Death is a matter that should not be diced with, but when we are warned not to play with loaded guns, or swim in shark-infested waters, or eat eggs, how can we tell to what extent the dice are loaded against us? In the July 1993 issue of Social Innovations - A Compendium, the writers endorse a safety index originally proposed by John Allen Paulos in a book entitled Innumeracy. The idea is to attach a number to various activities, procedures and illnesses, to give an instant assessment of their danger, 'a sort of Richter scale which the media could use as shorthand for indicating degrees of risk'.
The idea begins with a logarithmic scale. In general, the safety index of an activity is the logarithm of N, where N is the average number of participants per death. For example, each year one American in 5,300 dies in a road accident. The safety index associated with driving would be calculated as the logarithm of 5,300, which is 3.7, a comparatively low figure on the table of death risks. And low figures, of course, are the least safe.
It is important to note that we are not concerned solely with the number of deaths, but the number of deaths per participant. The road accident risk may well be different for drivers and pedestrians. 'A slight refinement must be made by considering only those people who are likely to engage in the activity in question.'
As a particularly dangerous example, they suggest Russian roulette. Playing once a year would carry a safety index of approximately 0.8, the only item on the Death Risk (USA) list that exceeds high-wire acrobatics between skyscrapers for risk potential.
'Activities or illnesses whose safety indices are greater than six should be considered safe, being equivalent to less than one chance in a million per year.' This includes lightning (6.3), getting kidnapped (6.7) and bee sting (6.8). This does not mean that it is safe to get kidnapped, rather that getting kidnapped is not something an ordinary person should worry about as a potential health hazard.
Once the figure gets below 4, the risk (equivalent to 1 death each year per 10,000) becomes worth considering. Murder (4.0), influenza & pneumonia (3.7), driving (3.7), smoking (2.9), cancer (2.7) and heart disease (2.6) all come into this category. Cycling is marginal, between 4 and 5.
The writer proposes the establishment of a 'statistical ombudsman' to combat innumeracy in the media, perhaps eventually leading to precisely calculated figures appearing in government health warnings, on a wide range of goods and activities.
A more specific scale for health warnings is proposed by Nicholas Albery, with a new unit - the Currie - used to measure the seriousness of any fashionable scare. 'Health warnings would range in seriousness from 10 Curries, for an epidemic with millions dying, to one Currie, for an infection causing death or severe handicap in very exceptional circumstances. Such a scale would be an instant way for the public to know how seriously to take each new health scare, and the warnings could be upgraded or downgraded as necessary.'
More seriously, Mr Albery proposes an alternative scale to deal with the problem of scientific verification of potential danger. As an example, he gives the case of aluminium, which has, for many years, been linked to forms of senile and pre-senile dementia. The dangers of tobacco and lead in petrol are other areas where warnings, originally from a small minority of the scientific community, took many years before becoming accepted by the majority.
Where informed opinion is split, the new and simple idea is to inform the public of the current score in the debate. A 'reliability quotient', calculated and monitored by a non-governmental organisation, would indicate what percentage of the independent scientific community felt that the research findings were sufficiently cogent to justify taking precautions. In the case of aluminium, we are told, the reliability quotient would still probably be under 35 per cent.
We finish with three ideas submitted to the Institute to deal with the problems of crime, diet and insomnia respectively.
'Surely one of the most effective ways to encourage self-improvement among young offenders,' writes Dr S Mohindra, 'would be to link their sentences to achievement in education. A three-month reduction in sentence for every GCSE they got while in prison would encourage prisoners to keep their minds occupied with studies, rather than teaching each other the latest criminal skills.'
Annie Rovelstad recommends eating grasshoppers (monitored for the Institute from Food Insects Newsletter). 'I tried my first grasshoppers and katydids this morning; thanks to the Food Insects Newsletter for giving me courage and permission.' It all began with organic gardening and looking for a way to rid her garden of large numbers of grasshoppers. Unable to identify a natural predator to do the job, she decided to eat them. 'They were rather small two-inch grasshoppers and not much to them except abdomen, but I was quite pleased to find it didn't taste strong or exotic or strange of texture. Just rather creamy, mildly sweet, definitely protein with a bit of oil and a slightly chewy outer layer.'
There is, however, a possible problem with nematode infestation. The editor of Food Insects Newsletter recommends cooking grasshoppers before you eat them, because they might have worms in them. They are urgently seeking information about the symptoms, prevalence and seasonality of worm-infested grasshoppers. Such a thing can easily put you off your food.
Finally: 'Prepared sleep thoughts as a cure for insomnia'. Zachariah Evans recommends preparing an interesting sleep-thought to drive out insomnia-inducing thoughts at bedtime. A connection with an intelligent hobby is useful, he says. He cured his own insomnia by reciting names and dates of Wimbledon champions, and believes that the NHS could save millions of pounds on sleeping pills if they encouraged patients to adopt similar tactics.
For further ideas see The Book of Visions - an Encyclopaedia of Social Innovations ( pounds 14.99) available from the Institute for Social Inventions, telephone: 081-208 2853.
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