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.