It's August, and that means one thing in warmer climates: people spend more time in nature, and nature, in turn, tries to bite them. August is mosquito season, it's snakebite season—hell, even Shark Week is in summer. But lots of the thing we know about summer's flesh-nibbling threats are dead wrong, and that's why we have Ken Jennings from Jeopardy! lurking here in the underbrush to tell us, at long last, the real truth about summer's bitey pests.
The Debunker: Do Sharks Like to Eat People?
Despite the best attempts of Big Shark, which seems to control the schlock entertainment industry today, most people know that the threat of being attacked by the world's scariest fish (aside from that Amazon urethra one) is way overblown. There were just 88 unprovoked shark attacks worldwide last year, and only five were fatal. In the U.S., that means your odds of being bitten by a shark this year are somewhat less than being dealt a royal flush in your next poker hand.
But, as is so often the case with misinformation, some have taken their mastery of this secret knowledge and ran with it in the wrong direction. It's commonplace now to hear that sharks don't eat people because we taste bad. What a terrible, emotionally abusive to say about yourself, self-hating humans! The first person you need to forgive for your foul-tasting human flesh…is yourself.
This mouthfeel misconception dates back at least to 1968, when a Los Angeles paleontologist told news reporters that most shark attacks are survivable, in his opinion because sharks don't like the way humans taste and will generally look elsewhere for a meal after just one bite. ("Clean your plate, son, there are shark pups starving in Australia!") But subsequent research doesn't bear that out.
We know why sharks generally attack people: curiosity. This is an oddly shaped thing thrashing around in the surf, and it doesn't look like the seals and whatnot that I usually eat; maybe I'll check it out. Sharks have their sharpest sensory organs in their snouts, so that's why they might move in for a nibble. We're pretty low-fat as shark prey goes, and their ideal meal might be less bony. But sharks aren't particularly picky eaters; tiger sharks are famously the "garbage cans of the sea" and have been known to eat bicycle wheels and license plates. The bigger problem with humans is that we tend to thrash around and fight back when we're being eaten, and that's the kind of thing that’s likely to convince a shark to look for easier prey elsewhere. They don't mind the taste, but they're not into getting kicked in the eye.
Quick Quiz: What actor said, of his role in the 1987 stinker Jaws: The Revenge, "I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific!"
Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.