Disaster polling, Part 1

In September of 2011, following a conversation at work about the relative roles of scientists and the media in the public’s perception of natural disasters, I sent a short poll out on Twitter and Facebook. I was interested in what kinds of disasters people fear the most (earthquakes? volcanic eruptions? terrorist attacks?) as well as how the media has shaped people’s views of disasters, and the frequency of their occurrence.

I’ve finally taken a few hours to stare at the poll results, so I’ll summarize them over the next few posts.

First, let’s get to know the people that responded. There were 43 of them, and their education level broke down thusly:

… and those respondents, when asked to “summarize your current job category in 5 words or less” identified themselves as:

When asked how many times a week they read or watch something relating to science, they answered:

… and then I asked, “When a disaster is happening, to whom do you turn for information?”

Now that we’ve got a feel for who responded, and what their news sources are, let’s dig into what they think about the world around them.

When asked, “Do you believe that human activity on Earth has impacted the climate?” 100% answered Yes (this made me happy).

When asked, “Why are we hearing about more earthquakes in the world lately?” 90% said that social media and major media report on things more than in the past, while 10% said more earthquakes are occurring than in the past.

When asked the same question about severe storms, 74% said that social media and major media report on things more, while 26% said more storms are occurring than in the past.

I won’t dive too deeply into this right now, but it’s an interesting difference. Scientists, including those at the USGS, tell us that earthquakes aren’t on the rise – we’re just doing a better and more comprehensive job of monitoring, detecting, locating, and reporting on earthquakes around the world. When it comes to storms: Several scientists would argue that yes, we are experiencing more severe storms than, say, a few decades earlier (and this of course depends on where you are in the world, and this of course is better discussed elsewhere).

I asked our respondents, “Which natural disasters do you think have been the most deadly, worldwide, over the last 200 years?”


I realize that floods and tsunamis could, at times, be considered to overlap, but if we look at death tolls by natural disaster either on this older NOAA compilation [PDF] or this Wikipedia list (which is in need of verification), river-based floods are terrible, especially in China, and are unrelated to tsunami floodwaters. It’s clear that earthquakes, storms, and tsunamis also take their toll. Volcanic eruptions are pretty low on the list, in terms of human casualties, though if one considers long-term effects of all that ash in the air, the numbers might go up. Similarly, if one considers long-term health and infrastructure effects of combined earthquake and tsunami disasters, like in Haiti, the numbers get more complicated. But this is a series about perception, let’s save that conversation for another day.

In the next post, we’ll talk about earthquake prediction, and our respondents’ fears of everything from volcanoes to zombies.

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3 Comments on “Disaster polling, Part 1”

  1. Wendy says:

    ZOMBIES!!! I love it!!

  2. r says:

    Considering this blog is titled “fuzzy science”, you can be forgiven, but you may want to leave the “%” symbols of your last pie chart

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