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A Little Knowledge Can Be a Dangerous Thing

The Angel of Humorous Birthday - a Flickr Photo by ca_newsomOn discussing inferential statistics, John Allen Paulos (in his book Innumeracy) gives us the example of when Phillip Kunz, a sociologist from Brigham Young University in Utah, decided to check a ‘random’ sample of 747 Salt Lake City obituaries in one year, cross-referencing the decedent’s dates of death with their birthdays.

The expected result, of course, is that there would be an even spread of deaths and birthdays throughout the year with no real correlation between them: 25% of the deceased dying within 3 months of their last birthday.

Surprisingly, however, the results showed that 46% of of those surveyed died within a three month period following their birthday. Furthermore, more than 3 out of every 4 deaths occurred within the half-year following their birthday, with a measly 8% passing away during the three month period prior to another birthday. In Innumeracy, Paulos goes on to show us that the probability of theorising that 46 or more percent would die within this time period can be computed to be so tiny it may as well be considered zero.

Thus we are shown that a person’s mental state plays a large part in their death, and that the desire for (or shock of) a final cultural milestone may be all that’s keeping many aged from their death.

Why am I worrying writing about this now? This Sunday sees me visiting my grandfather (and final grandparent) in hospital on his 89th birthday; after reading that, wouldn’t you be thinking the worst for the coming months? I’ve had my fair share of grievances over the past 6 months, I don’t particularly want more.