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Jack Smith

It's a risky business for people who worry about the wrong things in life

September 05, 1985|JACK SMITH

As Prof. H. W. Lewis pointed out in the Opinion section the other day, we all worry about the wrong things.

Lewis, a professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was writing about risk as understood by statisticians.

This has been a very bad period for aviation; several hundred people have been killed within a few months in plane crashes; but, as Prof. Lewis points out, if you fly more than 100,000 miles a year, your chances of getting killed are about one in 10,000 in any year.

Meanwhile, close to 150 people die in this country every day in automobile accidents, and nearly 1,000 die as a direct result of smoking.

Considering the true risks, then, we ought to be more worried about smoking and driving than about flying. But that isn't the way we are. We don't worry about what we think we can control. We are all good drivers, so our chances of having a fatal accident are small.

But we are afraid of the unknown. We are afraid of ghosts, we are afraid of invaders from other planets, we are afraid of being murdered in our beds. We are afraid of contracting AIDS, though we are more likely to eat and drink ourselves to death.

The recent citywide paranoia over the specter of the Night Stalker is a good example of our fear of the improbable. I'm not a mathematician, like Prof. Lewis, but I'll make a guess that the odds against being assaulted and murdered by the Night Stalker, for any one Los Angeles resident, were about 5 million to one.

Yet almost everyone I know was locking all his windows at night and some were getting out old guns to have at the ready. That there wasn't an epidemic of domestic shootings was a miracle.

People who convinced themselves that the Night Stalker was going to get them are the same people who buy lottery tickets, expecting to win $15 million. Of course what keeps their fears and hopes alive is the fact that people are murdered by Night Stalkers, and people do win $15 million.

All of us who live in Southern California are potential earthquake victims. The Big One is coming, they keep telling us, and deep down we know they must be right. Yet we stay here, not very much worried.

On the other hand, our relatives on the East Coast, who worry about being killed in an earthquake even when they come out here for a short visit, think nothing of living in a climate where they are subjected to blizzards and hurricanes, and are likely to be frozen to death some morning when they go out for the paper.

One night in 1941, when I was working on the night news desk of the Honolulu Advertiser, a subscriber called the desk in a panic. She had just heard, she said, that the Hawaiian Islands were geologically vulnerable to earthquakes.

"What will I do," she whinnied, "if we have one?"

I tried to reassure her that the chances of a devastating earthquake in Hawaii were very small; and that if she wanted to avoid dying in an earthquake she ought to move to the East Coast and be frozen to death some morning when she went out to get her paper.

I thought of that woman a few weeks later when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Like most of us, she had been worried about the wrong thing.

Many parents worry that their children are going to be kidnaped, raped and murdered. I'm sure that many more children die in domestic accidents than are murdered. Many children whose parents were afraid of the Night Stalker will die in accidents in the home or in the streets.

My daughter-in-law is terrorized by my driving. She is sure I am going to kill or maim her. When I drive her anyplace she keeps up a running commentary on my near-misses.

"My God, Mr. Smith! You didn't see that man?"

It does no good to point out to my daughter-in-law that I have never had a serious accident in my life; that I have been driving my wife around for 45 years without getting her so much as a scratch; and if my daughter-in-law cared to think about it, she herself has had two or three accidents since my last one.

Prof. Lewis points out that most people can't analyze risk because they can't figure the probabilities. They don't have enough math; and that incapacity is becoming more commonplace, because children aren't being taught any math. "Only gamblers," he said, "retain any notion of what a probability is."

But we do take risks. As he points out, men make love, knowing that men sometimes die of heart attacks while making love; and men don't make love, knowing that married men live longer than unmarried men. (A statistic of doubtful use, that one.)

To live is to risk. Why do we drive down to our house in Baja, knowing that we might be waylaid by highway robbers, or bitten by a rattlesnake? Why do we sail a small boat to Catalina Island, knowing we might capsize and drown. Why do we have children, knowing they might grow up illiterate, or be kidnaped and murdered?

And why do we draw to inside straights, knowing the odds against filling one are 11 to one?

Because it's so much fun when we luck out.

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