No matter what the number might be — in this case, a death toll — there’s no way to understand what it means until it’s put into perspective. Which is exactly what follows below.
Thirty-four thousand is a pretty big number. Especially when it’s 34,000 deaths we’re talking about.
But like every statistic, it needs to be put in context.
In that vein, I’m always reminded of the story most journalism students hear early in their undergraduate coursework about a reporter who gushed over a new ocean liner that “could execute a 180-degree turn in only one mile of open water.”
Like everyone else, my reaction was. “A mile? It takes a mile just to turn around? Why is that so great?”
Until you understood the context: It previously took two miles for the typical ocean liner to execute such a turn, so one mile suddenly became a remarkable statistic.
That’s roughly akin to how I react to the widely publicized news that has been plucked from the recent International Agency for Cancer Research’s report classifying processed meats as a potential carcinogen. The IARC estimated (“guessitmated” would be more accurate) that some 34,000 deaths could occur from excessive consumption of processed meat.
And by excessive, they mean a couple slices of bacon a day.
As Dr. Kurt Straif of the IARC said in a statement about how the risk of colorectal cancer increases as the amount of processed meat consumed increases, “In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”
Yes, it’s a large number of people, and yes, the death toll is sobering, but the statistic must be put in context. Of course, 34,000 excessive deaths are significant, but this is a worldwide total.
There are more than seven billion people alive on Earth at the moment, so 34,000 represents 0.000005% of the population. That’s five one-millionths of a percent. Way beyond the margin of error.
And even if that number of estimated deaths — and remember these are premature deaths, people who died “too early,” and not people who never would have died at all — is calculated as a percentage of annual deaths worldwide, it’s still only 22% of the total of 155,000 deaths worldwide.
That total of 155,000 deaths is every day of the year.
Which means that the alleged 34,000 guesstimated premature deaths associated with a level of processed meat consumption that is not at all atypical for most people consuming the typical Western diet is still only 0.0006% of all causes of deaths, or six ten-thousandths of a percent.
Again, none of this statistical analysis is to minimize a death toll numbering in the tens of thousands, no matter what the cause might be — although, to be fair, there are more deaths every single year in just the United States from traffic accidents alone than all of the deaths worldwide from processed meats.
When was the last time you heard of a commission or some high-powered task force release a hard-hitting report detailing all the people who die from what are usually horrible deaths just because they hopped into their cars one day and headed out to some destination on what are supposedly safe, highly engineered highways?
And you never will, because we have come to accept the bottom line statistic associated with automobile fatalities: It’s highly unlikely to affect any of us personally. The odds are just too great, and in fact, most of us will spend a lifetime driving our cars tens of thousands of miles a year without every even coming close to getting killed.
It may feel a bit morbid, but I would argue that the odds of anyone dying strictly as a result of eating ham, bacon and sausage are even greater.
You take a much bigger risk heading to your favorite drive-thru — 14 one-hundredths of a percent, versus the aforementioned 6 ten-thousandths of a percent — than you would be ordering and eating a bacon-egg-and cheese croissandwich.
I’m no math expert, but that’s a seriously significant difference.
It is one that needs to be kept in perspective whenever the IARC or anyone else starts pontificating about alleged death tolls from eating foods that have been an integral part of the human diet for centuries without incident.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.