Odds of Dying

The odds of dying, of course, are 1 in 1. A more interesting question is ‘what are the odds of dying in some more specific way?’ For example, what are the odds of death by gun shot? There’s been a lot of gun violence in the news lately, such as the mass shooting in Colorado and the multiple shooting in Toronto. The media reaction to such events is always shock and surprise. Now, of course, these events are tragic and I don’t mean to downplay that for one second. However, it’s curious that death from fire or natural disaster is seldom met with surprise, even though, statistically, the average American is much more likely to die by gun shot than by fire or natural disaster. I was reading Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money and he cites the following statistics in chronicling the rise of the modern insurance business: the odds of the average American dying by gun shot are 1 in 314. That’s much higher than the odds that one will die in a fire (1 in 1,358) or die by natural disaster (1 in 3,288). By the way, the ‘death by gun shot’ statistic does not include suicide. The odds of dying by one’s own hand are even higher at 1 in 119. One is even more likely to die in a road accident (1 in 78) and most likely to die of cancer (1 in 5). The point of all this is not to be morbid. Rather, it’s a nice illustration of how bad we are at making off-the-cuff probability judgments. Our intuitions, due in no small measure to cultural biases (media, etc.), often lead us astray.

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