Why the Term “Shark Attack” Is Bad Science

Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 6 2011 11:48 AM

Stop Calling Them Shark “Attacks”

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A Great White shark jumps out of the water as it hunts seals near False Bay, off the coast of South Africa, last year.

Photo by CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

I have seen a shark attack, and it is dramatic. On a recent trip to Cape Town, South Africa, I watched great whites breaching from beneath seals in successful and unsuccessful predations. These are attempts to kill. Shark predations on seals are attacks, because the intent is clear.

However, to suggest that shark-on-human encounters should be called predations would be wrong. The way sharks encounter seals is fundamentally different from how they treat humans.

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I believe the time is right for science to reconsider its use of the phrase “shark attack” on humans. Such language creates a one-dimensional perception of these events and makes protecting threatened shark species more difficult. After all, why care about an animal that wants to eat us?

Historically, the language has been less emotive. Cases of “shark bite” were noted by doctors in 1899 and “shark accident” was an accepted term until the 1930s, even if it was fatal.

This faded when Australian surgeon Victor Coppleson concluded in a 1933 article in the Medical Journal of Australia that “the evidence sharks will attack man is complete.” The first New Orleans Shark Symposium in 1958 cemented “attack” language in the scientific community.

The argument for change is compelling. Modern research has shown that bites by sharks are often investigatory or defensive, taking place in cloudy water and out of curiosity.

Human-shark encounters are always called attacks even when there is no contact, artificially amplifying the numbers. What’s more, no distinction is made for minor bites from non-threatening species. In Australia, 13 per cent of all “attacks” come from small wobbegong sharks, which bite when stepped on. Under the existing system, the public is unable to tell scratches from fatalities, boats from people, or wobbegongs from great whites.

Finally, “attack” terminology creates an inappropriate connection between scientific reasoning and tabloid journalism. If there is no separation between science and sensationalism, then educating the public about true shark behavior is more difficult.

Changing terminology is not simple. I use the phrase “shark bite incidents” but the transition cannot be unilateral. This norm-setting task is the responsibility of the whole scientific community.

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This piece originally ran in The New Scientist. Christopher Neff is studying the politics of shark bites at the University of Sydney, Australia.

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