water and you see a shark swimming around 8 feet away. Now, imagine you're alone in a room and there's a vending machine 8 feet away. Your instinctive response to the first situation is going to be complete and total panic. Your response to the second would be a quick assessment of whether your snack preference is skewing toward salty or sweet that day. These are completely different situations.
Dude, look out, Type 2 diabetes is behind you!
Also, if that strikes you as a fantastical comparison, keep in mind that the world capital for shark attacks is New Smyrna Beach, Florida, where shark activity is such that scientists estimate that anyone who's been in that water has been within 10 feet of a shark. Getting attacked isn't a lottery at that point, it's more like a raffle.
Or what about lightning? People love to talk about how you're more likely to die by God's most trusted brand of fury than any number of other potential killers, including sharks. But here's the thing: Lightning can get you anywhere. In the water, on land ... anywhere. Meanwhile, when's the last time a shark attacked someone at a Herbie Hancock concert?
Sharks attack fewer people than lightning because sharks are given fewer opportunities. If sharks could move about cities and towns the same way they do in the ocean and were found in the same numbers, we'd pray for lightning just on the off chance it might take out a few of the land sharks that routinely consume our people.
Pictured: The unspeakably tragic death of Dan Aykroyd.
I'm not saying you should never go in the water, obviously, but I am saying that if you frolic in the ocean with the same "fuck sharks" swagger that you walk around with on land, your chances of getting struck by the lightning of the sea increase exponentially. If you don't believe that, check out this uncomfortably extensive list of shark attack prevention tips that I promise a lot of you aren't taking into consideration when you swim. That list doesn't exist because sharks are some kind of paranormal entity.
Yes, overall, the chances of getting attacked by a shark are slim, but those numbers you hear that make it sound like an impossible dream are factoring in that you'll probably never even be in the ocean. Once you are, it's more likely that you'll die by drowning than anything else, but if you think sharks still pose less of a threat than vending machines or auto accidents when you're thrashing around in 4 feet of ocean water, you're half the reason shark attacks happen in the first place (sharks are the other half).
I'll be the first to admit that my fear of bugs is pretty irrational, so much so that the one that terrified me above all others as a child was the June bug. Sure, it mainly eats shrubbery and has no real means of harming a person, but have you heard that tapping noise it makes when it gets inside your home and stupidly flies into the wall repeatedly? It literally sends chills down my spine. I cannot be in the same room with a June bug, no matter how harmless it might be.
I would kill this picture if I could.
The problem is flying ants. I was swarmed by an army of them as a kid, and it apparently scarred me to the point that I now make it clear that, no matter what type of relationship I'm entering into, be it personal or professional, the other person or persons are solely responsible for handling any bug extermination issues that may arise. I don't care if it's just me and a small child: If that kid isn't willing and able to kill a wasp, we're going to have to call animal control to fix the problem or something. I'll be too busy cowering under a table.
Again, I accept that this is completely silly, but I'd also argue that not all bugs are quite so innocuous. For example, what about the mosquito? It's the most lethal killer in the animal kingdom for one simple reason -- malaria. Those worthless pests spread that deadly disease in uncontrollable numbers all over the world, and the worst part is that it's a problem we totally had fixed at one point.
Have you ever heard of DDT? Those letters are so synonymous with death and destruction that Jake "The Snake" Roberts named his signature wrestling move after the disgraced pesticide.
Still not sure why he was allowed to carry this into the ring, though.
It was banned from use in 1972 after a series of what turned out to be ludicrously faulty studies claimed that DDT was killing off the peregrine falcon population. Getting it outlawed is considered one of the earliest victories of the environmentalist movement. Speaking of that, here's some trivia to run past your environmentalist friends sometime: Did you know that the makers of DDT actually won the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts?
A well-deserved victory indeed.
It's true. See, DDT is remarkably effective at one thing, and that one thing is killing mosquitoes. It was last used in Sri Lanka, in 1963. There were 17 reported cases of malaria that year. By 1969, with DDT no longer allowed, malaria cases skyrocketed to 2.5 motherfucking million.
Hey, at least those falcons are safe, right?
Right, because they were always safe. As stated earlier, the studies that led to DDT falling out of favor turned out to be incorrect. In some areas where DDT was used, peregrine falcon populations actually increased. Nevertheless, the use of DDT has been banned ever since, and malaria continues to kill millions each year. Thanks, stupid birds!
Again, like everything else on this list (except June bugs), I'm not saying you should live in constant, mortal fear of being attacked by a serial killer. If you find you're having that objection to everything mentioned here so far, fucking stop, because that's not the point. What I'm getting at instead is that it's very possible that we're underestimating the threat presented by some legitimately dangerous stuff.
Case in point, there's a pretty interesting situation unfolding in the Midwest right now that I didn't have time to touch on in last week's fantastic column about misconceptions people have about the area. In Lacrosse, Wisconsin, depending on who you ask, there is either an epidemic of young, athletic white males, usually of college age or close to it, getting drunk and accidentally drowning in rivers, or someone is purposely murdering victims fitting that description in alarming numbers.
Good luck catching this one!
The people who claim foul play aren't doing themselves any favors when it comes to convincing people they aren't lunatic conspiracy theorists. For starters, the most common theory is based on a phenomenon called "The Smiley Face Killings," which sounds exactly like the kind of hokey shit someone would think up for a movie about serial killers. Then again, the case for murder isn't completely without merit.
Initially put forth by two retired NYC detectives, the theory claims that dozens, possibly hundreds of drowning deaths, in as many as 11 states, are all the work of one killer or group of killers who leave a calling card in the form of a smiley face spray painted at the point where each victim's body was dumped in the water.
So the killer is a professional artist, write that down.
Yeah, fine, so what are we talking about, a few deaths connected by way of the most common graffiti known to man? Well, more like 40 deaths. That was the approximate count when the theory first surfaced back in 2003; others estimate the number of "victims" to be in the hundreds.
Is it all just an urban legend, though? That's how almost every police precinct that's found one of these cases in their jurisdiction has handled any talk of a serial killer hunting college-age white males. Most of the cases are closed with a brief investigation that ends with the police determining the cause of death to be accidental drowning. That's how things initially unfolded when a Minneapolis college student named Chris Jenkins went missing on Halloween night in 2002. He turned up four months later in the Mississippi River, and police quickly wrote the incident off as a mere accident.
This picture seems as appropriate as any other at this point.
When the family of the victim asked for a second opinion, an independent investigator noted that Jenkins' body was found fully clothed, his shoes on and his shirt still tucked in, with his arms folded in front of him, all of which is completely inconsistent with death by drowning. A person's natural instinct when drowning is to try to swim out of harm's way, which means most drowning victims are found floating face down, arms outstretched, and usually missing several articles of clothing. There's also a surveillance camera pointed at all times at the bridge Jenkins fell from. He never appeared on that video footage once in the hours and days surrounding his disappearance. Finally, after years of claiming otherwise, police reopened the Jenkins case as a homicide in 2006. It remains unsolved.
One more time, for good measure.
Or how about the case of Jesse Maness? He was last heard from in a cellphone call from his car at around 2 a.m. Police searched the area he was last seen for days and found nothing. Then, as if by magic, his overturned vehicle was found in the exact same area six days later. The theory was that Maness hit a DOT construction sign, causing him to drive off the bridge and ultimately drown. It sounds relatively normal, save for the six days without finding the car part, but it gets weirder. Maness was actually found outside the vehicle wearing different clothes from those he was seen wearing on the night of his disappearance. He was also without shoes, but only because they were just kind of sitting in the car as opposed to actually being on his feet. According to the official police reports, his death was the result of drowning in approximately 18 inches of water.
As suspicious as it may seem, authorities still write all of these cases off as accidents and coincidences. College students get drunk and separated from the group of friends they're partying with all the time, and bad things happen as a result. It's the kind of thing that can happen to anyone. That it seems to only be happening to white, athletic males who attend college near the I-94 is surely just a coincidence. Right?
Oh, and speaking of structures overlooking intimidating bodies of water ...
We all have that one overly worried friend who curls up in the fetal position and trembles with fear every time they're in a car that passes over a bridge. Unfortunately, every single one of that friend's fears was justified a few years ago when the I-35 bridge collapsed in Minneapolis. The tragedy killed 13 people, injured another 150, and exposed huge flaws in our nation's bridges that, if not addressed, could lead to that scene being repeated several times over throughout the country. Well, guess what? Those flaws, for the most part, have not been addressed! If you're the video kind, you can hear all the sad details in this New York Times documentary (relax, it's less than 10 minutes):
If you prefer your disheartening information to be delivered via text, please note that of the 607,000 bridges in the United States, more than 65,000 are considered "structurally deficient." In Pennsylvania, 1 in 4 bridges qualifies for this label. Even worse, there are approximately 20,000 bridges in the United States that are classified as "fracture critical," which means that if just one component breaks, the entire thing will collapse. That bridge in Minneapolis was fracture critical.
Keep in mind that these are the numbers today, a full seven years removed from the most tragic bridge collapse in recent memory. We've had many years to start getting this shit in order, and we are not doing it. In fact, when a lot of the bridges we drive on today initially went up, they were built to have a 50-year lifespan. Most of these bridges were built in the 1950s. Do the math, then think about it the next time your work commute has you stopped on a bridge with hundreds of other motorists. The flaw that brought down the I-35 bridge went undiscovered for over 40 years, and for many of the bridges we rely on every day, their biggest flaw is simply that they've been around as long as they have. The bridges of America weren't built to last forever, but we haven't stopped pretending that's not true.
Adam wants nothing more in life than for you to come to a live recording of the Unpopular Opinion podcast on May 20 at the Hollywood Improv. Get tickets here. Barring that, you can see him this Saturday at Westside Comedy Theater and follow him on all of your most favorite social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, and Friendster (link forthcoming).