The Norm Chronicles: Stories and Numbers About Danger and Death

The Norm Chronicles: Stories and Numbers About Danger and Death

by Michael Blastland, David Spiegelhalter
     
 

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Is it safer to fly or take the train? How dangerous is skydiving? And is eating that extra sausage going to kill you? We’ve all heard the statistics for risky activities, but what do they mean in the real world? In The Norm Chronicles, journalist Michael Blastland and risk expert David Spiegelhalter explore these questions through the stories of

Overview

Is it safer to fly or take the train? How dangerous is skydiving? And is eating that extra sausage going to kill you? We’ve all heard the statistics for risky activities, but what do they mean in the real world? In The Norm Chronicles, journalist Michael Blastland and risk expert David Spiegelhalter explore these questions through the stories of average Norm and an ingenious measurement called the MicroMort—a one in a million chance of dying. They reveal why general anesthesia is as dangerous as a parachute jump, giving birth in the US is nearly twice as risky as in the UK, and that the radiation from eating a banana shaves 3 seconds off your life. An entertaining guide to the statistics of personal risk, The Norm Chronicles will enlighten anyone who has ever worried about the dangers we encounter in our daily lives.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Abigail Zuger
If the British comedy troupe Monty Python had been commissioned to produce a self-help book, they might have come up with something along the lines of The Norm Chronicles, a cheerfully subversive variation on the genre. The authors contemplate not inner peace but outer woe with an encyclopedic guide to life's risks…despite the hyperkinetic comedy, the overall intent is perfectly serious. The authors…write to a familiar but always intriguing bottom line: Any risk can be described with a number, but the numbers themselves don't mean very much. Rather, it is the individual's emotion-ridden perception of the numbers that counts…Chapter by chapter…[The Norm Chronicles] does an energetic and laudable job of stretching the mind.
Publishers Weekly
06/23/2014
Journalist Blastland (The Tiger That Isn't) and University of Cambridge risk expert Spiegelhalter examine the probabilities involved in surviving a day. Predictably this includes a plethora of statistics, but the stats are leavened by stories featuring Norm, the archetypical average guy, as well as cautious Prudence and the risk-taking Kevlin brothers. Drawing on media and government documents, the authors concoct a few measurements to help assess risk: the MicroMort, "a one-in-a-million chance of something horribly and fatally dramatic happening," and the MicroLife, one millionth of an adult life or approximately half an hour. Amidst the numbers and stories on topics as diverse as infant mortality, travel, extreme sports, and crime, the authors examine just how all of this affects non-theoretical humans. In the crime chapter they warn that "the plural of ‘anecdote' is not ‘data'... and the corollary of ‘vivid' or ‘lurid' is not ‘likely.'" From the beginning of the book, the authors acknowledge that "numbers may matter less to us than feelings," while they conclude by asserting that "probability intuitively difficult and confusing." The whole is seasoned with a dash of humor to create a work that should satisfy anyone curious about just how and when this mortal coil might be shuffled off. (June)
From the Publisher
“You can read this stuff in a prosecutorial tone of voice, if you like, as many writers on perception of risk have: Look how irrational and wrong everyone is! But the authors take a different tack—a better one. They argue ably that mathematical computations should be a buttress to our judgment but concede that computations will never, and should never, replace our judgment entirely. Of their risk-buffeted characters, they conclude: ‘We don't know how to use data to tell them how to live.’ If they don't, no one does.”
The Wall Street Journal

“A cheerfully subversive variation on the genre. Chapter by chapter … [The Norm Chronicles] does an energetic and laudable job of stretching the mind.”
The New York Times

“They teach us how math helps us sensibly assess and manage risk. Just remember: You can crunch the numbers as much as you like, but when it comes down to any given individual, chance always plays a part.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Amidst the numbers and stories on topics as diverse as infant mortality, travel, extreme sports, and crime, the authors examine just how all of this affects non-theoretical humans….The whole is seasoned with a dash of humor to create a work that should satisfy anyone curious about just how and when this mortal coil might be shuffled off.”
Publishers Weekly

“Tackling a factor in matters ranging from personal choices to public policy, this book’s British authors — a journalist and a Cambridge statistician, respectively — make risk easy to understand without omitting its mathematical basis.”
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

“[The Norm Chronicles] is a truly engaging and attention-grabbing narrative that guides the reader through a multitude of helpful and/or curious statistics.”
Metapsychology

“General readers will appreciate this engaging exploration of statistics and their relevance to daily life.”
Library Journal

“Commendable for its wide compilation of facts and figures—but perhaps even more so for the authors’ deep sense of uncertainties around data, statistics, and evidence.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Blastland & Spiegelhalter achieve the amusing feat of bringing mortality data back from the dead. Reading this book will, in all probability, add years to your life.”
—Kaiser Fung, author of Numbers Rule Your World and Number Sense

“We have a really tough time understanding absolute, individualized risk—until now. The Norm Chronicles provides a long overdue, systematic, and entertaining dissection of life’s risks.”
—Eric Topol, M.D., author of The Creative Destruction of Medicine

“In the same manner that the bumblebee disproved the calculations of an earlier time’s aerodynamics, so Blastland and Spiegelhalter refute a central tenet of today’s science of risk communication: that the meaning of numbers defies the narrative currency of everyday reasoning. Engaging, enlightening stories of probability, they demonstrate, are the most reliable means for transmitting empirical knowledge of the dangers we face and how to abate them.”
—Dan Kahan, Professor of Law and Psychology, Yale Law School

“Blastland and Spiegelhalter’s The Norm Chronicles is irreverent, poignant, insightful, and just about the best book about risk I’ve ever read. It’s also a paradox—a book about numbers and probabilities that’ll keep you hooked to the last page. That shouldn’t be possible. Using master story telling and a large dose of humanity, Blastland and Spiegelhalter transform the statistics of danger and death into a celebration of life. It’s a rare feat, but one that’s as compelling as it is important. This book is essential reading to anyone who has ever faced the possibility of something going wrong, and thought ‘what the …?!’ Buy it!”
—Andrew Maynard, director, University of Michigan Risk Science Center

“Numbers matter, especially in the face of risk. This book is a powerful remedy for a deadly affliction—innumeracy.”
—Paul Slovic, president of Decision Research, and author of The Feeling of Risk

“This engaging, entertaining book clarifies the complicated subject of risk, even as it manages to revel in the complexity. It clears the topic up without dumbing it down. What are the chances?”
—Joel Best, author of Damned Lies and Statistics

“Accessible yet deep, The Norm Chronicles explains how statistical regularities and irregularities are central to every aspect of our lives. If Jonathan Coe and Gerd Gigerenzer were to collaborate on a sardonic self-help book, this is what it might look like.”
—Andrew Gelman, Professor of Statistics and Political Science, Columbia University

The Norm Chronicles is a superb, fun book about numbers in everyday life.”
—Tim Harford, author of The Undercover Economist

Library Journal
06/01/2014
Journalist Blastland (The Numbers Game) and Spiegelhalter (statistics, Univ. of Cambridge) combine statistics and narrative to provide an absorbing discussion of personal risk. The authors consider a wide range of dangers people face over the course of their lives, including those associated with infant disease, abduction, childbirth, drug addiction, gambling, radiation, crime, surgery, transportation, and asteroid strikes. In the process, they correct misconceptions about the statistics used in current debates, such as the controversy over child vaccination. Blastland and Spiegelhalter consider not just the statistics but also people's reactions to them—their feelings and perceptions, which constantly influence outcomes. To make these concepts less abstract, the authors have invented three characters: Norm (the average one), Prudence (who is cautious), and Kelvin (the risk-taker), each of whom features throughout the book in scenarios that provide both clarity and humor. Norm and company make this work more approachable and comprehensible, as does the MicroMort—a measurement expressing one-in-one-million chance of dying, which the authors use to compare a gamut of risks. VERDICT General readers will appreciate this engaging exploration of statistics and their relevance to daily life.—Talea Anderson, College Place, WA
Kirkus Reviews
2014-05-07
The authors examine risk both mathematically and emotionally, with sympathy for a public confounded by probability and rarely logical in judging odds.Blastland (co-author: The Tiger that Isn't: Seeing Through a World of Numbers, 2007) and Spiegelhalter (Mathematical Sciences/Univ. of Cambridge) emphasize that the notion of risk focuses thinking on a dreaded event at the expense of all the nonevents that happen, and this framing can induce fear, helplessness and recklessness. By way of illustration, they create three prototypes—the risk-averse Prudence, your average, reasonable guy Norm, and the daredevil brothers Kelvin, Kevlin and Kieren—starting chapters with scenarios on how the characters behave in fraught situations. With broad British humor and slang, the authors cover risks from childbirth, violence, accidents, sex, drugs, transportation, crime, surgery and more, including excellent chapters on cancer screenings and how to read unemployment figures. To make the data user friendly, the authors introduce microunits. A "MicroMort" (MM) is the one-in-a-million risk of dying on a single day of a specific cause. In the case of accidents or acts of violence, for example, the daily risk in the U.K. is 1 MM, while in the U.S., it is 1.6 MM. Another unit, a "MicroLife," looks at chronic risk factors by dividing a lifetime into 1 million equal parts. The authors also spend some time on the history of risk analyses, on the notion of chance and on the inadequacy on information: In the end, no matter what probabilities can be derived from population data, no one can predict what will happen to you as an individual.Commendable for its wide compilation of facts and figures—but perhaps even more so for the authors' "deep sense of uncertainties around data, statistics, and evidence."

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780465085705
Publisher:
Basic Books
Publication date:
06/03/2014
Pages:
384
Sales rank:
751,454
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

Meet the Author

Michael Blastland is an author, journalist, and BBC Radio 4 broadcaster. He is the author of, with Andrew Dilnot, the popular math books The Tiger that Isn’t and The Numbers Game, as well as the memoir The Only Boy in the World .

David Spiegelhalter OBE is Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk in the Statistical Laboratory, University of Cambridge. He is a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge and the Royal Society.

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