Monday, October 12, 2009

Teaching our kids false information

The other night while reading a non-fiction book to my 6-year-old son, I came upon a passage that sounded wrong to me.
“Endangered: Sharks” by Marc Tyler Nobleman, published in 2009 by Marshall Cavendish Benchmark of New York, contained the following paragraph on page 12:

Each of the following kills more people a year than sharks do: lightning, snakes, dogs, deer, elephants, pigs, bees, mosquitoes, falling coconuts, and even Christmas trees (sic) lights that electrocute people. At the seaside, people are more often injured by stepping on sharp seashells than by getting bitten by sharks.”

“Falling coconuts”? That can’t be true, I told my son. I promised to research it for him.
The book says there are 75 to 100 shark attacks reported worldwide in an average year and usually fewer than 20 are fatal.
Let’s review the book's list of deadly things:
Lightning – No argument there. The National Weather Service says lightning kills an average of 58 people every year in the U.S. alone.
Snakes – Poisonous snake bites cause at least 20,000 deaths a year, especially in South Asia, according a study published on PLoS Medicine.
Dogs – More than 30 people are killed by dog bites every year in the U.S. alone, according to Dog Bite Law.
Deer – I assume the author is talking about fatal car accidents involving deer, not homicidal deer. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says there are 1.5 million deer-auto accidents each year. Such accidents on average result in more than 160 deaths annually in the U.S.
Elephants – Death by elephant is still common in parts of Africa and South Asia where humans and elephants co-exist, according to Wikipedia. It provides a link to a Smithsonian article that says 50 to 100 people are killed each year in Sri Lanka as a result of human-elephant conflicts.
Pigs – No explanation given, but I would assume the author is talking about pigs crushing farmers. Those hog pens are dangerous – I know because I’ve seen “The Wizard of Oz.” But the author also could be talking about deaths from contaminated pork or people choking on ham sandwiches. Anyway, there’s lots of skepticism on the Internet that pigs kill more people each year than sharks. I can no find no data to back up this claim.
Bees – About 40 people die each year in the U.S. from allergic reactions to bee and wasp stings, according to sources in an ABC News report.
Mosquitoes – This one’s a no brainer. Mosquito-borne illnesses, such as malaria, kill more than 1 million people worldwide every year, according to the United Nations and other sources.
Falling coconuts – Not true. The Straight Dope says this claim was made up along the line and keeps getting repeated as fact. It could confirm no reports of death by falling coconut, much less 20 or more a year. Coconuts can cause injury, for sure, but they’ve gotten a bad rap as killers.
Christmas tree lights that electrocute people – More likely, Christmas tree lights spark house fires that kill people. The National Fire Protection Association estimates that Christmas tree fires kill 16 people a year in the U.S. Fires in Canada and Europe most likely put this item safely in the category of killing more people than sharks do.
So Nobleman went eight for 10 on this one. That would be great as a batting average, but I expect more from my children’s educational books.

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