Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Freakomonics

"It ain't necessarily so"
- song from Porgy & Bess

Last week I attended a kickoff meeting for a Science Book Club at the local library. What book was selected as our first read?  SuperFreakonomics, the sequel to Freakonomics. In both books the authors apply numbers to our daily life and come up with some surprising results.

For example, did you know it is 5 to 8 times more dangerous to WALK while drunk than DRIVE while drunk? Yes, there are far more deaths caused by drunk drivers but when you look at the odds of dying per mile traveled, it's much worse for drunk walkers who fall asleep on roads, reckless attempt to cross busy streets, etc.

Another statistic that surprised me was this: in the 1980's during peacetime up to twice as many soldiers died than in the late 2000's with the Iraq war.  How can this be? One obvious reason is:
1. There were more soldiers in the 1980's because Clinton reduced the size of the military by 30% or so.
2. Service men (& women) don't just die in combat.

If you dig deeper into the data you'll discover that the combined military death rate for 1980 and 2007 (peak of Iraq)  are quite similar but that soldiers died for different reasons. The rate of accidental deaths was MUCH higher in the 80's; from a high of 72 soldiers out of 100,000 to a low of 22.5 per 100K in 2010.

In 1980 a soldier was more likely to die of an accident (72/100K) vs the worst of combat (52.7/100K in 2007). In 1980 the death rates for illness and homicide (murdered outside of combat) were also higher than at present. Apparently the discipline of War teaches safety first!

How deadly is modern combat to US soldiers? This is hard to say because most comparisons are not apples to apples. The top killers in the general population, heart attack 204/100K, cancer 187/100K, stroke 45/100K and lung disease 40/100K typically affect people later in life. Most soldier are young and healthy and are less likely to die of illness (10 to 20 out of 100K). So what else kills young adults?  Suicide at 10-17 per 100K. But even worse - traffic accidents (drunk driving & motorcycles) with a crude death rate of 30/100K from ages 15 to 25.

We could conclude that the war in Iraq was, at its worst, 50% more dangerous for young men/women than traveling in a car. Does this mean that war causalities are not so horrific or that young-adult driving is MUCH worse than imagined. No wonder rental car companies are reluctant to rent to college students.

Bottom Line

Life is complicated. Schools and the media do a terrible job of looking at the big picture and sorting fact from fallacy. While many are opposed to war, who do you know that is raising an alarm over teenage and young adult driving? I have to give MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) credit. They may save more lives than War protesters.

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