On doing the math

“People have a very weird perception of large numbers. If you have 2,000 cases of flu in a country of 300 million, most people think they’re going to be one of the 2,000, not one of the 299,998,000.”
-Professor Dirk Brockmann (by way of Free-Range Kids)

That. That that that that that that that.

Which isn’t meant as a commentary about whether or not we’re going to get a scary-quick spread of the flu–I honestly don’t know, quite possibly no one knows. But when assessing risk, people do not do the math. So when one death is reported on the news–in a country of 300 million people–Americans all assume that they, personally, are in immediate danger, even when the odds are strongly against it, even when there’s no real evidence to back this up.

Which means I know people afraid to eat peanuts or lettuce or tomatoes, and also afraid to let their children out of their sight even for a moment, who nonetheless get themselves and their children into a car every single day. It makes no sense, but when you try to tell people that, they flat out don’t believe you.

Because no one does the math. It’s not even very hard math. But no one, least of all the media, seems to understand odds or actual risk or how to put in context how much danger we really are or aren’t in, in any situation.

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