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Irrational fears & statistics

10/02/2009 12:22 PM

This week I filled in a parental permission form for my daughter to have an HPV1 vaccination. It was to be handed in on the day the news broke about the unfortunate girl from Coventry who was taken ill and died a few hours after having her vaccination - no cause of death was known at the time2.

Now I knew that over 1,000,000 women and girls had been given the jab in the last year or so, and there were no deaths attributable to it, and very few adverse reactions of any sort.

But it didn't half make me think.

1 human papillomavirus, which can cause cervical cancer

2 It has since been found that the cause of death was an undiagnosed chest tumor

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#1

Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/02/2009 4:23 PM

We're not wired for Math. Here's my favorite Duhh uhh test courtesy of Seth Godin:

"Let's say your goal is to reduce gasoline consumption.

And let's say there are only two kinds of cars in the world. Half of them are Suburbans that get 10 miles to the gallon and half are Priuses that get 50.

If we assume that all the cars drive the same number of miles, which would be a better investment:

  • Get new tires for all the Suburbans and increase their mileage a bit to 13 miles per gallon.
  • Replace all the Priuses and rewire them to get 100 miles per gallon (doubling their average!)

Trick question aside, the answer is the first one. (In fact, it's more than twice as good a move).

We're not wired for arithmetic. It confuses us, stresses us out and more often than not, is used to deceive." end of quote

Milo speaking:

And When the probabilities are very extreme, but the consequences are severe, we are emotionally overwhelmed by the severity to the point of discounting our rational calculus...

So people that wont fly will ride in cars and smoke cigarettes...

And buy lottery tickets.

Some folks will spend $80.00 for a meal out

and cut out $0.15 off coupons for the grocery store

(I have found the coupon cutters also tend to like their trips to Vegas too???)

But the greatest irrationality is the current

$4.50

Cup of coffee...

We're Hardly the rational beings we'd like to think we are.

milo I remember when a cup of coffee was a dime... under a buck was not that long ago...

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#4
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Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/02/2009 7:38 PM

I like the fuel consumption one.

The only time I pay anywhere near $4.50 for a coffee is in motorway services & airport departure lounges, when there's little alternative. (It's about £2 for a "regular Americano" at Heathrow (a Costa franchise, I think)).

Thinking about it - I've never actually even been into a Starbucks place.

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#6
In reply to #1

Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/02/2009 10:51 PM

Hi Milo,

We're not wired for Math.

I would rather say that we are prone to let feelings sway logical thought processes. I have heard it said that feelings are not wrong, they just are. However, what you feel will not necessarily lead you to the correct/best conclusion/decision/action.

I think a good analogy is an optical illusion; what you see (feel) may seem like reality, but is actually not. That it is wrong is not discovered until it is dissected and analyzed (or the person who made it in the first place reveals the secret).

Oh, and I would pay that much for a coffee only if I was extremely tired and needed to keep going, and only if I were in an airport!

Mike

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#9
In reply to #6

Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/03/2009 1:07 PM

GA. It seems to me that one of the main differences between grown-ups and children is that adults are aware of their feelings but try to act based on knowledge of the situation, while children simply act out their emotions. Maybe there just aren't a lot of grown-ups. Many people in the developed world don't have much experience with crisis and horror, and are likely to over-react to mundane events as if they were facing the end of their world.

Maybe we are just hard-wired by our evolutionary past to be adrenalin junkies, and if nothing really scary happens for a long time, we just dream something up to get a fix.

I wouldn't really blame the news media. They are just doing their job, which is to keep as many eyes and ears as possible glued to the tube. Fear and emotion are much more compelling to most people than a reasoned discussion of public policy options.

Uncertainty leads to fear, fear leads to anger, and anger leads to stupid...

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#22
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Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/06/2009 11:56 AM

Stupid leads to bad decisions made by George Lucas.. erm...

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#28
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Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/06/2009 8:03 PM

"I wouldn't really blame the news media. They are just doing their job, which is to keep as many eyes and ears as possible glued to the tube."

I can understand the argument that the media is giving the customer (viewers) what they want. So it's not the media that's to blame, it's the viewers. But I doubt if the viewers were surveyed and asked "Do you prefer accurate reporting over quick reporting?" that very many would express a preference for quick report at the expense of accuracy. For example, if asked, most people would not say they want to be over weight, however, observing their behaviour (what they eat and activity levels) one could argue that people do want to be over weight.

So in the end, I do blame the media. Most news organizations claim to be protecting citizens, giving valuable needed information, and demand information from public officials under the cover its their (media's) right to provide accurate up to date information to 'the people'. But then sloppy or lazy journalists don't take the time to do the research necessary to find out the real details of a topic they are writing about.

If the news media does not report events accurately, I do blame them and they are not doing their jobs. Many occupations have multiple objectives ( I do not just try to satisfy my customer, but also have to adhere to safety requirements and cost constraints). I do not believe the media's jobs is only to glue people to the tube. The problem is that an individual journalist's salary may be too directly tied to the number of viewers and hence taint his reporting as he (or she) goes for the sensationalism over accuracy. Most businesses (media included) are short sighted regarding profit and loss. They opt for the immediate satisfaction/glory without regard to longer term consequences. Perhaps that's human nature. But to excuse someone for being short sighted or reward them (or an organization) sets us up for the very thing we are complaining about.

I rarely watch TV news anymore for this very reason, especially when it comes to the topic of health (which they have gotten wrong thousands of times) or energy, or world events, or climate or ......you get the picture. Those reporting are not as interested in the truth as they advertise. And even those who are have a bias despite their best efforts to be objective.

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#36
In reply to #28

Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/07/2009 8:15 PM

GA JB!

I couldn't agree more!

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#43
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Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/11/2009 9:42 AM

Dittoes from Milo!

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#11
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Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/03/2009 3:42 PM

One of my dad's favorite quips is "I love statistics. You can make them say anything you want!"

That $4.50 doesn't even buy a cup of coffee... it's dark and it's caffeinated but coffee it isn't! I shouldn't have to add fourteen cups of sugar a pound of cocoa and a gallon of cream to make coffee palatable! It should taste lovely in its natural, un-augmented state, then if you want to make it decadent it'll just be that much better.

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#13
In reply to #11

Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/03/2009 7:19 PM

Forget the cream - I only drink it black. Usually naff Nescaf, with 2 sugars.

The one I like is very dark, very strong & made from fresh-ground beans, & correto a Grappa.

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#17
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Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/05/2009 8:02 AM

"Some folks will spend $80.00 for a meal out

and cut out $0.15 off coupons for the grocery store"

Isn't that basically the same as eating a healthy salad with your steak to offset the negative health effects of eating the steak?

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#18
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Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/05/2009 9:34 AM

Wait a minute, I had to look up what "salad" is...

milo

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#21
In reply to #17

Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/06/2009 11:55 AM

More like a diet coke with your french fries. At least the steak might have some protine and iron.

The fries mostly just have grease.

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#44
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Re: Irrational fears & statistics

02/18/2015 1:28 PM

Ok, I'll bite. How is it a better move to put new tires on the Suburbans? Everything is relative to something and apparently I overlooked the obvious? Yes, it is a trick question. More than twice as good? Please explain.

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#45
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Re: Irrational fears & statistics

02/18/2015 1:48 PM

Assuming there are 200,000 cars in the world 100,000 are suburbans and 100000 are Priuses.Assume that all drive 10,000 miles per year.

At 10 mpg before improvements, the suburbans will need 100,000,000 gallons of gas to drive 10,000 miles each.

The Priuses at 50 mpg will only need 20,000,000 to drive the equivalent miles.

After the improvement the suburbans at 13mpg will only need 76,923,077 gallons to drive the same 10,000 miles, the gallons saved are 100,000,000 minus that number or 23,076,923. The Priuses doubled their mpg so that cuts their gas usage in half. Half of 20,000,000gallons is 10,000,000 gallons.

23,076,923 is over 2 times the 10,000,000 saved by the Priuses.

Buy tire stock.

Like I said, math doesn't come easy when what we think we know comes into play.

Great question.

Milo

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#46
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Re: Irrational fears & statistics

02/19/2015 11:56 AM

There is another answer! Melt down the suburbans and turn them into Priuses.

Remember, the goal was to save gasoline. Obviously, buying new tires is less expensive than remanufacturing gas hogs into hybrid technology. I frequently go out of my way to try to avoid thinking like an accountant who can only imagine a 2 year ROI. The problem is that kind thinking should be reserved to conditions that are likely to change by the end of the 2 year period. The change would have to be something like all vehicles would be abandon 24 months down the road.

I also have doubts about being able to maintain 13 MPG consistantly over 10,000 miles but I don't want to spoil the spoof.

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#2

Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/02/2009 5:04 PM

yes and it doesn't help that the British media are experts in misrepresenting the truth, skewing risk and spreading fear doubt and uncertainty. Why did the media jump so quickly to that conclusion?

It was the same with the MMR scare, the legacy is another myth that won't die. My son has been diagnosed with ASD and it didn't do me any good having a bunch of insensitive morons telling me it was the vaccine; how does someone with no medical qualifications and a humanities background come to feel qualified to conclude this? And when have you ever heard such a person admit they were wrong afterwards?

Why do the media never wait for any result but speculate endlessly on what might happen?

Luckily I discovered Ben Goldacre and his Bad Science blog. http://www.badscience.net/

and to put the tabloid health scaremongering into perspective http://www.nhs.uk/News/Pages/NewsIndex.aspx

Regarding risk awareness, thousands of people die on the roads with barely a comment yet one train crash with a small number swamps the news for weeks - which transport is riskier?

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#3
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Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/02/2009 7:27 PM

This doesn't help either:

In a statement posted on the school's website, headteacher Dr Julie Roberts said during the immunisation, "one of the girls suffered a rare, but extreme reaction to the vaccine".

The above is from the first news report I read.

Not sure who's more to blame here - Dr. Roberts for opening her mouth & jamming both feet in it, or the BBC for reporting it. I guess, the Beeb, who should know better.

Think in my case it was the timing thing (on the day I was due to hand in the consent form), and the fatality. I didn't have the slightest qualm about sitting her on my knee many years ago while she had the MMR jab, never having heard any creditable reports of severe reactions to that vaccination (but I did feel for her - I'm not overkeen on having sharp things stuck into my arm/leg/glut max or anywhere else either!)

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#5
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Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/02/2009 7:44 PM

Meant to add: Ben Goldacre's a good bloke - had a bit of e-mail exchange with him when he did the regular Thursday bit in the Grauniad. Haven't been to badscience.net yet - thanks for the link.

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#7
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Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/02/2009 11:04 PM

Hi APD,

yes and it doesn't help that the British media are experts in misrepresenting the truth

Hey, it's not just British media. I could almost say that US media is even better at it.

I hope you can find the best path of treatment for your son.

Best Regards,

Mike

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#8

Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/03/2009 3:22 AM

We work on an emotional level...
Just look how rich the casinos are and how many people do the lottery.
Many things are to some extent intuitive, especially to us engineers..
Two things which I find are NOT intuitive...stats and aerodynamics.
Remember the goats and car behind the 3 doors thread?... it ran longer than the ba... nah...nothing runs as long as that damn bath thread.
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#10

Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/03/2009 3:17 PM

You have quite a number of good reasons for taking a second thought. Not the least of which is that you are making a decision for your child that could have devastating consequences for her future either way you decide.

Cervical Cancer is too terrible for words, HPV has been shown to cause Cervical Cancer and as such is a blight that we may be justified in destroying. Certainly the compulsion to provide any protection you can for your loved ones against such a heinous disease is understandable. There are other ways of reducing the chances of coming into contact with HPV but reduction is not prevention and so far the negative effects have been minimal and almost entirely acceptable.

On the other side though, the vaccinations are not really thoroughly studied (I have yet to see a study done on women who had the vaccine 40+ years ago), so we don't really know what the long term results will be. We all know that the pharmaceutical companies have repeatedly sold us 'the latest miracle pill' only to have it turn out to be one more form of poison that ultimately leads to too many people being harmed or killed so why should you believe in this latest miracle.

Unfortunately HPV vaccination has been mandated in some areas, thus taking the choice out of the individual's hand. This is not polio, and even if it was, to only mandate vaccination in one area and not in all areas may only serve to bolster the viruses immune system making it harder to kill in the future. Until such time as we can look at real long term studies, it is unconscionable for government to require a treatment that will affect a full half of our population, which means that in the meantime it is left to the parents to make this difficult decision for their children.

I do not envy the parents out there who have to make these kinds of decisions every day. They never have enough information to make the decision, you can't trust government publications because they may be politically motivated and you can't trust pharmaceutical publications because they are profit oriented and the so called watch dog groups... well, even if they do have good information to get out, the politicians and corporations keep them quietly stashed in the background with the kooks.

I don't know the right choice, and I don't believe that ANYONE out there does... Yet... It's times like these that you have to look into yourself and decide which devil you want to dance with. Gather all the information you can, listen to your gut, listen to your heart and talk to your child about it honestly and in depth. Then do what is right for you.

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#14
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Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/03/2009 7:23 PM

Good words.

"Gather all the information you can, listen to your gut, listen to your heart and talk to your child about it honestly and in depth. Then do what is right for you"

Did all that - hope it was right for her.

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#15
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Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/03/2009 10:07 PM

Thanks John,

I have faith that you did the best you could with the tools you had available... like any good engineer. It is impossible to eliminate risk, the next best thing is understanding risk; I have a feeling your daughter has a much better understanding of the risks involved than the majority of her classmates. Go team Dad!

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#16
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Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/05/2009 7:53 AM

Deep words, have a daughter of my own so it is really thought provoking.

Certainly get my vote for "good head on your shoulders"

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#23
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Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/06/2009 12:04 PM

"(I have yet to see a study done on women who had the vaccine 40+ years ago),"

Me either, but that's because I was already too old for the vaccination by the time it became available and I'm only 34.

Otherwise I'd have been first in line as cancer seems to run in my family. Watch enough people slowly waste away and you tend to have a slightly different outlook on sudden unexpected death.

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#25
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Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/06/2009 5:44 PM

Me either, but that's because I was already too old for the vaccination by the time it became available and I'm only 34.

That is precisely my point, the vaccine has not been around long enough to qualify as having been thoroughly tested. Since there is no definitive answer as to what the effect of vaccination will be 20 years from now, everyone must make their own choice based on their knowledge and experience. For you, your past experiences lead you to the conclusion that the unknown risks are far outweighed by the known, so your choice is obvious, but emotionally driven... that doesn't mean it's wrong, just that you are factoring different criteria than I, and until there is empirical data to fill in the blanks everyone must use their own best judgement, which should be tempered by the knowledge that they may be trading one demon for another as they tread blindly through the dark.

What if, for example, all the girls being vaccinated have no side effects, ever, but their children are born sterile? Is that better than the relatively small group that would be terminally affected by cancer? Remember, we are talking potentially about half of our population being affected. If you sterilize the children of all the women born after 2009 the human race will become extinct before the start of the next century. I don't believe this is likely, but they don't know it isn't probable either.

I don't know the answer, my point is that no one does and we all need to be aware that though their language is overflowing with words of surety and confidence meant to lull the public into thinking they do have all the answers, the doctor's and pharma companies that are making money selling the vaccine don't really know any better than we do because they haven't had enough time to do the necessary research.

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#26
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Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/06/2009 7:01 PM

Vaccines have been around for about 200 years now. Can you give an example of any which have shown the kind of long-term negative effects you're suggesting?

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#27
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Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/06/2009 7:57 PM

Absence of proof is not proof of absence.

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#31
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Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/07/2009 6:57 PM

"Absence of proof is not proof of absence."

So you're talking belief? What about probability?

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#35
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Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/07/2009 7:43 PM

I am talking about probabilties... specifically about our lack of knowledge regarding the variables that impact those probabilities. If X=3v/P where P= the test population and v = a number between 0 and infinity what is X please? You can't give me a straight answer because the unknown is just that. unknown. We don't know. We don't even have a range of values so we can approximate. We are asked to believe that men of science have never blown smoke up our collective a$$es and couldn't have been mistaken in this instance because they used probability to tell us so in spite of the fact that we KNOW they haven't done the research. Yes, past experience has told us that the probability of unacceptable side effects is extremely low, but that's math, not reality and low is not synonymous with non-existent; never has been... no matter how extreme. What's worse is that it is math based on PROBABILITIES and not LAWS and while math is a handy tool to describe things that happen in reality it is not a flawless predictor of future outcomes, if it were none of us would worry about cancer, math would tell us whether or not we're gonna be the one to get it and we would know the facts about our actual risks, not the probabilities.

All I'm trying to say is that there is insufficient empirical evidence. I'm not trying to say that vaccination is evil, it may well be the greatest advance our species has ever achieved, probably not, but for a great many women it will certainly have some sort of significant impact; let's pray it is the overwhelmingly positive outcome we expect. We don't know, and anyone who is going to take their child in to get vaccinated needs to involve their child in the decision because it is going to affect the CHILD'S life, not the PARENT'S.

All that said, I do consider myself a man of science and technology... way out on the fringe, but still in there. I believe that science and technology will save humanity and propel us throughout the universe, if we manage to remember how much we don't really know in the process of getting there..

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#29
In reply to #25

Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/07/2009 8:36 AM

Riddle me this...

What if your daughter gets cervical cancer and blames you for NOT letting her get the vaccine?

That's a factor to consider as well.

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#30
In reply to #29

Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/07/2009 5:00 PM

Riddle me this... read my original post. Not just the words you didn't like but ALL of what I said.

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#32
In reply to #30

Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/07/2009 7:13 PM

I think you make an excellent point in your previous post. Are the unknown consequence of the cure worse than the disease? Watch the movie 'I Am Legend' for an example. Like your example, perhaps it's an extreme, but should be a reminder to not to mandate or mislead the public about a potential treatment (making it sound better and/or safer than it has been proven to be) that's not been thoroughly tested (long term as well as short).

I have similar concerns regarding H1N1 vaccinations.

Taken from http://www.personalliberty.com/conservative-politics/the-great-swine-flu-boondoggle/ In 1976 fear of a swine flu epidemic prompted congress to grant immunity to drug companies regarding development of a vaccine. By Oct 11 '76 40 million people were vaccinated. Soon after receiving their shots 3 senior citizen died. In the ensuing days more seniors died and many otherwise healthy people began suffering debilitating neuromuscular problems and paralysis which later was diagnosed as Guillan-Barré syndrome. The Swine flu immunization was the common factor in the cases. Drug companies that manufactured the vaccines made millions yet suffered no liability for the consequences of their untested vaccine. It turned out in 1976 that the cure was more deadly than the disease.

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#33
In reply to #32

Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/07/2009 7:22 PM

40 million were vaccinated and how many died?

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#34
In reply to #33

Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/07/2009 7:43 PM

I was asking myself the same question when I read the article. From the article alone, I took it as one soldier from Ft. Dix died (January '76) initially starting the fear of an epidemic. Then in Aug of '76 two members of the American Legion died from respiratory illness after attending the Legion's conference in Philadelphia. While after the vaccination 3 seniors died initially and more died later bringing the death related to the vaccination to more than 3 thus more than the initial supposed epidemic.

I'm looking around on the net to fact check the article as it's a little vague on those details.

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#37
In reply to #30

Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/10/2009 8:43 AM

I did. You didn't answer the question. Sometimes kids tell parents what they think the parent wants to hear and they lack the information necessary to make an informed decision.

I'm not saying your decision is wrong. I'm just recommending you think further ahead than what scares you now.

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#39
In reply to #37

Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/10/2009 2:19 PM

Strangely enough, that is exactly what I'm saying.

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#40
In reply to #39

Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/10/2009 2:26 PM

You took the long way around. Goats sometimes have short attention spans with things that are not food ;)

Sorry about the misunderstanding. No offence was intended.

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#41
In reply to #40

Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/10/2009 2:31 PM

None taken. Through misunderstanding greater clarity is achieved.

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#42
In reply to #40

Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/11/2009 4:45 AM

If that's a Mini

how big is a full sized goat

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#12

Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/03/2009 7:10 PM

Surely the any decision is dictated by the statistical risk (as perceived) and the potential consequences. Hence no one would play the lottery if on a 1:10M chance if the prize was a mere 100(€,$,£). By the same reasoning taking an action with possible fatal consequences requires that the odds are very long in the favour of that not happening.

As always though the key word is "perceived". The odds and the consequences we perceive are usually from some publicity generated as a function of profit, either from the pharmaceutical company or the news media looking for a scary story to sell their paper or improve their ratings.

Regards, Chas

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#38
In reply to #12

Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/10/2009 9:01 AM

So you're saying it depends upon your point of view.

Which is exactly correct. Someone with a different point of view from yours isn't cutting you down by disagreeing, they are simply disagreeing based on their point of view.

Gee, I wish everyone got that concept.

Mini Goat

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#19

Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/05/2009 2:15 PM

I read and read and read again and I still don't understand "But it didn't half make me think."

Only one-quarter thought? Less than that? What means that?

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#20
In reply to #19

Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/05/2009 5:24 PM

It's an english1 idiom, meaning "It made me think a lot".

1 or maybe just English - I don't know

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#24
In reply to #20

Re: Irrational fears & statistics

10/06/2009 5:23 PM

idiom is good, but I like colloquialism better... because it has more letters and ends in 'ism'

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