Friday, October 31, 2008

The Danger of Lying in Bed

I was listening to Mark Twain's satirical essay, The Danger of Lying in Bed the other day.

You can read it at The Complete Works of Mark Twain, or listen to it at Librivox.

This is how it begins:

The man in the ticket-office said:

"Have an accident insurance ticket, also?"

"No," I said, after studying the matter over a little. "No, I
believe not; I am going to be traveling by rail all day today.
However, tomorrow I don't travel. Give me one for tomorrow."

The man looked puzzled. He said:

"But it is for accident insurance, and if you are going to travel
by rail--"

"If I am going to travel by rail I sha'n't need it. Lying at home
in bed is the thing _I_ am afraid of."

From there, the speaker goes on to explain mathematically the number of deaths due to train accidents is insignificant next the number of deaths that occur while lying in bed (for any number of reasons). The satire is great. Which means that, to a degree, the criticism has grounds. We, as humans, do tend to become fascinated beyond reason with preventing a certain minority of misfortunes. One could object that we care how we die as well as if we die. One could also say that, pragmatically speaking, some deaths are more preventable than others, so strictly comparing numbers is naive. These points are well taken, but our instincts are so strong in the other direction, I wish we consulted the numerical severity of the problem more often. A quick check of the numbers before spending tons of time and money would be lovely.

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