Features and Occasionals

The Numbers Game

By Pax Rasmussen

Human beings aren’t great at incorporating information that goes against feeling or “common sense.” We’re afraid of the wrong things. Like, all of the wrong things. Every day, something comes across my Facebook feed that tells me I’m in danger; and, without fail, the comments on the stories are full of misinformed, hyper-reactive crazy. We get worked up easily, and it usually has nothing to do with reality, but rather with kneejerk reaction.

Facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true!
Homer Simpson

Cognitive psychology tells us that the unaided human mind is vulnerable to many fallacies and illusions because of its reliance on its memory for vivid anecdotes rather than systematic statistics.
Steven Pinker

Human beings aren’t great at incorporating information that goes against feeling or “common sense.” We’re afraid of the wrong things. Like, all of the wrong things. Every day, something comes across my Facebook feed that tells me I’m in danger; and, without fail, the comments on the stories are full of misinformed, hyper-reactive crazy. We get worked up easily, and it usually has nothing to do with reality, but rather with kneejerk reaction.

I’ve noticed this myself—even though I know logically that my chances of dying in an airplane crash are astronomically low (air travel is roughly 100 times safer per mile than driving a car), I’m still nervous on planes. But I can hop in the car and drive the interstate in a snowstorm and my pulse never rises a beat above normal.

Why is it we’re so good at worrying about the wrong things, and lax about the right ones? Two reasons: First, we’re just not very good at understanding numbers. They’re abstract, tricky things, with little connection to our daily lives. Without a fair bit of critical thinking, a statistic presented without context can lead us astray.


One of the best examples is how the Internet lost its mind last month when the World Health Organization put cured meats on its list of carcinogens. In the span of three days, I must have seen two dozen articles posted by every media outlet I follow, along with half my friends and family—ranging from pledges to cut sausage from breakfast to avowals to never forsake bacon, regardless of the consequences. While the WHO data is correct, it doesn’t actually mean what anyone thinks it does.

Here’s the scoop: There’s such strong correlative evidence linking cured meats to cancer that we don’t even really need to bring up the “correlation does not imply causation” logical fallacy—the nitrates in cured meat probably do cause cancer. What people don’t realize is that this particular WHO list deals only with the link between a substance and cancer—not with the increased risk due to that substance.

So, while bacon is now on the same list as cigarettes, an individual’s risk of actually getting cancer from smoking is astronomically higher than the risk due to eating cured meats.

Smoking increases your risk of getting lung cancer by a whopping 2,500% while eating two slices of bacon per day raises the risk of getting colorectal cancer by 18%. And that number is still misleading. You have to factor in the frequency of colorectal cancer to actually look at your personal increased risk. The average person has about a 5% risk of getting colorectal cancer sometime in life. When you add in the increased risk due to eating bacon, it raises that lifetime risk to about 6%. That’s a 1% personal increase. As a great debunking article in Wired puts it: “Does bacon cause cancer? Sure. A little. Will bacon cause cancer in you? Probably not.”

Bernie’s Healthcare Plan

Another great example is a meme-pic I’ve seen floating around the Interwebs indicting Bernie Sanders’ planned socialist programs. The pic lists the “costs” of his proposals, the big one being his plan to expand Medicare for everyone—essentially a single-payer national healthcare system. The pic claims that this program will cost $15 trillion, with the implication that this will bankrupt America.

The cost is inflated a bit, but that really doesn’t mean what people think it means. First of all, that price tag is a cost spread out over 10 years—it’s what providing healthcare to all Americans would cost over a whole decade. But the big cognitive disconnect is that this claim ignores completely what we’re already spending on healthcare: About $3 trillion per year. That’s $30 trillion over 10 years! If all healthcare spending were now funneled through a massive single-payer system, that would actually result in a savings of half! This also doesn’t take into account the huge amount of money that would no longer be going into the coffers of health insurance shareholders and CEOs.

Not only that, but once the government is the only game in town, that increased purchasing power would lead to huge reductions in the cost of drugs and in the manufacture of expensive medical equipment, such as MRI machines. (As an aside, the cost of an MRI in Japan is roughly $100, compared to the thousands of dollars one costs in America. Why? Because Japan’s single-payer system set the price they were willing to pay for an MRI machine, and the manufacturers had a choice: Meet that price, or forgo selling thousands of machines. They met the price.)


The second reason, though, that people don’t respond well to actual numbers is that sometimes the numbers go against emotion. I think there’s no better example for this than guns.

Something like a third of all American households own guns, and most owners say it’s for self-defense. Having a gun makes you feel safe. And it sounds good: If you’re armed with a deadly weapon, you must be safer than if you’re not armed, right? After all, what if someone with a gun shows up—how would you protect yourself?

On one level, gun owners are correct: In a situation where you’re facing a hostile someone with a gun, you’re safer if you have one yourself. The problem is another one of frequency, much like the risk of colorectal cancer. How often are people actually in situations where a gun comes in handy? The answer: Almost never.

On the other hand, though, there is ample evidence that just having the gun around makes you a hell of a lot less safe.

“FBI data reveal that about twice as many homicides result from arguments than from felonies, and gang violence is only a small contributor,” states a January 2015 article in Slate magazine.

Then there’s the suicide statistics, which many of those who are pro-gun balk at including, saying that if someone wants to kill himself, he’ll find a way to do it. That’s not really true, though. Guns are such an easy method that they tend to be a common go-to.

(A good example of this disconnect is Tylenol—the U.K. for a long while was seeing a large number of people killing themselves with Tylenol, so they changed the law and restricted sales of the drug to blister-packs, instead of bulk bottles, making it harder to get enough pills out. The suicide rate dropped—not just the rate of suicide-by-Tylenol, but the suicide rate overall. People who would have killed themselves with Tylenol didn’t kill themselves at all.)

Every year more than 100 children are killed accidentally by firearms. Every year, people are killed because someone with a gun mistook them for intruders. Every year, people are killed because owning a gun made them ballsy.

Take, for example, Russell Reed Jacobs, the Millcreek man who, with a revolver in hand pursued a shotgun-wielding man who had pounded on his door at 2 a.m. Not content with using his gun to scare off the would-be intruder, Jacobs actually pursued the man into his neighborhood, where they killed each other. I’m not terribly surprised by the outcome: Having a gun in your hand makes you feel invincible. I should know; I’ve held a few. I might have done the same, actually.

But what if Jacobs hadn’t had a gun? Would he have been killed by the shotgun-wielding would-be intruder anyway? Who knows? Again, it’s all about statistics: You have to weigh the chances of facing an armed intruder against the chances the gun will be used for other than its intended purpose. The numbers say the gun is the risk, not the lack of a gun.

The NRA tells us that guns are used 2.5 million times each year in self-defense, but the numbers used are crap—they’re based on one study that used telephone survey data asking gun owners themselves about whether or not they’d used their gun in self-defense. This falls prey to what’s called the “false-positive effect.” In other words, people who own guns want to justify their faith in that gun, so they report positively. These aren’t bald-faced lies…most of these people actually believe what they report. But when other organizations, such as the Violence Policy Center, follow up on this claim, they find a couple of big problems.

First, most of the people who use their gun in self-defense used it illegally, i.e. brandishing it at someone whom they felt to be threatening, without really being in mortal danger. Crime averted, right? When they looked at the stories of those claiming to have used their guns for good, they found the incident most often to be “illegal and against the interests of society.”

Second, compared to actual FBI statistics, this number can’t be true: The FBI reports that in 2012, out of 8,342 gun homicides, only 259 were deemed justifiable. Also, in nearly 35% of those, the two people involved knew each other. Also, if 2.5 million times per year guns are used to stop bad guys, we’d expect to see at least a few criminals treated for gunshot wounds inflicted by the good guys, right? But according to a study from Harvard, that almost never happens. There are nearly zero incidents where a good guy with a gun wounds a criminal.

But here’s the logical disconnect: If you own a gun and keep it available, the gun is far more a risk to you and your family than it is protection against something bad happening. If you keep it locked up, it’s no good if something bad does happen. So why own the gun? Simple: Despite all the numbers in the world, having the gun makes us feel safe, even if in fact we are less safe.


One last example: Crime in general. Recently a friend of mine posted to her Facebook page, asking for advice: Her 14-year-old girl wanted to walk, with her friend, a couple of blocks to 7-11 after dark. Should she let them do this? The overwhelming response from her friends and family? No! Absolutely not! Bad things happen to kids! And they’re absolutely right: Bad things do happen to kids. But…it’s like the bacon thing. Statistically speaking, child abductions by strangers are so rare they’re really not worth worrying about. There are only about 100 children abducted by strangers in this country each year— that makes up one-hundredth of one percent of all missing children. Most abducted children are taken by a family member, with a smaller number taken by a friend or neighbor. And the overwhelming number of children who are taken by a stranger are very young. The chances of two 14-year-old girls having something bad happen to them, in Utah, just after dark a few blocks from home is vanishingly small, nearly non-existent. Yet it’s something we worry about.

Having recently moved from Salt Lake City to Albuquerque, I’ve been following the stories in the Albuquerque Journal. Every time someone is shot (and it happens a lot here), people invariably comment something along the lines of: “We have to do something about the crime here! It’s getting to the point I don’t feel safe raising my children here!” But again, this is an example of worrying about the wrong numbers: While Albuquerque does have a higher violent crime rate than a lot of other cities this size, like the violent crime rate everywhere, it really only matters if you’re already involved in crime.

Very, very few average citizens are affected by the violent crime rate. Almost nobody is randomly killed by a violent criminal. It happens, but with such infrequency that worrying about it is silly.

On the other hand, if you happen to be a meth dealer, dealing meth in Albuquerque probably is significantly riskier than dealing meth in Tulsa, Oklahoma, or Provo, Utah. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t try to reduce the violent crime rate—it’s to say worrying about your kids being killed because of the slightly higher violent crime rate is a misplacement of concern.

What’s the take-away from all this? Think about the numbers. Ask yourself what they really mean. And further, ask yourself how you feel, and how those feelings jive with the data at hand. You may be safer than you thought.

B E A R S P R A Y !

If owning a gun puts you at more risk of being killed, but not owning one means you’re at the mercy of chance, how do you sleep at night?

There’s actually a pretty easy and effective answer: Bear spray!

I’m serious here: Bear spray. A can of bear spray contains more than twice the capsicum (the burny stuff) than is in self-defense pepper spray, and even more importantly, it shoots 30 feet.

If you have a .44 for self-defense and end up shooting your drunk neighbor who confused your house for his, you could, depending on the laws of your particular state, end up going to jail for manslaughter. So you have to decide: To shoot or not to shoot? With a can of bear spray next to the bed, don’t worry about it! Spray away! Worst-case scenario is pepper spray fills the house and you both take a trip to the hospital. Best-case scenario, the bad guy alone goes down choking and vomiting.

With a gun, you have to worry about your kid finding it and accidentally shooting himself. With bear spray, the kid goes to the hospital and learns a valuable life-lesson about staying out of your stuff.

A can of bear spray costs $45 at REI. A half-way decent handgun will set you back at least $500 (and really more like $1,000 for something good). Oh, and the number one big-ticket item burglars go after?

Yep, your guns. They’re expensive and have great street resale value.

Pax Rasmussen is #1 in our book.

This article was originally published on December 1, 2015.