William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

How Many Deaths Does Reading @Voxdotcom Cause?

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Bernd Felsche ?sends the breaking Vox news story “How many deaths did Volkswagen’s pollution scandal cause? A back-of-the-envelope estimate.” This article may represent the triumph of “explanatory” journalism.

Volkswagen was busted rigging their government-mandated pollution control systems so that they only functioned during official tests. Which is darn clever, if you ask me. (And if you’re reading this, you are asking me.) A brouhaha erupted. The lesson learned was not that government regulations are unrealistic, unnecessarily burdensome, and expensive. No. It was that What about the children!

So Vox set about stating how many deaths Volkswagen is causing. Caused deaths. Deaths caused. Isn’t the legal term for this homicide? In effect, Vox says Volkswagen committed homicide. That is what causing deaths of human beings is. Homicide.

In the same spirit, and using numerical and statistical techniques just as valid as Vox’s, here are my as-accurate estimates on the number of deaths reading Vox causes.

Now when I read the Vox article, beside intellectual disgust, I had two visceral reactions: an upset stomach and a tightening across the chest, which is to say, nausea and angina. Oh, and my eyes bulged. The cumulative effect is colloquially known as acute stress. I would not have suffered these maladies had I not read Vox. Vox caused these symptoms. These maladies are known to cause deaths. Using the same reasoning as Vox itself, we conclude that reading Vox can cause death.

How many? That’s where the back of the envelope comes in.

According to the peer-reviewed paper “Emotional stress as a trigger in sudden cardiac death” in the journal Psychiatria Danubina (this is long, but pay attention):

The influence of anxiety and depression on cardiovascular disease is well-known in terms of chronic cardiovascular and ischemic states…the impact of emotional factors in acute cardiac events is not estimated enough. From the clinician’s point of view, there are an increasing awareness concerning external circumstances and external triggering in sudden cardiac death…A number of external, i.e. exogenous factors in everyday life can be implicated in triggering such events…emotional stress seems to be among the most often triggers of sudden event…Acute emotional arousal can trigger life-threatening arrhythmias and the mechanisms of that risk have been recognized. Acute episode of emotional distress (and notably anger-like stress) may trigger ventricular ectopic beats and tachycardia, as well as acute myocardial infarction…Sudden death without antecedent angina, suggesting cardiac arrhythmia, as well as deaths preceded by chest pain, suggesting coronary occlusion were observed in many studies that have led to estimates that between 20 and 40 percent of sudden cardiac deaths are precipitated by acute emotional stressors.

To repeat and emphasize “between 20 and 40 percent of sudden cardiac deaths are precipitated by acute emotional stressors.” The peer-reviewed paper “Sudden Cardiac Death” in the leading journal Circulation there are between 300,000 to 400,000 sudden cardiac deaths annually in the once United States.

These official scientific peer-reviewed numbers imply that between 60,000 and 160,000 sudden cardiac deaths are caused by the exact kind of acute emotional stressors developed from intelligent, scientifically literate people like Yours Truly reading Vox.

Non-intelligent, scientifically illiterate people reading Vox won’t, of course, experience stress or other signs of distress encountered by their superiors when confronted with the preposterous. The less gifted surely comprise the majority of the Vox audience, and are thus in no danger.

According to Vox’s own statistics, they had 155 million views last December, a number which is growing. Let’s say—back-of-the-envelope-wise—that most users read 10 articles a month, which gives about 16 million readers. And then suppose about 1% of these readers are hapless scientifically literate individuals like myself, tricked onto their site to investigate an asinine story, like about Volkswagen killing people.

That makes 160,000 potential victims of Vox. How many of these are actually wiped out via sudden cardiac death caused by Vox inducing acute emotional stress? Here we have to guess. I read the Vox article and was acutely stressed and did not die, but then I have become inured to lousy thinking because of my many years in climatology.

So suppose 1-10% of the 160,000 per month are acutely stressed from reading a Vox article. That’s 1,600 to 16,000. Multiply by 12 for yearly amounts: so 19,200 to 192,000. And then suppose that 1 to 10 out of every 10,000 are caused because of this stress to suffer an sudden cardiac arrest and die.

Given all these sciency assumptions, Vox is killing between 2 and 192 people a year.

As the Vox writer said, “this is a back-of-the-envelope exercise, not a peer-reviewed scientific analysis.” That means you can’t hold me responsible for casting any aspersions.

22 Comments

  1. Why is the calculation always done on the back of an envelope? Why not a napkin?

  2. “…but then I am have become inured to lousy thinking because of my many years in climatology. ”

    Is it your enemies or Vox-stress that caused the typo?

    “There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.” – Mark Twain

    An often repeated quotation, but I think appropriate here, although I nominate the word “journalism” be substituted for “science.”

  3. I think I’ve contracted second-hand acute stress from your recounting.

  4. 1) you forgot to calculate the social cost of non fatal cardiac arrests. After all, if healthcare is a socially funded right, then each time Vox publishes something like this, it costs you money.

    2) LOL cf: http://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2015/09/in_volkswagens_defense.html

  5. Ye Olde Statistician

    October 9, 2015 at 10:28 am

    Napkins are for engineers. Backs of envelopes are for scientists.

  6. Doctor! Put the lime in the coconut. Drink it all down! It will fix your aching stomach. Add a pinch of rum and it will help your head!

  7. “a back-of-the-envelope estimate”=we made this up entirely.

    When emissions are tested, are the actual emissions tested or is the on-board computer used. The reason I ask is I keep wondering how the car “knew” it was being tested versus just running down the road.

    Here’s another back-of-the-envelope estimate: 20 to 40 percent of sudden cardiac deaths are precipitated by acute emotional stressors (saber tooth tiger eats your child, etc). According to other research, poor diets and accidents result in a large percentage of deaths per year. Before modern medicine, death by childbirth was also very common. Diseases like polio, measles and small pox, plus the plague, killed millions. My back-of-the-envelope estimate says we cannot be having this conversation because we died out centuries ago before we could produce enough humans to survive the odds.

  8. Well, I became distressed just reading these reports about Vox, and I wasn’t even on their site. I think you need to start taking account of the deaths and disease caused by second-hand Vox.

  9. Sander van der Wal

    October 9, 2015 at 12:25 pm

    @Sheri

    Apparently real emissions are measured. The software manipulated the engine in such a way that when it thought the engine was being tested it emitted much less NOx. The engine also ran a lot less efficient that way, so for consumers it wasn’t all that bad. The software looked for characteristics like the engine running at constant RPM for a long time, which is impossible to do on the road.

  10. Sander van der Wal: Thank you for the information. Makes sense that the software looked for things that don’t occur in normal driving.

  11. “Which is darn clever, if you ask me.”

    That was exactly my reaction on first hearing the news.

    SvdW, confirms it. Darn clever.

  12. The IRS excuse is coming to the fore. It was all caused by a few rogue engineers using napkins for their clandestine calculations. If that doesn’t work then it must have been a Stuxnet like virus inserted by the competition, maybe GM, to discredit Volkswagen.

  13. Speaking of stressful written information that intelligent, scientific people are subjected to, my acetaminophen bottle has a red label on the top telling me the product contains acetaminophen. The peanut butter says it contains peanuts. How many premature deaths occur due to banging one’s head on the wall in utter disbelief?

  14. “The peanut butter says it contains peanuts.”

    Maybe what it should say is that it does not contain butter. 😉

  15. I seem to recall from a year or two ago … may even have been about VW … they had a car that had twice the mileage rating as an “average” car … but it couldn’t pass its emission test … but when you considered the mileage in the equation, its emissions over its drive would be substantially less than the “average” car … was this VW trying to level the playing field? Isn’t leveling the field what it’s all about?

  16. Paul Murphy:

    I read the link, I believe I’m correct, this was the case.

    At the time that I’d read it (I THINK WUWT) they were complaining that this great environmentally friendly car was NOT available in the US because of the myopic – one test fits all – EPA. You’re link confirms my recall.

  17. “So Vox set about stating how many deaths Volkswagen is causing.”
    Everyone knows that automobile violence causes thousands of deaths a year. We just need some sensible automobile laws like registration, licensing, locks, owner background checks and owner training to prevent this carnage. Automobiles should also be limited to 5 gallon gasoline tanks.

  18. James Parliament

    October 9, 2015 at 5:56 pm

    Very satisfying rejoinder.

    Briggs will never get the credit he’s due, which is one of many knocks against modern thinking.

  19. Ray,

    You forgot to mention that gasoline and car should be stored separately especially when there are children around. Gotta think about them kids.

  20. “Apparently real emissions are measured. The software manipulated the engine in such a way that when it thought the engine was being tested it emitted much less NOx.”

    If that is true, then surely the vehicles actually met (and still do) all applicable laws – under the specified conditions, it emitted less than the statutary cap, viola, pass. QED.
    It may not meet the intention of the law, but it certainly meets the letter of the law, which, while perhaps regrettable, is certainly no fault of the manufacturer, is it? Nor should such tactics be in any way unexpected.

  21. Heh makes me think of the, “Radiation deaths,” from nuclear power.

    Yup, calculated at 1 death caused, as a direct result of nuclear waste from a 1950’s era nuclear plant over the course of it’s entire operating lifetime, every 50 million years!

    Oh the humanity!

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