Top critical review
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Unique and huge fun but a bit flawed
on 18 November 2013
Fascinating book about risk and chance and our responses to it, from one of its leading popularizers. It isn't wonderfully written (tries a bit too hard to be popular) but it's full of un-missable nuggets and insights. For example:
-Year after year, among us 21 million male Britons, we manage to fall off ladders at the same rate. In the five years to 2010, the number of men killed falling from ladders was 42, 54, 56, 53, 47. All that randomness, yet it all comes out the same.
--Spikes and peaks in things like bike accidents and knife crime are not examples of a society going wrong, but of journalists and politicians not understanding maths. This is the curse of thinking a history degree constitutes an education. The recent news items about 11 cyclists killed in London in two weeks is not a news item at all. It is a normal feature of thing called a Poisson distribution. Over a period of years, the maths predicts you will have a the odd bad week, The annual number of cyclist deaths, meanwhile, stays eerily the same.
--Relentlessly, crime falls, fewer babies die, health improves, fewer people get killed on the roads, yet we frequently worry more about the few hazards that are left.
--There are as many deaths, and rather more serious injuries, from horse-riding than from Ecstasy/MDMA.
--Scarily, research shows that whatever our (personality-based) gut instinct is about an issue (climate change, nanotechnology, GM food), subsequent education only serves to reinforce our pre-held beliefs (see p 112).
--The likelihood of two youngish people conceiving a child when having random, unprotected sex is about 1 in 20, though this varies hugely through the woman's cycle, peaking at about 1 in 5 on the best nights,
-Bad news frequently isn't. The authors give a true example of a Daily Express (yes, it would be) news item: eating a full English breakfast each day increases your risk of pancreatic cancer by 20%. This sounds alarming, until they unpick it. Only a small percentage of people ever get pancreatic cancer. So if 400 people have a full English breakfast every day for the rest of their lives, 5 of them will die of pancreatic cancer. Among a control group of 400 muesli eaters, only 4 would snuff it: not so bad. (Though of course the full English diet does other things also, to heart disease and obesity presumably.)
Finally, two helpful appendices in the back show the most effective-life-span altering daily habits:
* five fruit and veg every day: add four years
* twenty minutes light/moderate exercise: add two years
* two cups of coffee: add one year
* one small alcoholic drink: add one year.
*smoke 14-24 ciggies: take off seven years
* be obese: take off 2.5 years
*eat one portion of red meat: take off one year
*every alcoholic drink after the first: take off 0.7 years.
* watch TV for two hours: take off 0.7 years.
Unique book, a little overwritten. Great fun.