“It’s Basic Statistics” or Why We Fear Unlikely Possibilities

I was recently engrossed in a conversation (close to the argument) with someone about COVID-19 vaccines. Specifically, we were talking about the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has been linked to blood clots.

To the other person, the blood clots were extremely worrying and showed that these vaccines were rushed. I thought these side effects were expected, and they weren’t significant.

“It’s basic statistics,” I was told. Was it truly basic statistics?

It made me think of how we deal with probabilities and how we manage risk. There’s an assumption that we logically process risk and then make the best choice.

In reality, I think that we are irrational when it comes to risk and will actively choose riskier activities for many factors. Why do we do this?

We Choose Control Over Risk

No commercial airline in the U.S. has had a fatal crash since 2009, and in fact, over the past 12 years, U.S. airlines have carried more than eight billion passengers without a fatal crash.

Before you bring up the Boeing 737 MAX recent accidents, it’s important to know that these took place outside the US with primarily non-US citizens. Even including those still means that flying is one of the safest activities we engage with regularly.

The amazing safety record came from 2 simple ideas: extract lessons from crashes, share them among all companies and work with them to make voluntary changes. Mandatory regulations can work but aren’t as effective as voluntary changes. All airlines wanted to be safer, and it was in their best interest to make these changes.

And yet, we fear flying. Have you ever found yourself in turbulence? Had a rock landing or take-off? I would bet that you had a moment of fear as I have experience.

I think we fear activities like flying because we don’t control them. We are merely going along for the ride. If a plane was to crash, we could do nothing but hold on tightly to our armrest.

We will gladly choose control over risk. Driving feels exponentially safer to us, but the statistics don’t back that up.

We Consciously Ignore Basic Statistics

The AstraZeneca vaccine seems to cause blood clots 5 times in a million. How high is this number, and how does it compare to other things we do?

According to car insurance companies, an average driver will crash once every 18 years. Everyone will experience at least 3 collisions per year and perhaps more depending on your driving skills and those around you. The chances of dying from a car crash are 1 in 103.

1 in 103 vs 5 in 1,000,000.

The difference is that car crashes are under our control. “Who knows what went into a vaccine”. That’s the general thought process. Statistics are rarely simple.

We Wrongly Assume that Life is Risk-Free

Life isn’t risk-free. We are reminded of this every time a seemingly “healthy” friends get cancer or suffer a heart attack. We always wondered how that could be if the person did all the “right things” like eating well and exercising.

Sometimes you’re at the wrong place, wrong time. You’re walking along a street that you have walked hundreds of times, and you get hit by a car or get fatally robbed.

The question isn’t how we avoid risk but how do we manage it. What’s the evidence that we have, and what is riskier. The AstraZeneca vaccine has risks, but suffering from COVID-19 might have higher risks in the short and long term.

Don’t fear risk. Accept it and move on.

One more thing before you go! Do you know how to get more insights out of your data? 

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