A friend emailed me yesterday with a link to some observations by Jared Diamond that, he said, made him think of me:
The other morning, I escaped unscathed from a dangerous situation. No, an armed robber didn't break into my house, nor did I find myself face to face with a mountain lion during my bird walk. What I survived was my daily shower.
You see, falls are a common cause of death in older people like me. (I'm 75.) Among my wife's and my circle of close friends over the age of 70, one became crippled for life, one broke a shoulder and one broke a leg in falls on the sidewalk. One fell down the stairs, and another may not survive a recent fall.
"Really!" you may object. "What's my risk of falling in the shower? One in a thousand?" My answer: Perhaps, but that's not nearly good enough.
Life expectancy for a healthy American man of my age is about 90. (That's not to be confused with American male life expectancy at birth, only about 78.) If I'm to achieve my statistical quota of 15 more years of life, that means about 15 times 365, or 5,475, more showers. But if I were so careless that my risk of slipping in the shower each time were as high as 1 in 1,000, I'd die or become crippled about five times before reaching my life expectancy. I have to reduce my risk of shower accidents to much, much less than 1 in 5,475.
This calculation illustrates the biggest single lesson that I've learned from 50 years of field work on the island of New Guinea: the importance of being attentive to hazards that carry a low risk each time but are encountered frequently.
It wasn't the stuff about showering that reminded my friend of me. I do sometimes take a shower, but mostly I prefer to bath - though not, it should be said, in order to minimize risk. No, it's because of my more general caution. But I've not yet started calculating the chances of accidental injury from day-to-day activities. Jared Diamond is evidently even more cautious than I am. (Thanks: IH.)