23 February 2010

The Great Hot Dog Menace

Schneier on Security | Bruce Schneier | Mark Twain on Risk Analysis

From 1871:
I hunted up statistics, and was amazed to find that after all the glaring newspaper headings concerning railroad disasters, less than three hundred people had really lost their lives by those disasters in the preceding twelve months. The Erie road was set down as the most murderous in the list. It had killed forty-six—or twenty-six, I do not exactly remember which, but I know the number was double that of any other road. But the fact straightway suggested itself that the Erie was an immensely long road, and did more business than any other line in the country; so the double number of killed ceased to be matter for surprise.

By further figuring, it appeared that between New York and Rochester the Erie ran eight passenger trains each way every day—sixteen altogether; and carried a daily average of 6,000 persons. That is about a million in six months—the population of New York city. Well, the Erie kills from thirteen to twenty-three persons out of its million in six months; and in the same time 13,000 of New York's million die in their beds! My flesh crept, my hair stood on end. "This is appalling!" I said. "The danger isn't in travelling by rail, but in trusting to those deadly beds. I will never sleep in a bed again."
Wow. I'm so glad that Mark Twain bothered to run some basic actuarial math 139 years ago and in doing so, educate the journalists and advocates of the next century and a half about probability, preventing them from writing fear-inducing, innumerate, panicky screeds about extremely rare risks blown entirely out of proportion.

Oh. Wait.

The American Academy of Pediatrics — a supposedly scholarly organization! — is all in a tizzy about children choking on hot dogs, which is less likely to kill a child than a lightening strike. And journalists, politicians and assorted do-gooders are indulging their embarassingly poor math in order to give them a chance to Do Something! Shame on all of you.

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