50 Percent Chance of Death by Blackhole

Galaxies Collide in the Antennae Galaxies (NASA, Chandra, Hubble, Spitzer, 08/05/10)Sometime ago, the Jon Oliver for the Daily Show did an interview with a man who was protesting the creation of a particle accelerator. He argued this new accelerator was going to create a black hole that would destroy our entire planet. This shocking conclusion surprised most, so the interviewer asked the man:

“What are the odds that this is going to happen?”

“Fifty Percent”, he replied.

“Fifty percent?! That seems high. How did you come up with that figure?”, the interviewer said.

“Well, either it’s going to happen, or it’s not going to happen, so it’s 50/50 either way.”

Laugh as we might at this example, our emotions take this exact view of statistics. For example, we see the odds of some horrific side effect of a medical procedure and we either dismiss it as not going to happen or we simulate what it will be like to get those effects, making us even more afraid, even to the point of feeling like it might be 50/50.

While statistics can be very useful in making good decisions in a world of uncertainty, it’s worth recognizing our own inability to deal emotionally with statistics. We don’t have an intuitive sense of 1 in 10, or even 1 in 3. Instead our brains break almost everything down into the it’s going to happen or it’s not going to happen.

If we want to dispel some of that fear, sometimes it’s useful to start thinking about more real world examples – 1 in 500 is about the same as someone guessing heads or tails correctly 9 times in a row.  Doing this even once is an impressive feat and not very likely to occur, and neither will this side effect.

Without a doubt statistics can help us make better rational decisions, but as soon as we note our fears getting involved, it’s helpful to remember that our emotional brains don’t properly handle statistics. It’s not 50/50 that we’re going to die by black hole.

Photo Credit: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center 






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