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How to survive a puma attack

A short article in the March 2009 issue of the statistical magazine Significance pointed out a fantastic piece of research done into how not to be eaten by a puma. The research by R. G. Coss and others found that people who did not run away from pumas had the greatest frequency of being severely injured (43%) and the lowest likelihood of escaping injury (26%). In other words, if a puma is approaching you… run!

It is natural to wonder why this type of research is conducted. What benefit or insight does it provide? There is actually more to the paper, for example they looked into the effect of age and the number of people in the group on survival, so it probably is valuable research. However I would like to use it to illustrate a point I have been making for years.

Each day in the newspapers and TV news items and in every day discussions that people have, there are stories of the latest methods for preventing a disease or condition. For example recently there was an article on the benefit of taking vitamin D supplements to prevent bone fractures. Whilst it is always great to research the prevention or treatment of disease, are people supposed to change their habits in accordance with the latest research? There is always a lot of conflicting advice which can leave people confused about what to do. But the point is: no one knows what is best, there is just a growing body of evidence one way or the other.

Until there is a large enough body of evidence one way or the other, for example we are now pretty certain that smoking is an unhealthy habit, perhaps we ought to just go with out instincts. Logic tells us that we are more likely to survive by running away from a puma than standing still. It is difficult to imagine that taking vitamin D supplements could harm you, so maybe it is best, if you can afford it, to take supplements. Until we are pretty certain of something, as is the case with smoking and eating plenty of fruit and veg, perhaps it is best to go with instinct rather than the selective reporting of research in the press.

Coss, R.G., Fitzhugh, L.E., Schmid-Holmes, S., Kenyon, M.W. and Etling, K. (2009) The effects of human age, group composition, and behavior on the likelihood of being injured by attacking pumas. Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal Of The Interactions Of People & Animals 22 77-87

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