Things That Never Happen

Monday, August 9, 2010
By dreeves

The Counterfactual News Network?

I love this quote from security expert Bruce Schneier:

Remember, if it’s in the news don’t worry about it. The very definition of news is “something that almost never happens.” When something is so common that it’s no longer news — car crashes, domestic violence — that’s when you should worry about it.

The truth of that[1] hit home recently when I saw a news feature on the abduction of a four-year-old girl from her front yard in Missouri. Candlelight vigils, nation-wide amber alert, police blockades where every single car was stopped and questioned, FBI agents swarming the house. I think the expected reaction from parents is “oh my god, I need to be so vigilant, even in my own front yard!” My reaction was the opposite: Wow, this sort of thing really does essentially never happen. Let the kids run free!

I’m saying this without a drop of irony. Stranger abductions just don’t happen. You should worry more about your baby boy dying from complications of circumcision (true). What you should actually worry about are the real killers of kids, like driving and drowning. Speaking of which, here’s a valuable public service announcement about what drowning looks like. (It doesn’t look like drowning.)

By the way, if you didn’t hear the news story about the four-year-old girl, it had a happy ending. She turned up unharmed.

The Opposite Story: Things That Do Happen

But speaking of child abductions and drowning, I have to bring up a brutally ironic news story from several years ago.

In summary, a toddler got separated from her caregivers and wandered off, where a passerby saw her. Seeing no one else around, his first instinct was to scoop her up and take her with him. But he decided that that was a big risk to himself — what would people think? — and continued on, reporting it later.

The girl then fell in a pond and drowned.

Just to spell out the heart-wrenching irony: Even though the man made the wrong decision (and should’ve known it at the time) he was correct that helping that girl was dangerous to him. He could’ve been accused of abducting the girl and the accusation, sadly, and insanely, would have been taken very seriously. That needs to change. Remember, child abductions by strangers don’t happen! Picking up a lost child should not be regarded with any suspicion! Arrgh!

This is also why I think these common guidelines parents give their young kids about which kinds of adults to seek help from if they’re lost (store employees, other moms) are misguided and dangerous. The best person to get assistance from is the first adult they find. That adult simply is not going to happen to be a child predator! Put that absurd thought out of your mind.

By the way, the above story happened in the UK which, strangely, seems to be the only place worse than the US with this out-of-control paranoia.

This image defies comment.

But Think of the Children!

Q: Isn’t some amount of paranoia justified when it comes to children? Shouldn’t they at least be taught the difference between good strangers and bad strangers? Shouldn’t we be vigilant about any possible danger?

A: I disagree that children need to learn about “bad strangers”. I teach my kids that strangers are good, period. This is hard to talk about but it’s true: a scary number of kids really do get abused and it’s rarely by strangers. Your kids need to know about inappropriate touching but please don’t muddy that with talk of strangers. (Can you imagine, “it’s ok, I’m not a stranger…” Shudder!)

As for vigilance, it’s a limited resource: focus your energy on the real dangers.

At risk of getting repetitive I’ll re-assert my strong belief: No stranger will ever harm your child. It’s a risk (and, fine, if you want to get technical, it’s a risk, with some positive probability) that you can completely ignore. In fact, I’ll go further and say that maximum vigilance requires that you actively dismiss the idea that stangers can be dangerous. Doing so could prevent, for example, something like the tragically ironic drowning of the girl in that news story.

Q: I heard that there were 5 attempted abductions in Central Park last week. What do you say to that? (This was a real response when this came up on a parent list I’m on, though I doubt the veracity of the claim. The rest of these questions were real too, though most weren’t phrased as questions.)

A: It’s hard to even imagine this number but Central Park gets 25 million visitors every year. With those numbers, impossibly unlikely things will have happened to someone but it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to worry about them happening to you. Like when you hear about a meteor crashing through the roof of someone’s house (that’s for real, by the way).

Sticking with Central Park, here’s another real story from this summer: A woman and her baby were posing for a photo under a tree and a branch somehow fell off and killed the child. So that’s a 1 in 25 million chance of getting killed by a tree if you visit Central Park. (The appliances in your house are more dangerous than that.)

More to the point though, what’s an attempted abduction? Is it like this? A stranger talking to a child and the parents freaking out? Even more to the point, if you hear official numbers on child abductions they sound horrifying, until you learn that they’re mostly divorced parents in custody battles. Which should give you pause if you’re a divorced parent, but again we’re back to: know where to focus your vigilance. Think about who has repeated contact with your child, not the stranger in the park.

Q: What if child abductions are so rare precisely because parents are so vigilant?

A: I’m not advocating any kind of extreme disregard for children’s safety. In fact, I’m basically advocating raising kids more like how kids were raised a couple generations ago.

Q: But that was a different time!

A: Yes, it’s actually safer now. You wouldn’t think so from watching the news but crime has been going down for a couple decades and is currently at 1960s levels in the US.

Q: Fine, but what’s the harm in being cautious?

A: Here’s how Lenore Skenazy of Free-Range Kids (highly recommended) puts it:

Children, like chickens, deserve a life outside the cage. The overprotected life is stunting and stifling, not to mention boring for all concerned.

Straw Exit Poll

Thanks to Sharad Goel, Lenore Skenazy, Andrew Reeves, Laurie Reeves, David Pennock, and many parents at Harlem4Kids for reading drafts of this. If you liked this article you may like my twitter stream for parents:

Image by Kelly Savage


[1] Sharad points out that Schneier’s quote is a little too glib. The more correct way to say it would be something like “prominence in the news does not necessarily correlate with the magnitude of risk to you”. As xkcd points out, frequency of occurrence in the news overall probably does correlate with actual risk. Sharad adds that there are actually prominent news features you should worry (though this is maybe a different sense of “worry”) about, for example, war and political/corporate corruption.

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  • Peter

    I love that Schneier quote.

    One thing that may be worth adding:

    When your child is lost, tell THEM to select the stranger to help them. The odds that any randomly selected individual is a predator is, as we know, astronomical. This also addresses the concern that an opportunistic predator (they are everywhere, right? ;-)) Could seize on a lost child’s situation. This may address some of the concerns that there are real predators, and they do position themselves in positions to access vulnerable children (clergy, etc.) However, you are correct, that in these conditions, they are almost always known to the victims and parents. Still, when the child does the stranger selection, the motive of the stranger is (almost) entirely removed from the equation.

    It seems Schneier has some words along these lines too:

    In a related note of people and risk assessment, I’m always surprised at how cars continually get a pass in America; everyone freaks out about terrorists and child abductors, while cars kill tens of thousans of Americans, many of them children, with nary a peep. If we really cared about American lives we’d ban cars.

    Keep up the good work, Daniel.

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  • Meagan Francis

    I love, love love this post. You have just earned a new reader!

  • Marketing Mommy

    Meagan Francis tweeted this post and I love it too. While I’ve always told my kids to find help from “a mom, a police officer or a lady” if they get lost, you’re right…99.9% of men would help them too.

    P.S. I caused a minor sensation when I allowed my 5 year old to ride her bike around the block unsupervised. Now I let her cross the street along at a virtual deserted intersection. The horrors!

  • julie

    I love this, particularly as I have been pondering a post on something similar for close to six months.

    When I was recently home in Australia for a month’s visit, I was slightly shocked to see young kids and teens everywhere and I mean EVERYWHERE on the streets during the day. In groups, by themselves, going to play sport, in parks … Why? They don’t have the paranoia that we have.

    I think we American parents admonish each other too much. My fear of letting my kids roam free is due to
    a) fear of being seen as a slacker parent, and
    b) fear of cars.

    Abductors? That so rarely happens. And you are right, a bigger threat to my kids is drowning, cars, my fear (will they ever survive being coddled and cosseted?), etc.
    Great post. thank you,

  • Mina

    It’s hard to take you seriously when you say things like “Remember, child abductions by strangers don’t happen!”

  • dreeves

    @Mina: But the statement “babies don’t die from complications of circumcision” seems pretty true, right? It’s the same sort of thing. Some things are rare enough to be treated as if they simply don’t happen even if, technically speaking, they do.

  • Mina

    No, I wouldn’t say your example is true, either. I don’t believe in hyperbole, and it undercuts a statement when someone states untruths as facts. Some babies do die from complications of circumcision, and some children are abducted by strangers. You don’t have to discount facts to make a point unless your point is weak. I don’t think it is in this case, so you did herself a disservice.

  • dreeves

    @Mina: That’s a really fair point. Thanks. But consider Peter’s point (first comment) about cars. Isn’t it nuts how people hardly think about that risk, which is literally orders of magnitude higher than child abduction? I feel like people just think about this sort of thing all wrong (though clearly not the ones reading this, based on the straw poll!). It’s like if you have a fear of flying you should repeat to yourself, until you believe it, “this plane is not going to crash”. Technically false — it might in fact crash — but actually true to any reasonable approximation. The US and UK are gripped by such a phobia. So I stand by at least a modified version of that statement:

    For all intents and purposes, chid abductions by strangers simply don’t happen.

    I’m suggesting that it’s rare enough that it’s literally not worth taking precautions against. Like it’s not worth wearing a helmet when playing underneath trees, even though we know for a fact that a child’s life could have been saved if we did so.

    Child abduction is admittedly a bit bigger risk than tree attacks but the cost of the precautions you can take (which involve instilling a fear of people, or a stifling level of supervision) is bigger than the cost of wearing helmets when playing under trees.

  • David Pennock

    I agree with your modified statement. It’s technically possible for all the atoms in my cup to jiggle up at the same time so it flies up off the desk all by itself. Or for all the air in the room to collect in one corner so we can’t breath. But for all intents and purposes it’s impossible.

    Though these examples have astronomically smaller chance than even child abductions. When does “almost never” become “never”?

    One more thought: in other countries, children of wealthy parents might have a legitimate fear of kidnapping. Or is that overblown by media too?

  • dreeves

    @David Pennock: Great point about how it’s all relative where you want to draw the line
    between impossible and essentially impossible.

    Also, great question about kidnapping for ransom in places like South
    America. I’ve heard it’s a real problem, but without knowing the numbers,
    who knows what that means.

    As Sharad just pointed out elsewhere, kids dying from being left in hot cars is a
    “real problem”, “record numbers of children dead”, etc:

    The numbers seem to be the same order of magnitude as child abductions but there’s a push for legislation on sensors and warning systems for detecting kids left in cars.

    The right answer to that is that, sure, we could save a few kids’ lives by requiring these systems in cars but, well, it’s not enough lives to be worth the cost and hassle.

    I guess there’s just no way to say that! Instead it will get argued against (assuming sanity prevails at all) disingenuously with things like “it’s technologically infeasible” or “the false alarms and false sense of security could lead to more deaths”. (I mean, come on, if we can put a person on the moon we can make a car that you can’t forget a baby in!)

    I’m fascinated by the question of what it would take for it be accepted as conventional wisdom that a human life, even a child’s life, is only worth so much. In one sense, people already understand this. Like going to soccer practice is worth the risk of driving there. That simple, straightforward trade-off is incoherent if the kid’s life has infinite value. It’s also perfectly intuitive to people that NASA-level solutions to the baby-in-a-hot-car problem are too much.

  • John Cox

    That’s a great quote from Schneier. I don’t have my OED right now, but from what I remember of my History of the Novel (as in the literary form) classes, the word ‘news’ comes from the Middle English ‘newes’ and means ‘something new or novel’. So the questions ‘why is the news so sensationalistic’
    is tautological. News is novelty and rarity by definition.

    This explains why news outlets have always sucked as sources of well-reasoned, contextualized information. Thinking of them that way is a category error.

    Before I learned about this I was really frustrated by the news. You hear all these stories about the triumphant Fourth Estate and how things used to be so much better, but it’s just not true. It’s a projection about the good old days every bit as false as lionizing the morals of the past, or the music from when you were young. CNN and FOX didn’t invent yellow journalism and more than The National Inquirer or The New York Post or The Sun invented the scandal sheet.

    This doesn’t make the news less dangerous, though. Our brains are wired so that sensationalism works, and it’s really hard to fault people for selling an effective product. By ‘effective’ here I mean something that people pay attention to, and not something that necessarily informs them. Contextualizing events, like this article does, is really difficult when the human brain is set up to pay tons of attention to the novel, or when it’s set up so that emotional responses shut down rational ones.

  • Yam Erez

    Great post! Mina, babies die from SIDS. Does that mean don’t have babies? Our society has a hard time accepting that 1) there are things we can’t prevent, 2) we don’t have control over everything and 3) someone’s always to blame. It’s become, well, outta control.

  • dreeves

    @Yam Erez, I hate to quash a good flame war in the comments but just to point out, Mina wasn’t disagreeing with the thrust of the post, just objecting to my hyperbole.

    @John Cox, great point about the nature of news! I was just talking to Dan Goldstein about what it would take to establish as a journalistic convention the reporting of actual numerical probabilities whenever reporting on risks.

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  • Michael

    A couple of related things:

    Last Child in the Woods: About the search for safety being one of the reasons behind the growing nature deprivation of children…

    Parenting in an Age of Paranoia: A Small Manifesto