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The "Trend" In Airline Incidents is Probably Just Publication Bias

Posted by on | May 10, 2017 | Comments Off

I use the term “publication bias” to describe how easy it is to confuse the frequency with which the media reports on a phenomena with the underlying frequency of the phenomena itself.  A great example is Summer of the Shark:

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…let’s take a step back to 2001 and the “Summer of the Shark.” The media hysteria began in early July, when a young boy was bitten by a shark on a beach in Florida. Subsequent attacks received breathless media coverage, up to and including near-nightly footage from TV helicopters of swimming sharks. Until the 9/11 attacks, sharks were the third biggest story of the year as measured by the time dedicated to it on the three major broadcast networks’ news shows.

Through this coverage, Americans were left with a strong impression that something unusual was happening — that an unprecedented number of shark attacks were occurring in that year, and the media dedicated endless coverage to speculation by various “experts” as to the cause of this sharp increase in attacks.

Except there was one problem — there was no sharp increase in attacks. In the year 2001, five people died in 76 shark attacks. However, just a year earlier, 12 people had died in 85 attacks. The data showed that 2001 actually was a down year for shark attacks.

A lot of folks are now commenting on the apparent “spate” of airline incidents.  This “spate” began with United dragging Dr. David Dao, a man who would not give up his seat for a United employee, off an aircraft.  Seemingly every day sees a new story.  This headline about “yet another airline incident” is typical.

I have no data on the underlying phenomenon here, but I would be willing to bet there is no upward trend in airline incidents of this sort.  My guess is that the combination of increasingly ubiquitous cell phone cameras, publication platforms like Instagram and Facebook, and most importantly a focus by the media on looking for this sort of story after the United incident are causing an uptick in coverage rather than an uptick in actual incidents.

 The "Trend" In Airline Incidents is Probably Just Publication Bias  The "Trend" In Airline Incidents is Probably Just Publication Bias  The "Trend" In Airline Incidents is Probably Just Publication Bias

 The "Trend" In Airline Incidents is Probably Just Publication Bias

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