Wednesday, August 22, 2007


What's the biggest risk - something that kills lots of people or something that kills very few people? The answer, apparently, is the latter. And this was brought out by two recent pieces of writing. Emphasis added in both cases. Via kes, in an email, we have Malcolm Bull in the London Review of Books:

The ‘new normal’ is already losing much of its novelty, as 11 September 2001 fades into history. Unlike insurrection or invasion terrorism tends to be sporadic and ineffectual and is usually designed to adjust existing arrangements rather than take power as such. But governments, whose actuaries can determine how many of us will die each year in a variety of unpredictable ways, and how many of us will be saved by a variety of possible expedients, want none of us to be killed or even hurt by terrorism. A pinch of Anthrax working its way through the postal system is perceived as a threat of a different order from the MRSA bacteria sauntering down the hospital ward, even though it is the latter that will kill thousands.
And via Schneier, a piece from Real Clear Politics:
Bird flu was called the No. 1 threat to the world. But bird flu has killed no one in America, while regular flu -- the boring kind -- kills tens of thousands. New York City internist Marc Siegel says that after the media hype, his patients didn't want to hear that.

"I say, 'You need a flu shot.' You know the regular flu is killing 36,000 per year. They say, 'Don't talk to me about regular flu. What about bird flu?'"

Here's another example. What do you think is more dangerous, a house with a pool or a house with a gun? When, for "20/20," I asked some kids, all said the house with the gun is more dangerous. I'm sure their parents would agree. Yet a child is 100 times more likely to die in a swimming pool than in a gun accident.
But the best line comes from the RCP opening paragraph, as quoted by Schneier:
Newsrooms are full of English majors who acknowledge that they are not good at math, but still rush to make confident pronouncements about a global-warming "crisis" and the coming of bird flu.
Amen to that. If more people in the city had had technical knowledge, the dot com boom/crash would not have happened either.

Oh, and the other best line comes from Bull:
States don’t really mind their citizens dying (providing they don’t do it all at once) they just don’t like anyone else to kill them.

UPDATE: Couple of typos corrected.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In the US, the Center for Disease Control has lots of mortality data. I looked into the guns/swimming pools thing there, a year or two back, and IIRC it was essentially correct, but by nothing like the two orders of magnitude this dude mentions.

Schneier's got good commenters. You'd hope so, of course...