Saturday, May 28, 2005

Newspaper Odds

My cell phone received a breaking new alert yesterday: The FDA is investigating a link between the impotence drug Viagra and blindness. The story also made the front page of today's Chicago Tribune. Look carefully though and you'll notice 38 reports of blindness among the 23 million Viagra users. Even if the drug directly caused the blindness the numbers translate to a 0.00017% chance of losing your sight using Viagra. Breaking news indeed. You have a much greater chance losing your sight not using safety goggles in the workplace and not have as much fun in the process.

This is an example of what I call newspaper odds. If some people's misfortune appears in the newspapers then the odds are so low that you really shouldn't worry about it. High school mass shootings. Mad Cow Disease. Carbon Monoxide Deaths. No significant need to worry about these.

When deaths become too common to appear in a newspaper then you need to take notice and act carefully, say with automobile accidents or AIDS. Of course a cause of death might not appear in a newspaper simply because it doesn't happen, like recent US major commercial airline disasters. How to we tell the difference: celebrities. If a celebrity dies of AIDS or gets seriously injured in an automobile accidents, newspapers will cover it and remind us that these remain serious concerns for us all.


  1. The new book Freakonomics discusses this topic, too. Perhaps being at UofC you couldn't possibly avoid it?

  2. Although your point is a good one, I think I might have left out the jab at school shootings. Or otherwise, perhaps terrorism and 9/11 should be in the list?

    Some things are surely worthy of news even if they don't pose a grave threat to our daily safety...


  3. Eric: I think it has more to do with how the question is framed. If we make big deals out of something that is fairly rare then that means we aren't dedicated enough resources to solutions that would do more good. For example, more children would be saved if parents who own pools had the proper safety measures in place: A child is much more likely to drown in a pool than to be the victim of a school shooting (or any shooting at all).

    But instead of seeing any outrage on pools, we see it much more about things that are completely out of our control. I suppose it's a natural reaction: the things we can do something about we believe is ok.