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Article

Risk

Hits 5793 | Created 2007-09-27 | Modified 2007-09-27

I'm not terribly scared of electrical storms, I was never traumatised as a child by stories of giants in the clouds being angry, or any other such nonsense. During thunder and lightning I like to go outside, to the top of the nearest hill and watch the show. I don't think being hit is very likely.



Man is born to live and not to prepare to live.
Boris Pasternak


I'm not terribly scared of electrical storms, I was never traumatised as a child by stories of giants in the clouds being angry, or any other such nonsense. During thunder and lightning I like to go outside, to the top of the nearest hill and watch the show. I don't think being hit is very likely.

Now compare this with the attitude of my Mother-in-law, who, during the last electrical storm insisted that all computers were turned off and windows closed. I began to counter that it wasn't very likely that we would be hit by lightning, and I wasn't sure that closing the windows would actually help, but she had the perfect defence: 'I've been in two houses that have been struck by lightning.' She said.

I have never been in a house that was struck by lightning, so, therefore, I know nothing, and my arguments fall flat.

A few days later she casually handed me a bit of literature circulated by Hydro Quebec, the electricity people here, and it had a small article on the back about what to do in the event of electrical storm. One of the measures listed included closing your windows. It neglected to mention why.

Other actions to be taken include running inside, sitting in a car, and curling up into a ball with your hands over your ears.

Now, I find all this to be ridiculous, and I mentioned to my Mother-in-law that I'm not particularly afraid of storms, as I had heard that you had as much chance of being hit by lightning as winning the lottery. This I thought to be a safe argument, but no: 'I know a man who was hit by lighting, and he was killed.' She said.

My Mother-in-law aside, I find that people generally have paranoia, fears and concerns over things that I would not consider to be worth losing sleep over - things that simply aren't likely to happen. I'm of the attitude that life is for living, not walking around with a crash helmet on, looking upwards all the time. You may take it as read that I don't wear a cycle helmet either.

My wife expresses concern that the world seems to be full of paedophiles these days - every time you read the paper or watch TV there are numerous stories about child pornography and abuse. Now, my belief is that paedophilia isn't actually on the increase, but we, as a society, are becoming hyper-paranoid about it, and looking for it everywhere. Now, I'm aware that I'm on shaky ground here, as, of course, I think we should be looking out for it, as it is a very bad thing indeed. But my point is that seemingly, every case of child abuse is splashed all over the world, and as the world is a pretty big place, it suddenly looks like it's happening in every house in our street.

Is paedophilia really so common? Or are we deluded? Are we really at risk from the things we are scared of?

I'm fond of telling a statistical anecdote to people: It is a defence for the drug ecstasy, and a point about drug attitudes in general - Ecstasy offers a truly, truly remote chance of death upon ingestion, but our society is whipped up into a frenzy of paranoia over it. The chances of being killed by putting your socks on and falling over to bang your head is actually higher than the chance of taking ecstasy and it killing you. Another statistic is that that glue sniffing produces more deaths per year than any other drug.

Are these statistics reliable? When I use them, nobody tries to object to my figures, or ask for my source, they are just accepted and filed away. I can't even remember where they came from, if the truth be known.

So what is actually risky these days? What should we be worried about? What is the most likely cause of death?

I did some research to find out.

Easier said than done. There are hundreds of sites on the internet spouting statistics about very conceivable thing you could imagine. A lot of these sites tell you not to believe any of the statistics elsewhere, and some tell you not to believe any at all. The general idea is that you produce statistics to justify your own ends, rather than to present a purely balanced picture of the world. What a surprise.

So, after being confused for a few hours and collecting vast amounts of meaningless and seemingly incompatible data, I finally identified enough trends to spot some patterns.

I concentrated on death, and things that cause death. Let's say that we pick 1,000,000 people at random from any westernised country of our choice. Here are the 'facts'.

About 0.9% of them will die this year.

That's about 9000.

So, nothing much to worry about there then. If you live in a country with 64,000,000 people in it, say, then your general, very vague chance of dying this year is, on average, 0.9%. That is, less than 1%, that is, generally very small. If you took one hundred people you know, then maybe one of them will die in the coming year. Not terribly cheery that, but still, not too bad, as a lot of that number will be rather old you know.

You need to keep this mind when worrying about what will actually kill you. You're not actually likely to die this year at all, on average, unless there's something I don't know about.

Next, if you smoke 10 cigarettes a day, your chance of dying this year from smoking, on average, is 0.5%. This is the top of the table, so we're told by some anti-smoking studies. Who could say what is true? This is about one in every two hundred people.

You also have to remember that you don't add these totals together, to make it more likely that you will die from smoking - the 0.9% of deaths includes all causes of death already.

Going down the list from top to bottom we have 2) Heart disease at 0.34%, then 3) Cancer at 0.16%. I know what you're thinking here - death from smoking is death by cancer. I think we have to face the possibility that some statistical report has singled out smoking related cancer and analysed it as a special case - it's more likely that you'll die from cancer if you smoke than if you don't. Fairly self evident that.

Car accidents next at number 4) with 0.0225%, or 225 in every million people each year; 5) Flu with 0.02%, or 200 in every million people each year; 6) Work accidents at 0.015%; 7) Home accidents at 0.011%; and then 8) Murders at 0.0093%, or 93 in every one million people, every year.

Lets put this all in perspective then, if you know 10,000 people (which you don't), then the chances are that one of them will be murdered this year, and that includes you.

Of course, this all doesn't make any sense to me. If I live in a quiet rural town of 10,000 people, chances are we can go for years without any murders at all. Obviously, people in the violent megacities are tipping the odds upwards. So where are the statistics that take into account this? You can bet that the police won't tell us that one in every 10,000 of us will be murdered every year. Although, according to many risk analysts, 1:10,000 risk of death is acceptable.

So far then, we learnt that, very generally, you're more likely to die of cancer or heart disease than be murdered. You're more likely, in fact, to die from that stapler falling on your head at work, than to be murdered. Interestingly, I found a statistic that was merely vague that informed me that suicide was more common than murder. Some good news then -- you're more likely to kill yourself than have someone else do the job for you.

Next, is 9) Leukaemia at 0.008%, or 80 in every million per year. Surprising that, for me. Then comes number 10) on our list, the rather vague 'Nasty Falls' at 0.0068%, or 68 in every million per year.

Nasty Fall? What on earth is that? Falling off a cliff? Falling down a hole in the road? Falling off your bar stool? All are included. Well, I take heart that I'm more likely to be murdered than fall off my bar stool and kill myself. Ah, no, wait, that's not comforting is it?

Going on, 11) Car vs. Pedestrian collisions at 0.0042%, or 68 in a million; 12) Drowning at 0.00365% or 36.5 in a million.

Well, we're more likely to die slipping onto a carving knife in the kitchen than from a bus smashing into us on the street. The message? Stay outside rather than in the home.

And one in every 27,000 of us dies from drowning every year? This also seems somewhat unlikely if you live in a town a hundred miles away from the sea. In one amusing study (that tried to claim that cycling was safe by using a lot of statistics), it actually claimed that swimming is safer than living. What this means is that we're less likely to die in the water when we're safe from all the things that kill us on the land - cars, homes, work, nasty falls and the like. This actually seems to make some kind of sense. Spend more time at the pool - live longer.

Next, 13) Fires and burns at 0.0029%, or 29 in a million; 14) Lung cancer from passive smoking at 0.002%, or 20 in every million.

Good to know that the risk of fire death is fairly low - we're more likely to drown than burn to death (drowning is supposed to be a 'nice' death, but how on earth do people know? Survivors I suppose).

The passive smoking is interesting - do they really know this, or is it more propaganda by some anti-smoking lobby? We'll probably never know. But if you are worried about the effects of passive smoking, take comfort that you're more likely to die from burning, drowning, falling, leukaemia, murder, home accidents, work accidents, the flu, being hit by a bus, cancer, heart disease, or actually smoking 70 cigarettes a day yourself. Perhaps one in every 50,000 of us will die from this, maybe.

Number 15) in our inaccurate list is 'Inhalation and ingestion of objects', whatever that is, at 0.0015%, or 15 in a million. I suppose this is choking on your fishbone, inhaling air-freshener, or playing with plastic bags too closely.

16) Solids and Liquid poisoning (not drugs) at 0.00115; 17) Gun accidents ('sporting') at 0.00105 or 10.5 in a million; 18) Railroad accidents at 0.0009% or 9 in a million; 19) Eating Beef on the Bone at 0.00083% or 8.3 in every million.

Beef on the bone? I don't recall which study this item came from, perhaps a secret study taking into account the future deaths of all the Mad Cow consumers in Europe? It does have a 10 year incubation period, so, who knows. So, I'm saying that 1 in every 120,000 of us will die from C.J.D. disease. The statistics prove it, obviously.

20) Civil aviation at 0.00083% or 8.3 in a million; 21) Gas Poisoning at 0.000735% or 7.35 in a million; 22) Pleasure Boating, one of my favourites this, at 0.0006% or 6 in a million; 23) Electrocution at 0.00053% or 5.3 in a million. So, flying is safer than pleasure boating, I always knew it.

I would have thought that more people would have died from electrocution, it's obviously much safer than they've been leading us to believe. Feel free to put your knife in the toaster and use your hairdryer by the bath - it's statistically safer than going to work, eating beef, or pleasure boating.

Perhaps though, it is because we are all educated not to stick knives in toasters (some of us are, anyway), or use our electrical appliances in the bath that the statistic is so low? Who can ever really know?

Now the weather strikes: 24) Tornadoes at 0.00006% or 0.6 in a million, and level pegging really at 25) Floods with the same, then 26) Lightning strikes(!) at 0.00005% or 0.5 in every million.

Oh wait until I tell my Mother-in-law - electrical storms are safer than hanging around in the kitchen generally, going to work, swimming, being near railways, eating beef, etc. Only 1 in 2,000,000 of us die from lightning strikes every year. For me, this is now an acceptable risk. It seems to me that I am extremely unlikely to be killed by lightning. Gas poisoning, sure, nasty fall, maybe, but lightning, no chance (well, a little, little chance). Still, a nagging doubt remains that perhaps this is the electricity thing all over again -- maybe the lightning strike figure is so low because everyone stays indoors and stops playing golf during storms?

Anther interesting statistic to do with lighting is that men are twice as likely to be struck by lightning as women are. The study goes on to point out that more men are outside than women, normally. Which is an odd truth, if it is true.

Now, almost in the realm of fantasy we have 27) Venomous bites from animals and insects at 0.00002% or 0.2 in every million people. I'm unsure if any of the studies took Australia into account in this study, because I think this should be up with pleasure boating, personally.

At 28) We have the fantastic 'Aircraft falling on you from the sky', at 0.00001%, or 0.1 in every million people per year. That's one in every 10,000,000 people, every year. I suppose than one jumbo jet crash landing in a small town could take care of this statistic for a while.

Almost at the end now, 29) Nuclear Power plant leak has the same odds as the plane-from-the-sky. I'm fairly sure this statistic came from a nuclear power plant commissioned study, surprisingly.

Second to last is 30) A Pressure Vehicle Explodes at 0.000005%, or 0.05 in every million, or one in every 20,000,000 of us per year. Again, possibly a haulage company trying to justify its explosion en-route rate.

And lastly, the comedic 31) 'Meteorite fatality' at a percentage so low I can't compute it, or 0.00001 in every million, or one person in every 100,000,000,000 of us, every year, lost to the deadly meteor threat.

How can we comprehend the risk of meteor hits? Peter Sandman's website suggests you can imagine it like this: It's like a drop of vermouth in a large swimming pool full of gin; or any one second in the last 320 centuries. I prefer the gin imagery, personally.

Bringing our minds back to my ecstasy point earlier, I couldn't find any data that I could integrate into my scientific study (probably because it fits in there with lightning strikes or nasty falls and looks bad for anti-drug warriors), but did find some interesting data anyway.

The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provides some data on medical room admittance due to drugs, some place, some time, I guess it doesn't really matter... These typically range from Cocaine with 193,043 cases, to Marijuana with 110,512 (a lie, I'm sure), Benzedrine with 103,972, Heroin 93,064, Anti-Depressants 61,012, Amphetamines 18,555, Aspirin 8,499, Prozac 6,362, (and finally) Ecstasy 5,542 and LSD 2,821.

More E.R. cases due to Aspirin than ecstasy eh? You don't see many people campaigning to get Aspirin off our shelves and outlawed do you? You can buy aspirin in supermarkets. I wonder why this is? I couldn't be (cynical old me) that aspirin is a multi-million dollar industry could it? Money couldn't have anything to do with it, could it?

Ecstasy information is a web of lies, like so much other drug propaganda. One seldom stated fact is that virtually no death-from-ecstasy cases are due to ecstasy alone. In a recent U.K. study, of 81 deaths where MDMA was present, only 6 died from simple MDMA toxicity. Normally, the presence of other drugs could have been responsible. But, as usual, the government and the press seize only upon the presence of MDMA and report that as the cause.

I think the chance of death from Ecstasy would be safer than flying, according to our list. Why the outrage, why the scaremongering, oh why? Drug hypocrisy is a topic for another time, however.

Other curious statistics encountered during my research surf:

- You are only slightly more likely to survive if you are driving an SUV, and hit another car, as you are if you are on a bicycle and a car hits you.

- Doctors in the U.S are the third leading cause of death in the country every year.

- A Gallup poll said that amongst over 55 year olds, putting on socks and / or stockings was the number 10 most worrying area of living.

Ah ha! So that's probably where my sock story came from. There was once a study that found that old people were likely to fall and hurt or kill themselves putting on socks (amongst other things) and it was quoted out of context, gained currency and made its way around the world.

I'm not sure where this all leaves me, to be truthful. The statistics tell me that I'm unlikely to die, on average from many things except the obvious medical reasons (cancer, heart etc). Unless I decide to smoke 70 cigarettes a day from now on, I'll probably be good.

My data is flawed, although it does represent the trends I saw in countless other studies, so is good enough to make the points that I want to here.

As was pointed out earlier, doing a study of drowning in the middle of a landlocked country will give you the distorted data that swimming is 100% safe. So it is with all studies - the scope and exactly what is studied is carefully chosen to provide the answers and statistics that the person desires. There's no arguing with statistics, is there?

We can't argue with them, but we should be deeply mistrustful of them. We should carry our own, uncheckable facts and figures to defend ourselves with. Don't be scared of life and things that people tell you you should be scared of - check for yourself, and if the odds look good, then do it anyway!

The only true statistic is that 100% of us are born, 100% of us live a while, and 100% of us die. That's it.

Sources: Combined Data from

- Wilson, R. and Crouch, E., Risk/Benefit Analysis, Cambridge: Ballinger, 1982

- Atallah, S., "Assessing and Managing Industrial Risk," Chemical Engineering, September 8, 1980: 99-103

- Dinman, B.D., "The Reality and Acceptance of Risk," Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 244 (11): 1126-1128, 1980

- DoH. 1996. On the State of the Public Health: Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer of the Department of Health for the Year 1995. London: HMSO

- The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

- Ecstasy: http://www.ananova.com/news/story/sm_738033.html


See also Risk email

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