Monday, 14 December 2015

Idiocy labelled science

I do like something irritating to wake my brain up on a Monday morning, and today the best newspaper in the UK (genuinely), the i, managed to do this with a double whammy.

They ran a story in which the only 'news' was that an astronaut's dad had said something stupid, and then had the nerve to label the story 'science'.

The entire basis for the story was a comment from the father of British astronaut-to-be, Tim Peake. His father, Nigel, is quoted as saying 'I'm more worried about him driving home on the M27. That's far more dangerous, believe me, than going up there.'

So, in what sense is this news or science? The only vaguely scientific thing in the story was the extreme misuse of statistics, which we'll examine in a moment, and though I'd rather we had astronauts in the news than X-Factor winners (I'm pleased to say that I neither know nor care who won), I really have very little interest in Nigel. I'm sorry Nigel, but I don't.

How about those stats, then? Is a trip on the M27 far more dangerous than riding a space rocket? You might not be shocked to discover that the answer is 'No, it isn't.' After a lot of fibbing over the years, NASA had to admit that the risk of dying on any particular space flight is about 1 in 100. How does this compare with the M27? I don't have specific stats, but lets look at the nationwide figures*. These put the chance of dying on any particular car journey as less likely than 1 in 23 million.

I know which is more dangerous, believe me, and it's not the M27.

* Statistical honesty: the figure I give for chance of dying on a road journey is wrong, but it is likely to be too high a risk, rather than too low. Two figures I used were dubious. I based my number on the UK road deaths figures, which includes pedestrians and cyclists, neither of whom are relevant here. Also, in the five minutes I was prepared to dedicate to researching the data, I could only find UK figures for vehicle miles, not vehicle journeys. I divided this by the average journey length (just 7 miles - get on your bikes!), but this would not produce an accurate figure for vehicle journeys. However, it's close enough for the purposes.

2 comments:

  1. IMHO there is no way of giving a statistic for astronaut deaths because to combine space travel journeys as if they are identical is erroneous. Maybe you could say that journeys on the same kind of launcher on the same kind of journey could yield some kind of statistic after a few decades, until then the variance would be only a guess and a wild one at that. Having said that the chances of dying of a single trip on the M27 are clearly minimal, a huge number of people are using the motorway everyday, is there a death every day? No. Etc. Etc. A silly comment and really a comment from the heart, it says more about humans manage their risk evaluation than it does about any risk. If I only jump off a cliff once, then a 1 in 1000 might not seem too bad, if I jump off my horse every day then even if the risk statistically is lower it feels higher!

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    1. Statistics are just as valid for astronaut deaths as for any other form of death - they still give a feel for risk. Order of magnitude useful.

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