The tragedy of low probability events

We live in an age of fear and yet life (in the US at least) is the safest it has ever been. Megan McArdle blames coddling parents and the media in a Washington Post column. She argues that cars and swimming pools are much more dangerous than school shootings and kidnappings yet we mostly ignore the former and obsess about the latter. However, to me dying from an improbable event is just so much more tragic than dying from an expected one. I would be much less despondent meeting St. Peter at the Pearly Gates if I happened to expire from cancer or heart disease than if I were to be hit by an asteroid while weeding my garden. We are so scared now because we have never been safer. We would fear terrorist attacks less if they were more frequent. This is the reason that I would never want a major increase in lifespan. I most certainly would like to last long enough to see my children become independent but anything beyond that is bonus time. Nothing could be worse to me than immortality. The pain of any tragedy would be unbearable. Life would consist of an endless accumulation of sad memories. The way out is to forget but that to me is no different from death. What would be the point of living forever if you were to erase much of it. What would a life be if you forgot the people and things that you loved? To me that is no life at all.

3 thoughts on “The tragedy of low probability events

  1. I don’t think getting hit by an asteroid is so sad, and I think I’d be happier to go out like that than by cancer. But that may just be the “coolness factor” of asteroids.

    For me, the relevant predictor of tragedy is preventability. Specifically, I am more saddened by a hypothetical death if I imagine it to have been preventable by my own actions, and more angered if I imagine it to have been preventable by the actions of others. I don’t think rarity plays much of a factor.

    Be sure to blog on this when you can:


  2. @rgerkin Hi Rick, Sure, preventable is certainly tragic like dying in a fire when the building was not to code, but preventable often overlaps with low probability. The asteroid example was a way to make the topic less dark. What I was really thinking of was the Iowa State golf star who was killed on a golf course by a lunatic. That is very tragic, low probability, and not really preventable.

    PS I was thinking about blogging about the paper. Spoiler alert: Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.


  3. You are right that we might fear terrorrist attacks less if they were more frequent. I remember the first time my husband came with me to Lebanon we had a lot of political assassinations going on. One day we were at a pub we heard a bomb go off. For about five minutes the music stopped, people were on their phones making sure their families are ok, then everything went back to normal. Is it because Lebanese are more tough and less coddled by their parents? Of course not. People simply adapt to situations that they feel helpless to change. This is why we are less afraid of (or at least not talk much about) car accidents. We don’t really have much choice. What are we supposed to do? Go walking everywhere?

    Similarly, because humans are very good at adapting, the problem with immortality might not really be the endless accumulation of sad memories. People in their 60’s and 70’s tend to be happier than middle age people despite the burden of sad memories.


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