The title is, of course, an ancient joke from the vaudeville circuit. It’s an appropriate way to praise, rather than attack, one particular article – and in the process to attack ten thousand others. Here is the lede from “Show Me the Risk!” by Deroy Murdock in NRO (National Review Online) on 19 October 2005:
“According to The Archives of Internal Medicine, pharmaceutical companies market a drug that kills some 7,000 Americans annually. These people don’t die instantly, but instead expire after slowly suffering gastrointestinal bleeding. Oddly enough, TV-news producers are ho-hum about this deadly medicine. The Food and Drug Administration has yet to prohibit it. Personal-injury attorneys aim their crosshairs elsewhere. No one seems much concerned about a lethal substance called aspirin.”
Murdock’s article goes on to discuss a number of examples of the low death risk (comparable to the aspirin risk) from other drugs which have been withdrawn from, or driven from, the market. His article should be required reading for all reporters who write stories about deaths from preventable causes. Which is to say that ALL American reporters should be strapped to a chair and compelled to read this article, before being allowed in public again with a pad and pencil.
The broader subject of this article is “comparative risk.” As the great Professor Aaron Wildavsky taught me and many others, “All public policy should be based on an assessment of comparative risk.”
This concept demonstrates the fundamental error in the reporting on any situation, drug, disaster, war, whatever, that costs human lives. Such reporting is always defective if it does not put those deaths in context. And, that context as Mr. Murdock and Professor Wildavsky patiently point out, is this: How many other deaths are prevented, and at what cost, by the very process whose death rate is under attack?
The clearest possible demonstration of this failing in the press is the reporting on deaths caused to young children and small adults by the use of auto seat belts. People below a certain size should not use a standard seatbelt. If they do, some will die. But those highly preventable deaths will not hold a candle to the lives saved by the general use of seatbelts.
Any reporter or editor who reads this article and wants an excellent introduction to “risk assessment” can follow the reading of Murdock’s article with Wildavsky’s “Riskless Society.”
The qualify of reporting, and the public’s understanding of public issues, would be vastly improved if every reporter and every editor, before filing/publishing any article on human deaths and injuries, would lean back in his/her chair and ask this question, “Compared to what?”