What's the biggest threat to your life? Chances are, the reality is very different to the picture you read about in the news.
A team of data scientists have recently been looking at the most common cause of death compared to the causes of death we worry about and read in the media. In sum, it shows a massive disparity between our beliefs and reality.
The data was gathered by University of California San Diego computer science students Hasan Al-Jamaly, Maximillian Siemers, Owen Shen, and Nicole Stone, who wanted to see if results of a similar study carried out in 1979 still held. They started by collecting public health figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For the media figures, they collated headlines from The Guardian and The New York Times. For the insights into what we personally worry about, they simply looked at Google trends data, drawing on our neurotic tendencies to google our symptoms.
The CDC data shows that the actual most common cause of death is heart disease closely followed by cancer. Following a big drop off, the next most common causes of mortality were lower respiratory diseases, car accidents, then Alzheimer’s disease.
That’s the reality of it, but people's perceptions and the media's priorities are very different.
Both The Guardian and the New York Times appear to have three big obsessions: homicides, suicide, and TERRORISM!!!! These three factors stick out like a sore thumb in the newspaper data collated, even though they didn’t feature prominently in the CDC data. Cancer, the second highest cause of death according to the CDC is the fourth most reported on topic of the media. Heart disease, the CDC's leading cause of death is barely mentioned in the media at all.
Cancer, however, is the defining feature of the Google searches. Considering the actual CDC mortality rates, that worry is perhaps not too overstated. Nevertheless, heart disease is largely ignored one again. Suicide, car accidents, terrorism, and diabetes apparently fuel our fear more.
“We found that, like results before us, the attention given by news outlets and Google searches does not match the actual distribution of deaths,” Owen Shen explains in a post online.
“This suggests that general public sentiment is not well-calibrated with the ways that people actually die. Heart disease and kidney disease appear largely underrepresented in the sphere of public attention, while terrorism and homicides capture a far larger share, relative to their share of deaths caused.”
Aaron Penne, another data scientists who didn't work on the project, also made a simple and easily-digestible visualization of the data too.