Applied Statistics

I recently blogged on the following ridiculous (to me) quote from economist Gary Becker:

According to the economic approach, therefore, most (if not all!) deaths are to some extent “suicides” in the sense that they could have been postponed if more resources had been invested in prolonging life.

In my first entry I dealt with Becker’s idea pretty quickly and with a bit of mockery (“Sure, ‘counterintuitive’ is fine, but this seems to be going off the deep end . . .”), and my commenters had no problem with it. But then I updated with a more elaborate argument and discussion of how Becker could’ve ended up making such a silly-seeming (to me) statement, and the commenters here and here just blasted me. I haven’t had such a negative reaction from my blog readers since I made the mistake of saying that PC’s are better than Macs.

This got me thinking that sometimes a quick reaction is better than a more carefully thought-out analysis. But I also thought I’d take one more shot at explaining my reasoning and, more importantly, understanding where I might have gone astray.

After all, if I can barely convince half the commenters at the sympathetic venue of my own blog, I must be doing something wrong!

OK, so, very quickly:

1. By referring to “most (if not all!) deaths,” I assume that Becker considers it a reasonable possibility that perhaps all deaths are “to some extent ‘suicides'” in his definition. But I don’t see how he can refer to a 4-year-old dying of cancer–or, for that matter, my grandmother dying of cancer at age 82–as a suicide. For the 4-year-old, it should be pretty clear that this kid didn’t have a lot of options. For my grandmother, who tried her best to live a healthy life and to get the best care when she was sick, I don’t see what Becker is saying. Not all aspects of life are fungible, and it’s not clear at all how the investment of “resources” (in Becker’s words) would’ve prolonged her life.

2. There’s a riddle that goes something like this:

A family has two dogs and three cats. If you call a dog a camel, how many camels does the family have?

The answer is zero. If you call a dog a camel, it’s still a dog.

That’s how I feel about Becker’s definition of “suicide” (from the dictionary, “the intentional taking of one’s own life”), I just don’t see what’s gained by calling Grandma’s death a suicide, and I can’t see what she was supposed to have done differently to have prolonged her life.

3. In my blog entry, I made a longer point that I think was misunderstood. I accept that in many cases, life could be prolonged by a shift in resources, for example taking fewer car drives, smoking less, and eating a healthier diet (whatever that means! There’s lots of debate on that one). Now take the thought experiment of a person who does everything that it takes to prolong life. Such a person will still die. More generally, people die from unexpected, unanticipatable causes all the time. Nonsmokers get cancer, health eaters get heart attacks, people die in (statistically unlikely) plane crashes. Commenters argued about how often such events occurred, but, again, my point is that they do occur, and, even if they occur less than 50% of the time, they’re not extremely rare either (recall my two grandmothers).

4. I think the best argument against all the stuff I’m saying is the meta-argument that Becker is so smart that he couldn’t be saying anything that stupid. Well, sure. I don’t think Becker thinks my grandmothers committed suicide. In fact, I’ll go one better and say that Becker doesn’t actually think that it’s possible that a reallocation of resources might prolong everyone’s life, or even almost everyone’s life. Becker was saying something provocative in order to get people to think. And I applaud him for that.

I was probably unfairly devaluing Becker’s statement because, as someone who works in decision analysis, I was already extremely familiar with his point. (Again, take a look at my papers with Phil on measurement and remediation for home radon, or section 6 of my article from 1998 on teaching the principles of decision analysis, where I painstakingly lead students to the inexorable conclusion that, yes, they do trade off dollars and lives, whether or not they want to admit it.) I was reading Becker as going beyond the conventional (and, in my opinion, correct) statement that many lives could be prolonged by a reallocation of resources (and thus people implicitly value other things along with lifespan) to a stronger statement about most if not all deaths being avoidable. This was unfair to Becker. I was being like the spoilsport who heckles a comedian because he’s heard his jokes before, not realizing that many people in the audience are new to the act.

Becker’s statement about suicide is true in the same way that I would say that much of Chris Rock’s routines are so, so true. You wouldn’t take Chris Rock literally, but he says things in a striking way that can cause you to rethink the familiar, and that was what Becker was doing for Stephen Dubner as well as many others.

And maybe that gives an insight into why my first, more lighthearted comment on Becker’s remarks were better received than my later, more serious exploration. To criticize a joke because it’s not literally true is to miss the point, and I further confused matters by not fully explaining that I agreed with the true parts of Becker’s statement. I do think that Becker’s over-the-top reasoning may have let him to miss some of the subtleties in his own argument (in particular, the idea that lifestyle changes that might save lives could have economic consequences that ultimately could cost lives), but, really, it’s hard to say, just given the quotes I’ve seen.

Beyond this, some commenters felt I was being insulting to Becker (and maybe to Dubner) by ascribing their mistakes to logical fallacies. Here, all I can say is that the nature of cognitive illusions and biases is that they affect us all (or, I suppose I should say, almost all of us) until they’re pointed out to us. I am subject to fallacies also, and I think it makes a lot of sense, if we disagree with someone, to try to understand where the disagreement is coming from.

P.S. Just kidding about the PC’s and Macs thing in the third paragraph above. I’m a blogger, not a troll!


  1. #1 E. Wolke
    December 29, 2009

    We all die, so why consider each death a suicide? That’s kind of ridiculous. Some folks choose to die sooner than they might, but some go down fighting. Often, you die the way you live, no? I think it’s kind of a null argument.

  2. #2 John
    December 29, 2009

    The “we all die” argument would also imply that “true” suicide isn’t really suicide since the person would have died anyway. I don’t find that very compelling or interesting.

    I can understand what Andrew doesn’t like and think his Chris Rock analogy is just right. Indeed, what I don’t like is people who spoil a joke, or can’t appreciate a stylized philosophical argument. These people ruin the experience for everybody else, and I always find their nitpicking rather uninteresting. When on top of it all they claim the comic or philosopher doesn’t understand the truth, it’s even more annoying because comedy and philosophy are usually best when the comic or philosopher actually understands all angles, but elides a few for effect.

  3. #3 HP
    December 29, 2009

    I almost considered commenting on the previous post but I was furious beyond articulation. I thought someone might make the point for me, but I guess it’s up to me.

    Here’s the thing: There are people — thousands of people each year, some of whom probably read this blog — who have come home to find a loved one’s brains splattered across the wall, or seen their purple, bloated face jutting at an impossible angle from a homemade noose. That’s suicide. It ain’t trivial, and it ain’t pretty.

    Anything that trivializes the experience of someone who’s witnessed the suicide of a loved one first hand isn’t simply bad statistics, or a poor choice of words. It is a vile — indeed, sociopathic — slap in the face to anyone who’s lost a loved one to suicide. Becker’s analysis isn’t just specious, it is deeply and profoundly immoral.

  4. #4 Hank Roberts
    December 29, 2009

    Don’t you just wonder, since there’s zero tax on an estate in 2010, and the prior tax on the biggest estates (over $1,000,000.00) is schedule to resume in 2011 — whether the death rate will be affected?

    I must mean the suicide rate.

  5. #5 Andrew Gelman
    December 30, 2009

    John: I can appreciate a stylized philosophical argument. Becker’s argument is just a bit crude for my taste. To continue the analogy, he’s more of a Sam Kinison than a Chris Rock, from my own perspective. But, again, maybe I’m being unfair and saying that Becker’s joke isn’t funny just because I’ve heard it before.

  6. #6 Andrew Gelman
    December 30, 2009

    HP: Take a look here, under “The illusion of control.” Humor and mathematical modeling are two of the things we sometimes do to get a handle on painful, difficult situations.

  7. #7 Alex
    December 30, 2009

    Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that a reallocation of resources would allow every single person to prolong their lives (even just a little bit). Would that mean that most (if not all!) deaths are “suicides”?


    Why? Because all that tells you is that there’s a way for society to prolong your life, and not necessarily a way for you to prolong your own. I agree with HP that Becker’s comment devalues suicide somewhat, but even if we make a new meaning for suicide to mean “if you do differently you’d live longer”, then this hypothetical still wouldn’t be suicide. All it means is that if some segment of society was more “efficient”, then you (and everyone else) would live longer. It does not mean there is anything you yourself can do differently to prolong your life.

    Now there may well be stuff we could all do to prolong our own lives (exercise more, eat healthier etc etc), but the argument does not show that.

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