How big is your chance of dying in an ordinary day?

by on July 18, 2013 at 2:07 pm in Books, Education, Science | Permalink

A Micromort can also be compared to a form of imaginary Russian roulette in which 20 coins are thrown in the air: if they all come down heads, the subject is executed.  That is about the same odds as the 1-in-a-million chance that we describe as the average everyday dose of acute fatal risk.

That is from Michael Blastland and David Spiegelhalter, The Norm Chronicles: Stories and Numbers About Danger, which is an interesting book about the proper framing and communication of risk.

1 dearieme July 18, 2013 at 4:27 pm

Amazon seem to call it “The Norm Chronicles: Stories and Numbers About Danger”. Has the title been translated into American English for the US?

2 Mark Thorson July 18, 2013 at 4:33 pm

I’d like to call your attention to this:

In particular, the risk from eating peanut butter. Compare that to the other risks. I’d much rather have a charcoal-broiled steak and the wine than any peanut butter.

Peanut butter is an unusually risky food. It’s made from the lowest grade of peanuts legally acceptable as food. Farmers whose peanuts flunk the test for aflatoxin can clean them up and submit them for regrading. The acceptable level of aflatoxins in peanuts in the U.S. is four times higher than the level in the EU, thanks to the peanut lobby. I wouldn’t touch peanut butter.

3 JWatts July 18, 2013 at 4:57 pm

LOL, that’s an extremely miniscule chance of death. So eating 3 cups of peanut butter is about as dangerous as living 2 days in New York City (just due to air pollution), eh? I think I’ll take my chances.

4 dan1111 July 18, 2013 at 5:03 pm

Eating a serving of peanut butter is about as dangerous as riding in a canoe for 9 seconds. Scary!

Also, it is doubtful that the research shows any risk at all for normal levels of PB consumption.

5 Mark Thorson July 18, 2013 at 5:42 pm

There’s also a risk that depends on whether you carry the allele for the Thomsen-Friedenreich antigen. In this study, 10 of 36 subjects did carry the allele, which results in rapid cell proliferation in the rectal mucosa when they eat peanuts. This is believed to be a risk factor for colorectal cancer.

The color photomicrographs published in the paper are quite disturbing. This is what got me to quit eating peanuts altogether, rather than just cutting back to clean, mold-free, in-shell peanuts. Only moldy peanuts have aflatoxin, but all peanuts have the peanut lectin. In the absence of knowledge of my Thomsen-Friedenreich antigen status, I’m not eating any peanuts.

6 dearieme July 18, 2013 at 6:23 pm

But peanut butter is America’s great gift to world cuisine.

7 KLO July 18, 2013 at 9:47 pm

Photographs of rectums cause me to lose my appetite for everything, not just peanut butter. But that’s just me.

8 Mark Thorson July 18, 2013 at 10:15 pm

They’re not photographs of rectums. They are biopsy samples stained to show the proliferating cells. And proliferate they do — very scary if you eat peanuts.

9 dead serious July 19, 2013 at 8:44 am

“But peanut butter is America’s great gift to world cuisine.”

Your best contribution is the Indian curry.

10 Yancey Ward July 18, 2013 at 5:56 pm

Everyone knows peanut butter is the weapon of choice for international assassins.

11 RM July 18, 2013 at 7:39 pm

I now understand why many pest companies use peanut butter to kill roaches.

12 I've known several people who have died of this July 18, 2013 at 10:41 pm

The Wikipedia article, with an omission fatal to its accuracy, leaves out the number of people who die from a broken heart after tragedy or death assaults someone they love

13 Jeff B July 18, 2013 at 5:09 pm

Going skydiving once is as hazardous as living in NYC for 14 days: 7 micromorts for either.

14 dbp July 18, 2013 at 5:10 pm

“…the 1-in-a-million chance that we describe as the average everyday dose of acute fatal risk”

I don’t get this. If you live to 80 and have an equal chance of death on any given day then that is a 1-in-thirty thousand risk. It is true that the risk of death is not evenly spread-out over your life span but it is never even close to one in a million. Unless you count the chances of death in any given hour, then it might approach one in a million very early in a life that ends up being unusually long. If you make it to 100, then you have about a one in a million chance of death in any given minute after that.

15 JWatts July 18, 2013 at 5:34 pm

From wiki:

A micromort is a unit of risk measuring a one-in-a-million probability of death (from micro- and mortality). Micromorts can be used to measure riskiness of various day-to-day activities. A microprobability is a one-in-a million chance of some event; thus a micromort is the microprobability of death. The micromort concept was introduced by Ronald A. Howard who pioneered the modern practice of decision analysis.

So all the micromorts you encounter add up to your actual chance of dying.

16 Dismalist July 18, 2013 at 8:04 pm

Which is 1.

17 mike July 18, 2013 at 5:34 pm

What kind of odds would you give me on Tyler not dying tomorrow? That is to say, how much money would I (or, say a life insurance company) have to offer to pay if Tyler dies, in order for you to pay me $100 if Tyler doesn’t die? Do you currently own a life insurance policy on yourself? Have you looked into it?

18 Yancey Ward July 18, 2013 at 5:58 pm


I would stay in tomorrow, and don’t open the door to strangers. Or eat peanut butter.

19 JWatts July 18, 2013 at 6:04 pm

And avoid restaurants serving hot women. Oh wait, that’s for another reason. Never mind.

20 ricardo July 18, 2013 at 7:57 pm

I prefer my women cold.

21 Alex Godofsky July 18, 2013 at 6:06 pm

Tyler Cowen was born in 1962, so he’s 51 year’s old. The RP-2000 Combined Mortality Table projected to 2013 with Scale AA gives a 0.1908% chance of death at age 51 (across the entire year), so 1 in 200,000 is a vaguely reasonable guesstimate.

22 Enrique July 18, 2013 at 11:58 pm

To Alex G.: How many coins all landing heads is that?

23 Jason July 19, 2013 at 4:43 am


24 mike July 20, 2013 at 3:13 pm

Somebody owes me $100

25 Brian July 18, 2013 at 6:06 pm

I would take it that “average everyday dose of acute fatal risk” [emphasis mine] means a non-natural cause. The wiki article, for example, estimates this by noting that in the UK approximately 50 people, in a population of 60 million, die each day from non-natural causes, giving a roughly 1-in-a-million odds of such a fate on any given day.

26 dbp July 18, 2013 at 6:47 pm

Okay, this explanation makes a lot of sense. The thing is though, why such emphasis on non-natural causes? If they give you a one-in-a-million chance of death, then 29 times out of 30 you will die of something “natural”. Even here, the question of what is natural comes into play. They talk about illness from smoking or eating foods that contain trace toxins but these things lead to diseases which could be considered “natural” causes of death.

27 Yancey Ward July 18, 2013 at 6:55 pm

The good news is that we all get to hit a long shot at some point in our lives.

28 JWatts July 18, 2013 at 8:20 pm

+1 micromort

29 SlenderMan July 19, 2013 at 2:52 am

I’m more interested in the risk of becoming paralyzed unexpectedly, followed by years of involuntary disability.

I would pay for a “sudden death” function in case of severe disability.

30 Doc Holliday July 19, 2013 at 10:30 am

I’m your huckleberry.

31 Nikki July 19, 2013 at 3:20 pm

Mental Floss posted a video last month about micromorts:

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