Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Odd Odds

Those who read the Quarterback regularly know that we tend to be more traumatized by events that we perceive to be rare. If our worldview suggests that something doesn't happen, it jars us when it does. The trouble with this, however, is that we are actually pretty bad at judging how rare things are. Even for those who, like me, make it their business to go digging up probabilities and statistics on various heinous situations, it's sometimes hard to find the data you need.

So I was very pleased to hear on NPR today about the launch of the website This site is extraordinarily simple. Put in the key word you are interested in, and it gives you a bunch of odds statements involving that key word. For example, if you type in "Naomi," you will discover that the chances of a female born in 1970 being named Naomi is 1 in 3,300. You can then put in the number 3,300 and discover that the odds of me being named Naomi are identical to the odds that an employed person over 16 living in South Dakota is an anesthesiologist. And while those particular statistics may not be very meaningful to you, you can imagine there are others that are.

For example, if you type in "New Hampshire" and "murder," you will discover that the odds of any given person in New Hampshire being murdered in the next year are 1 in 101,200, but the odds of someone living in Washington, D.C. being murdered in the next year are 1 in 3,182. So when I said last week that the murder of Kimberly Cates in Mont Vernon, NH was more shocking because of where it happened, I wasn't just blowing smoke.

If you explore those numbers more carefully, you will discover that the odds of being murdered in New Hampshire are slightly lower than the odds of any given person in the United States having to visit the Emergency Room in a given year because of an accident involving a drinking straw. Meanwhile, the odds of being murdered in Washington, D.C. are about the same as the chances that a woman my age is named Kimberlee. They're also about the same as the odds of someone in Boise, Idaho being a victim of a robbery. Now we can start to see why trauma affects different communities differently. It's not that the incident is less awful to those close to it, it's that it's more shocking to those further out.

This data is also useful in helping us put our fears in some perspective. For example, this summer plane, train and subway crashes were getting a lot of press. It turns out that the chances of dying in a transportation accident -- including a car crash -- in the next year are 1 in 6,212. That's pretty close to the chances of being diagnosed with end stage renal disease. And while both of those things are horrible, we don't live in fear of end stage renal disease. Maybe we should. Or maybe it would help us all to get a little more familiar with some hard numbers.


Colleen said...

I can picture one of my sons hurting themselves with a drinking straw...after all, we had to make an emergency dentist trip due to a book mark.....

Abraham Fisher said...

This is interesting, if a little bizarre. I think you are missing some important factors though:

1. How understandable is the negative event? Car crashes are a lot easier to grasp than renal disease.

2. How spectacular is it? Again, car crashes make the news, while renal disease does not.

3. How bad is the negative outcome perceived to be? A 747 crashing on an orphanage is highly unlikely, but the outcome is undoubtedly going to be horrific. A car crash will often kill somebody, but normally not large numbers of people at once.

Naomi Zikmund-Fisher said...

Abe, you're absolutely right that those are important factors. I would argue that the factors you point out are exactly what gets in the way of us better estimating how likely something is to happen. This website is a) entertaining and b) a way to help quantify the likelihood of scary events in a way that is meaningful to the individual. It's not the be all and end all.

BTW, I have heard from an unusually large number of people who have family members injured by drinking straws today . . .

Meet the Quarterback

My Photo
Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
View my complete profile

Subscribe via email

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Quarterback for Kindle

Blog Archive