Death, Numbers, and Risk

Here are some numbers that many people don't know, or don't want to think about:

There are approximately 6.9 billion people in the world. On average,

  • about 55 million people die each year,
  • about 1.05 million people die each week,
  • about 151,000 people die each day,
  • about 6280 people die each hour, and
  • about 105 people die each minute.

Source: Wolfram Alpha

There are approximately 309 million people in the US. On average,

  • about 2.5 million people die in the US each year,
  • about 48,000 people die in the US die each week,
  • about 6860 people die in the US each day,
  • about 286 people die in the US each hour, and
  • more than 4 people die in the US each minute

Source: Wolfram Alpha

In round numbers, that's over 150,000 people dying every day, and almost 7,000 people dying in the US every day.

Many of these deaths are those of elderly people passing away in their sleep. Many are unmourned. But many are tragedies in the sense that a person has died too young, and grieving people are left behind.

So, when the news presents reports of people dying, ask yourself: Why is the news reporting these deaths, and not the 150,000 other deaths that happened today around the world, or the 7,000 other deaths that happened today in the US?

Is it because the reported deaths are more important than all the others, or is it because somebody found a way to make dramatic stories out of these particular deaths? Are the reported deaths indicative of larger patterns or important trends, or are they interesting because they happened in a public place and there is video available from several angles?

In fact, your chance of being killed by a terrorist or a mass shooter or an airplane crash or flesh-eating bacteria or a meteor or anything else reported by the media is almost equal to zero. These events are reported on the evening news because they are so rare.

So be careful about letting what you see on the news control your fears.

It is silly to worry about terrorists and mass shooters if you smoke cigarettes, eat a lot of fast food, or use your mobile phone while driving. The latter activities could kill you; the former just don't happen often enough for any reasonable person to worry about them.

You might want to turn your home into an armed fortress to protect your family from dangerous people. Before you do that, you should ensure that your family is eating healthy meals, getting lots of exercise, and getting regular medical checkups. You are more likely to save somebody's life by learning CPR and First Aid techniques than by learning martial arts or small-arms tactics. Make sure all the smoke detectors have fresh batteries before you worry about installing a high-tech security system.

When someone asks you to pray for the victims of some tragic event, ask why you should pray just for them, and not for the one million people who died in other ways that week, or for the million that died the previous week, or for the million who will die the following week.

When somebody tells you that thousands of people are killed every year by some disease or government policy or widespread moral failing, and insists that drastic measures are justified to prevent those deaths, think about the 2.5 million Americans who die of other causes every year. If someone claims that a new law or policy is worthwhile "even if it saves only one child", consider whether resources might be better devoted to policies that save hundreds, thousands, or millions of children instead of just one.

I'm not suggesting that we do nothing to try to prevent deaths, or that we should not care when strangers die. If you can save one person's life, you have done more good than most people will ever do. I'm just suggesting that you remember the bigger picture.

With billions of people in the world, it will always be easy to find instances of evil people doing horrible things, and of innocent people dying in tragic circumstances. But remember, while around 150,000 people die every day, a larger number are born, and billions of people just go on living.

Your chances of making it through the day are pretty good.