If we don't worry enough we become ridiculous risk takers. If we worry too much, we become pathetic wimps. Anyone having trouble finding the right balance between the two extremes is invited to use patented "Lightning Strikes Worry Adjustment Technique." It's guaranteed to help you decide what is worth worrying about and what you can safely ignore. If it doesn't, I'll personally refund every dime you've paid me for it.
Each year 90-100 Americans are killed by lightning. Let's call it 95. Divide 95 lightning deaths per year into our population of roughly 280 million and you end up with odds of about three million to one. (Round numbers work well for this exercise. Anyone concerned about the difference between 3,000,000/1 and 2,947,368/1 is too anal to use this technique.)
Do you spend much time worrying about being struck by lightning? Me neither. So, when you find yourself worrying about any particular danger, do some quick math. If the odds are greater than three million to one, you can shrug it off as something not worth worrying about. If the odds are less than three million to one, you can worry.
For instance, a lot of people are worried about terrorism. The most deadly terrorist attack in America was the Oklahoma City bombing, where 168 people were killed. Do the guzintas, and the odds were about 1.66 million to one, more than the Lightning Odds, so you can worry about it. As long as it's 1995. If it were 1994, when the total was six people killed in the World Trade Center bombing, it's not worth worrying about. How should we handle things that only happen once in a while, creating a big lump in the numbers? I'd suggest we take a look at the average over a five year period. Any recent five year period will do. If we do that, we'll learn that we have to completely remove terrorism from our list of concerns. Which is, of course, the whole point of this technique.
The odds of picking six numbers out of fifty-one is about eighteen million to one, so you can stop worrying about winning the lottery. Whew, there's another concern off your mind.
How about getting killed in a car crash? We sacrifice about 42,000 people a year to the god of getting around, which comes out to about 6500/1. Sixty five hundred guzinta three million about four hundred and sixty one times, so you're four hundred and sixty one times more likely to be killed in a car accident than struck by lightning. OK, you can worry about that.
Car accidents are scary, but many people find gun accidents even scarier. What are the odds of, say, one of your kids being killed in a gun accident? It depends on their age. According to the National Health Safety Council only thirty kids aged four and under died from gun accidents in 1998 (the most recent year for which numbers are available). That's more than nine million to one! If they're in the five to fourteen age range its three and a half million to one, (with eighty deaths a year) still under the Lightning Odds threshold. If they're fifteen to twenty four the odds go down to about nine hundred thousand to one (that's based on three hundred ten deaths), so you can worry about that, if you like. Check out the chart at the bottom of this page for the source of these numbers. It's interesting to note that the only thing causing fewer accidental deaths is poisoning by gases. NHSC separates poisoning by gas from poisoning by solid or liquid, perhaps to prevent firearms from being at the very bottom of the list. If all the poisonings are added together, as they should be, firearms cause fewer accidental deaths than car accidents, falls, poisoning, crossing the street, drowning, fires or choking. And with that handy chart, you can figure out how many of those things are worth worrying about.
What are the odds our next president will be a megalomaniac obsessed with expanding the government and removing more and more freedoms? Well, if we go back eight years…no wait, if we go back twelve years…no wait, if we go back twenty years, no wait…damn, it looks like the odds of that happening in any given election is exactly one to one. Sorry. Worry.
Try to be fair when calculating your odds. Sometimes, rather than comparing numbers for the whole country, it makes sense to narrow down the geographical area you're considering. For instance, here in Upstate New York tornadoes are quite rare, and deaths from them are even rarer. The odds against being killed in a twister in New York are so high they're hard to calculate. If you live in the southern states the numbers are quite different. And if you live in a trailer park, just insert your own joke here.
The Lightning Strikes Worry Technique substantially reduces the number of things you have to worry about. Give it a shot, live it, make it your own, send me money for suggesting it, and the world will seem friendlier and less dangerous.
Once you've made it part of your lifestyle for several months, it's time to move on to step two: the Advanced Lighting Strikes Worry Adjustment Technique.
You get in your car and drive nearly every day without giving it much thought, even though you now know it's far more dangerous than lightning. Since you're not worrying about it, why not ratchet your worry threshold down to the vehicle fatality level? When you do, nothing with odds of more than sixty-five hundred to one need concern you. You'll be reducing your worry level by six orders of magnitude, making the world a much safer place.
At least, you'll think it is.
Update: Reader Denver Braughler pointed out a rather large math error in this article. I had figured the odds of a kid aged 1 - 4 age being killed in a gun accident by dividing the number of deaths against the entire US population, instead of just the number of kids in that age range. According to the NSC the odds are two in a million, not nine million to one. I made the same error figuring the other odds in that paragraph. Good Catch, Denver!
One of the best things about Mad Magazine was the coversApril, 2000
© 2000 Dave Hitt