Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


Presentation of Risk

The Wall Street Journal posted this table today, in an article on how risks are presented. Note the lack of a time scale. Is that a lifetime risk of a heart-attack? Are there lifetime stats for Vioxx takers? How does that risk compare to the risk of winning the lottery? Those odds are (I’m guessing) per ticket purchased. Are the lifetime risks of being a coal miner really only six times higher than being a courier? Does that include bike couriers only, or does it also cover Fedex, who call their drivers couriers? And my understanding is most bike couriers do it for a short time, not their whole lives.

If the Wall Street Journal can do this badly without an editor noticing it, then their audience clearly doesn’t pressure them.


of winning

Power Ball lottery
1 in 120,526,770
Odds of heart attack or
…on Vioxx 1 in 29
…on placebo 1 in 52
Lifetime odds of
…as pedestrian 1 in 608
…in fire 1 in 1,116
…in swimming pool 1 in 6,196
…in bathtub 1 in 11,469
Odds of on-job
…in iron foundries 1 in 6
…in coal mines 1 in 16
…among couriers 1 in 36
…in gas stations 1 in 59
Sources: CT Lottery, Merck, National Safety
Council, Bureau of Labor Statistics

3 comments on "Presentation of Risk"

  • Pete says:

    Hmm, doesn’t seem too egregious. The Vioxx data is clearly described as within the time period of the study and compares Vioxx vs. placebo. Death and injury odds are perpetual.
    The courier/iron worker stats are for “on the job injuries” and not deaths.

  • Adam says:

    Yes, the lifetime odds are clear.
    What’s a risk of “on the job injury” without a time scale? Do one in 6 iron workers get injured on their first day on the job, or through a lifetime of work? Is that lifetime the same length as a couriers?
    Lets say you work in a job with a 1/1000 daily, non-cumulative chance of injury. That’s not coal mining where ongoing exposure creates problems. Its fairly clear that if you work that job for a year, its less likely that you’ll be injured than if you work that job for 40 years. So, 1 in 36 couriers getting injured may be a more dangerous job than iron workers, if the statistics aren’t annualized. You can’t tell from the table.

  • Iang says:

    I was involved marginally with a little thing called the mutual funds scandal last year, in which my direct involvement was writing up the story. I also got to see how the media coped with the story, in I guess a dozen samples.
    Out of the experiences, I saw one (1) and only one (1) journalist who was professional. The rest were all perverters of the truth, in some way or other, in order to get the headline story. Their reportage was approximately of the same value to society as comic books; occasionally making some subtle political point, but for the most part, soaps in pictures. WSJ was one of the latter group, and their actions were particularly stupid and egregious. I shudder to think who relies on it for unbiased reportage.

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