Often statistics are numerically true but fundamentally dishonest. I stumbled on this blog post this morning and perused the statistics and the implied argument therein. Here's a short excerpt of it:
Comparing the CDC numbers to terrorism deaths means:
– You are 35,079 times more likely to die from heart disease than from a terrorist attack. You are 33,842 times more likely to die from cancer than from a terrorist attack.
Wikipedia notes that obesity is a contributing factor in 100,000–400,000 deaths in the United States per year. That makes obesity 5,882 to times 23,528 more likely to kill you than a terrorist. The annual number of deaths in the U.S. due to avoidable medical errors is as high as 100,000. Indeed, one of the world’s leading medical journals – Lancet – reported in 2011:A November, 2010, document from the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services reported that, when in hospital, one in seven beneficiaries of Medicare (the government-sponsored health-care programme for those aged 65 years and older) have complications from medical errors, which contribute to about 180,000 deaths of patients per year.That’s just Medicare beneficiaries, not the entire American public. Scientific American noted in 2009:Preventable medical mistakes and infections are responsible for about 200,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, according to an investigation by the Hearst media corporation.But let’s use the lower – 100,000 – figure. That still means that you are 5,882 times more likely to die from medical error than terrorism.
The CDC says that some 80,000 deaths each year are attributable to excessive alcohol use. So you're 4,706 times more likely to drink yourself to death than die from terrorism.
Wikipedia notes that there were 32,367 automobile accidents in 2011, which means that you are 1,904 times more likely to die from a car accident than from a terrorist attack. As CNN reporter Fareed Zakaria writes this week:Since 9/11, foreign-inspired terrorism has claimed about two dozen lives in the United States. (Meanwhile, more than 100,000 have been killed in gun homicides and more than 400,000 in motor-vehicle accidents.)According to a 2011 CDC report, poisoning from prescription drugs is even more likely to kill you than a car crash. Indeed, the CDC stated in 2011 that – in the majority of states – your prescription meds are more likely to kill you than any other source of injury. So your meds are thousands of times more likely to kill you than Al Qaeda.
Statistics only matter to the people reading the statistics. They only matter to the actuaries who wager dollars with each other based on actuarial tables in some kind of ghoulish dead-pool. Who cares what you're likely to die of statistically? The only thing that matters is what actually kills you. If it's a heart attack or cancer, okay—yes that sucks—but see that's the luck of the draw. Likewise nobody likes losing at cards but all we can do is play the hand we're dealt. Except when there's a dirty stinking cheater sitting at the table. All you can do then is pin his dirty sneaky hand to the table with a steak-knife and grin while the blood and the aces pour out of his sleeve.
You ask why it's so awful to have Americans killed by terrorist attacks—why we make such a monumentally big deal out of them—when so many more Americans drop dead from everything else? It's because terrorism isn't just a violation of the law. It's not just a few deaths. From the person killed, to the family left bereaved, to the community left reeling, to the nation left in terror, it isn't just an accident. It isn't just a murder. It isn't just senseless violence. We've come a long way from the days we spent hiding in some hole while fiercer predators ruled the world. Terrorism hits us at the root of our pride, at the base of our ego, at our position on the top of the food chain. It hits us right in our humanity. We humans don't like being hunted as if we were still prey. It evokes a righteous fury all out of proportion to some statistical body count.
So what if we're more likely to die of cancer? So what? A family who has lost a loved one to cancer isn't afraid to leave their homes. A person who's watched in horror while EMTs try to save his friend during a heart attack doesn't fear going to the mall or the ballgame...or the marathon! The purpose of terrorism isn't just to kill Americans. It's to make us afraid. Its purpose is to put a big dirty boot on our necks and leave it there over the days and weeks and years while we wait and wait and wait in horrified anticipation...for the day when finally all the weight will come crushing down.
Herd animals quickly forget. When one of their number is culled it seldom registers. Life for them is eating grass and leaves and running from danger and then forgetting. People don't forget. We remember. We learn from our mistakes. We learn to identify our enemy. And once he's identified he's dead meat. He can run but he can't hide.
George Washington or whoever you are, don't you dare preach statistics at me! Tell it to the victims. Tell it to their families. Tell it to their friends. Tell it to their community. Tell it to every American who now has to worry about inimical predators in addition to cholesterol and second-hand smoke. Finally, I don't know where the chances fall on your statistical wheel-of-fortune, but if you choked to death on a turd-sandwich you might not appreciate your sudden status as statistically highly improbable, but I bet somewhere somebody up in heaven would understand the cosmic irony.