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River Swimming: Where’s the Data?

At the end of his Presidential Lecture on Thursday, President Kim responded to a question about swimming in the Connecticut. He gave us the same catchphrases about “rigorous studies of the data” and “scouring the globe for solutions” and “consulting the relevant experts” that mark his comments on so many issues. Additionally, he laid out the three elements of risk that make, in his mind, swimming from the Sophomore Dock dangerous:

  • submerged debris could impact swimmers;
  • the Connecticut River’s current changes “from second to second” due to changes in the flow through the Wilder Dam;

  • the water is murky, making it difficult for lifeguards to find and save swimmers in trouble.
I think that we can all agree that these are good prima facie points; they seem to be real risks, right? However, we should take a little time to evaluate them.

But before doing that, let me propose to you an alternative fact pattern. I suggest that the administration ban people from walking across the Green due to the danger of being struck by lightning. Absurd, you respond? Well, is it? My response: if lightning did strike a student walking across the Green, that unfortunate person (probably a freshman) could die. But you would, in turn, respond that my concern is only theoretical — and nonsensical — because in all the years of Dartmouth College’s existence, this has never happened. Good for you! You have brought forth some actual, hard data, the kind that President Kim likes to talk about, but in the current discussion on swimming he has not so far adduced.

We can go on with this hypothetical and include National Weather Service stats about lightning strikes: each year on average 60 people in the United States die from them! That’s hard data, too. Do I win our debate? Of course not. Even though there is a statistical risk of being hit by lightning while crossing the Green, we still allow students to walk there because the risk of a lightning strike is so small and the cost and inconvenience of such a ban is large. We assume the risk in order to have the return.

How about data on swimming? Well, let’s get some. Over the past decades — three, at least, because I swam from the College dock in the river during my sophomore summer in 1977 — the College’s paid lifeguards have undoubtedly had to file accident reports. Of course, I have not seen them, but a search of The D and my own recollections after about 18 consecutive summers in Hanover reveal zero fatalities over this period of time among swimmers at the sophomore dock when lifeguards were present. Zero. Nobody at all drowned due to a submerged obstacle, capricious currents, or the murky water.

Conclusion: It seems that a rigorous, real-time 30+ year experiment involving hundreds of thousands of swims by Dartmouth students shows that there is no risk of swimming in the river from the Sophomore Dock while being supervised by College lifeguards. So please get beyond the glib chat here, President Kim. If there is different underlying data, let’s have it. Is swimming in the river a real risk for Dartmouth students? Subject to correction, I submit that decades of data say no, or at the least, the data say that the risk of swimming from the Sophomore Dock is no higher than being hit by lightning while walking across the Green.

Note: There have been three fatalities on the river in past years, but none of these occured at or near the Sophomore Dock.

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