Years ago a friend introduced me to the idea that people were in general very bad at judging relative risk. He had watched a documentary about this and the subjective response people have to relative dangers was shown, for the most part, to be unrelated to the actual risk.
An easy example of this is the common fear of flying. Fear of getting a drive to the airport is unheard of even though the car ride is vastly more likely to result in injury or death than the flight. But the statistic is powerless against the misapprehension.
This will appear to be a departure from topic, but I had my periodic colonoscopy today. The doctor before arranging the procedure was very diligent in advising me of the relative risk. About 1 in 1000 such procedures lead to complications. Compared to the risk of undiagnosed colon cancer this seemed like no thing to me so I arranged for the procedure.
Afterward I was confused by the suggestion I got from a couple of other people that a 1 in 1000 risk of complications was significant. So, I considered their concerns and came up with this.
Given that I will live forever and I need a colonoscopy every 5 years; and given the certainty that in all those many many procedures 1 in every thousand, on average, will result in complications; I am certain to have a complication about every 5000 years. Moreover in all my future eternity that complication will on average occur about half way through each period at around the 2500-year mark. So, of all the undying multitudes of patients having routine scopes the average one shall expect a complication in about 2500 years, another in 7500 years and so on…
Of course one out of the next thousand colonoscopies is almost certainly going to have a complication. But in whole numbers this chance is 0%.
As an afterthought; on February 7, 2013, the day of the two giant snowstorms here, I had my specialist appointment with my gastroenterologist to get the procedure scheduled. On the way home, eastbound on Bayly St. at Kitney Dr. I hit a patch of black ice approaching the red light. I slid several metres before fetching up against the curb with a thump and skewing sideways. I nearly hit the car in the lane to my left and would have totaled the car had there been anyone in front of me. So while day surgery is unpleasant it is not risky. Driving on the other hand is one of the most dangerous things anyone ever does over and over again.
Why are people so careless of statistics? Understand that I think people should not smoke because it is clearly bad for you and it is disgusting. So is misusing statistics.
In this report by BBC News there are 101,000 nurses in a study. Some have sudden cardiac deaths. Of these 75 are smokers, 148 are past smokers and 128 are non-smokers. While the article says that 75 deaths + 148 deaths + 128 deaths is 315 total deaths, it is in fact 351. So BBC needs to employ more proofreaders and the overall incidence of sudden cardiac deaths is 0.003 or about 3 in 1000. Not really a lot.
The article reports that smoking doubles the chance of sudden cardiac deaths. However it is impossible to know what this means since we are not told how many smokers, past smokers and non-smokers there were altogether.
The article also says, “For every five years of continued smoking, the risk went up by 8%.” What could they possibly mean by this? The total incidence is only about 0.3%. Eight percent is almost 27 times that.
…and this vagary helps to undermine the valid message that smoking is a bad idea.
When someone tells you that x doubles the chance of y they have told you nothing. There is a huge difference between odds doubling from 1 in 100 to 2 in 100, and 1 in 2 to 2 in 2, or 3 in 1000 to we cannot know what.
So you finished your lunch and are knocking back the last of whatever you drink from a can and you have the best of intentions. Planing your return to wherever, you eyeball the place where you will bus your tray. You see the segregated bins and you see the universal recycling symbol. You are about to save the planet single handedly. You swan up to the bins you tip your garbage into the garbage and then smugly drop that precious metal into the hole marked recycling. There! The world is a better place. Isn’t it?
I was at my local burrito place recently. The lunch rush was slowing. So, the staff were getting a chance to do chores instead of serving customers. I watched one of them as she changed out the full liner bags in the segregated bins for new, clean ones. The bags were identical. “So,” I said to her, “The bags are all the same and you can’t tell them apart. I guess the recycling just goes in with the rest of the trash.” She was a good minion at that point. She just gave me a guilty grin.
The reason that business pretends to recycle is simple. The appearance of recycling is good public relations. Therefore the segregated bins and green recycling logo. However actual recycling is costly. Therefore all the bags go indistinguishably into the same dumpster.
In truth I basically knew that this was an ubiquitous practice. I have almost never seen segregated bins where the contents were segregated. There is usually a slurry of waste and recycling in each compartment. If you are looking into such a bin you are probably looking into landfill.
There are considerable arguments about the cost benefit ratio of recycling. However I am not so much concerned about that debate here. What is concerning me is fraud. When a business implies that it recycles, it does so for profit. The pretense is there to encourage custom. “Look! We are a green business. Spend your money here not at those other earth-hating businesses.” The implied recycling is a business cost that customers are encouraged, by green M.C. Escher arrows, to pay for. If they do not get the recycling they buy into then I think that deceit is fraud.
The importance of environmental issues is right up there with the most basic human needs for air, water, food and shelter. And yet a very great deal of the response to this growing crisis is nothing but cynical opportunism and pantomime. In the case of businesses pretending to recycle when they do not, we need a piece of case law that sets a precedent that this is fraud. Otherwise all that segregated bin is doing is making a fool of you and your good intentions.
You are the proud owner of some potato peelings. Lucky you. Chuck them in your garden composter. You will get a better return on this investment than the ones at your bank.
Oh no! What the hell just happened? You put that garden compost in your green “organics” bin? Why? You have just turned a tiny but significant bit of beneficial compost into a public liability.
Consider this. No matter what you put in that compostable bag liner, it will never hold what would eventually amount to a penny’s worth of compost. Someday, bacteria willing, a whole bag of green-bin waste could amount to a few millilitres of compost of some unspecified quality. However you just wasted twenty cents’ worth of resources bagging it. That is a two thousand percent resource loss already, and more resources will be used to process waste you could have chucked in a box in your yard.
And this is not the only way you have just sucked. You have contaminated that good compostable material with other “organics” such as last week’s chicken carcass. Rule one in garden composting is, “no meat, no cooked food.” These waste products do not degrade using the same bacteria as vegetable matter. They cannot be mixed and result in good garden compost.
This practice gets worse however. Your green bin organics program isn’t just contaminating your good compost at a considerable loss. It is discouraging beneficial garden composting in your community by encouraging you and your neighbours to divert compostable material into the waste stream.
And why? Why is this happening? At a guess I would say that your municipality is spending large amounts of your tax money on this program for two reasons.
For one thing, compost collection can be dressed up as an environmental initiative. The bins are green in colour, if not in effect.
Secondly, the only private interest that benefits from you putting those peels in your own composter is you. The green bin program is there to divert public money into the bank accounts of a privatized waste industry.
So, given the importance of waste reduction in all the senses of the word, look at the composting policies in your community and ask questions about who they benefit. And if that benefit is not to you and your community then take action to get those policies changed.
Double Vision: the faces of CAPIC, the Toronto Chapter’s premier show and Yuletide celebration, will be celebrating its fifth year at Toronto Image Works on Friday, December 11th, 2009, with a festive spread and the room chock-full of attendees, who will choose the winning pairs of portraits by popular vote.
Dave needs a posse Dec 11 19:00:00. Anyone feelin artsy-fartsy? It is the CAPIC Double Vision show. It will be won by whoever has the biggest posse. The art is irrelavant.