The Maths of Pointless Numbers

In an idle moment in a place I cannot recall, but may have been the local takeaway, I read the Daily Express, an unusual event.  And I read an article entitled “CANCER RISK OF JUST TWO GLASSES OF WINE A DAY”  which demonstrated exactly why not the read the Daily Express if you wish to retain your sanity.

This is how the Express sensitively rendered the story…


The particular issue raised by this non-news story has been rolling around the back of my brain for a while, however the creative forces have been battling with perfectionist tendencies, fending off a full research project on the many different life risks, probabilities thereof, and the mechanisms of converting annual probabilities into life-time ones, and all manner of analytical delights.

So to break the log-jam (and get a life in between), I have crayoned  the issue, rather than the full Powerpoint…


You can find all sorts of stats around the web about the probability of different life risks if you look – here and here, for example, and tease out interesting, contrarian nuggets.  Such as,  drowning is much more likely than a fatal dog attack, yet  there are many strait-jacketing laws on dangerous dogs, but no UK inland rescue force to save people who fall in the water, which paradox seems to defy common-sense.

The issue in the case of the Australian report is that the risk that is being increased by 75% is diddly-squat to start with, and (Diddly-Squat * 1.75) = Sweet FA (in the Maths of Pointless Numbers).  It is undoubtedly bad if it actually happens, but the probability is not something you can, or should, let dictate your life.

I suppose headlines like “Medicos issue report about irrelevant statistical findings that don’t matter” don’t sell papers, so  there must be people who enjoy a little frisson of fear, panic and anxiety over their breakfast corn flakes, and prepared to read the Express to get it….

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