Living dangerously

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was produced by the Winton programme for the public understanding of risk based in the Statistical Laboratory in the University of Cambridge. The aim was to help improve the way that uncertainty and risk are discussed in society, and show how probability and statistics can be both useful and entertaining.

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Radio Times, October 12th 2012

I am a naturally cautious person. But as I start my 60th year, I am doing my best to fight this tendency and embrace risk.

When I was making a TV programme about chance, the producers said I should do something ‘risky’. Swimming with sharks was too expensive, but the budget could stretch to a tandem skydive, which would involve getting strapped to an instructor and jumping out of a plane at 10,000 feet for 45 seconds of free-fall at 120 miles per hour, followed by a fairly gentle landing. Hopefully.

Being a nerdy statistician, I consulted the data for how often such things go fatally wrong, and estimated a risk of around 7 ‘micromorts’ for the jump, where a micromort is the unofficial name for a 1-in-a-million chance of death. That’s around the same deadly risk as 40 miles on a motorbike, 100 miles on a bicycle, a scuba dive, or running a marathon. Then I worked out that a man my age has around 7,000 micromorts annual risk of dying of some cause or other, so the skydive would only be equivalent to around an hour’s worth of normal life. So off I went happily and jumped out of the plane. Or, more accurately, was pushed.

According to this logic, if you can call it that, it makes much more sense for me to take physical risks than some 25-year-old who only faces a paltry 600 micromorts a year, and so ageing juveniles should be putting on wingsuits and hurling themselves off tall buildings. As a fine role model, I can suggest John Simpson (68) who still gasps off to the nearest war zone at the sound of the first bullet. I can’t match him, but a few years ago I accompanied my Dad (then 78) on a coach tour of Lebanon and Syria: the Israelis had just bombed local power stations, Syrian tanks were dug in along the Bekaa valley, but our group of pensioners gossiped merrily through Hezbollah checkpoints to the Roman ruins of Baalbek. I would not be surprised to hear that Saga is already planning a Helmand tour.

Even if you don’t want to risk life and (creaky) limb, then getting older is a wonderful opportunity to take less lethal risks. Say with your reputation. Whether it’s wearing purple or taking up tap-dancing, we should not need to care what others think – we can feel the exhilaration of allowing oneself to be simply not very good at things, without that ghastly embarrassment of the young. And we can take more social risks: trying new situations, changing friends, and not needing to attend every party in case of ‘missing something’.

But I can still be cautious. Financial risks, for example, seem less attractive as old age becomes imminent. My generation, already indulged by university grants and steady jobs, can grab its pensions and look with pity at young people struggling with house prices and insecurity. Remarkably, they seem to get on with it OK, but although we may not quite have eaten all the pies, we certainly came back for seconds.

And talking of pies, I’m also getting less keen on taking the chronic risks associated with lifestyle. While a pork pie is not going to kill you on the spot, unless of course you choke on it, a lifelong battering of the body with drink, laziness and batter can take its toll. The prospect of a few extra years of life used to conjure up the image of lingering days being spoon-fed in a nursing home. But as I joyfully discover that being nearly 60 does not necessarily mean being a complete dotard, those extra years start to seem quite desirable. So I try and take more care of the bod, even as it starts to wrinkle like a party balloon left behind the sofa.

But on balance, although we can leave recklessness to idiotic youth, we could all take a few more chances. Older should mean bolder. I am saving up for the sharks.


If 7000 micromorts is a year, then that's 20 per day, or about 1 an hour - not the 7 per hour suggested here?