Journal: News & Comment

Wednesday, March 10, 2004
# 9:31:00 PM:

Badder brains

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Let's return to how our instincts understand probability and statistics poorly. Instead of web design, we'll talk about life and death (via Mark Pilgrim) with the late Dr. Stephen Jay Gould.

In 1982, he was diagnosed with a rare and usually fatal form of cancer:

I asked my first question of my doctor and chemotherapist: "What is the best technical literature about mesothelioma?" She replied, with a touch of diplomacy [...], that the medical literature contained nothing really worth reading. [...]

The literature couldn't have been more brutally clear: mesothelioma is incurable, with a median mortality of only eight months after discovery.

But Gould understood statistics from his work as an evolutionary biologist, and so:

When I learned about the eight-month median, my first intellectual reaction was: fine, half the people will live longer; now what are my chances of being in that half. I read for a furious and nervous hour and concluded, with relief: damned good.

He lived for 20 years, and though he died young, at 60, it was from a different and unrelated form of cancer. An average is indeed an average, and almost no one is the average.


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