5 Paradoxes About How You’ll Die

5 Paradoxes About How You’ll Die

If you think too much about your own mortality, you will wind up on the floor, spinning on your back and screaming at the sky. You should live forever; anything else is unfair. And if you sit and think about exactly how people die, versus how you’d think they die, it all gets even more confusing, and your brain starts to leak out your ears.

Side note: Nothing we’re going to talk about today is a true paradox. All have explanations. In fact, there are no true paradoxes, anywhere. Paradoxes cannot exist. Anytime someone comes up with a paradox, it’s either a trick of language or they invented imaginary, contradictory premises and are now acting surprised that they contradict each other. 

No, what we have here are instead apparent paradoxes. The fun part is in finding out the truth behind them.

If You’re Drunk, You’re Safer Driving Home Than Walking

Drunk driving is bad. You should know that going into this, and we’re not here to change your mind. But when you’re drunk and trying to get home, could proceeding on foot be more dangerous for you than driving? That was the question pursued by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, the authors of the Freakonomics books. These books are famous for coming up with counterintuitive conclusions — sometimes with scientific rigor, sometimes without. 

blurry driving

Charles Postiaux/Unsplash

Just like you drive sometimes with scientific liquor, sometimes without.

One way to compare the two routes home would be to tally up how many people die driving drunk versus how many die walking drunk. This is the method behind many factoids that compare your chances of dying in various ways. That comparison’s less meaningful than it sounds and borders on useless. For example, one famous fact says vending machines kill more people than sharks, meaning you have a greater chance of being killed by a vending machine than a shark. However, that stat reflects how many hours the average person spends around vending machines, rather than how dangerous they are. If you’re debating whether to spend your coffee break buying something from a vending machine or punching sharks while bleeding from a throat wound, that stat offers little guidance on which is safer.


Ása Steinarsdóttir/Unsplash

Hardly anyone dies skydiving into volcanos. Must be safe then.

When we’re comparing methods of transport, we instead consider the following statistic: deaths per miles traveled. We extrapolate from this whether you’d be safer going to the same destination using one method or the other. Deaths per mile tells us, for instance, that flying is the safest way to travel, and a fear of flying kills. People avoided flying right after 9/11, and those people increased their risk of dying. France recently banned short-haul flights to cut emissions, but they have to weigh those gains against how the ban will result in more deaths.

Levitt and Dubner found that though more drunk drivers die every year than drunk pedestrians, by a factor of 13 to 1, drunk people also cover a lot more mileage via car than via foot. If you correct for how many miles each covers, a drunk driver now looks eight times less likely to die than a drunk pedestrian undergoing the same journey. 

As for how they calculated the mileage drunk pedestrians cover, well, that took a few leaps of logic, but the overall conclusion about deaths per mile being more on foot is convincing. In fact, recorded deaths per mile may underestimate the actual danger of walking. In practice, if you drive to a bar, your route home by foot may be less walkable than the route taken by the average drunk person anywhere who does choose to walk. 

Highway at night

Fahrul Azmi/Unsplash

“I drove here. Now I’ll just cross this road real quick to go home.”

Naturally, all this attracted some controversy when it was published. It sounds like a recommendation to drive drunk, which is bad no matter how safe it is for you because it endangers others, and you have no right to do that. This writeup by HuffPost invited readers to weigh in on whether the conclusion is ridiculous (the piece is also openly bitter that they received this book excerpt to analyze, rather than a different excerpt they wanted, about climate change). 

In reality, you don’t have to choose between driving drunk and walking drunk. The easiest and safest option is to just get a ride, with someone else driving. We have apps for that now. You don’t even need to remember directions home. 

Those Who Drive Slightly Above the Average Speed Get in Fewer Accidents

Staying on the subject of driving, speeding, of course, makes accidents more dangerous. Go a little faster, and you’ll hit an object with a lot more impact, killing yourself with increasing certainty. Here’s a helpful chart that notes you’ll be perfectly safe if everyone's stationary, but things get a little riskier from that point on.

crash risk curve

Department of Transport

However, if you go stationary in the middle of highway, that doesn’t give you a zero-percent chance of fatality at all. The car that slams into you isn’t stationary. Clearly, we also have to consider the speed of cars around you, and clearly, there’s some danger in your going unexpectedly slow.

One landmark study from 1964 tried to find the relationship between a car’s speed relative to others and the chance of getting into a collision. This look at 10,000 crashes determined that, yes, if you drive faster than the median speed, that raises your chance of a collision. But if you drive slower than the median speed, you also raise your chance of a collision by pretty much the exact same amount. 

Solomon Curve

Department of Commerce

Then one side of the curve goes crazy, because we lack data for the other side.

For decades, attempts to replicate the study produced similar results. More recent studies haven’t, so the latest advice is to err on the side of going too slow if you can’t keep pace with everyone else. But scholars have still spent a lot of time trying to explain why the Solomon curve says going too slow isn’t only slightly dangerous but is in fact exactly as dangerous as going too fast.

Here’s one explanation: Collisions are all about passing. When one car overtakes another, that’s when they’re most likely to collide. If you go 20 miles per hour faster than every car, you’ll pass a whole lot of them, raising your chance of hitting them. If you go 20 miles per hour slower than every car, a whole lot of them will pass you, raising your chance of being hit.

That leaves one bit of the curve unexplained, though. According to the data, the safest speed to travel isn’t the exact median speed as everyone else but slightly faster than that — a speed at which, per the passing theory, you’ll be riskily passing a fair number of cars. Blame this oddity of the curve on the large number of slow vehicles that get in crashes making turns. The curve might also be thrown off by a lot of chronically slow old people. If you drive a little faster than everyone, you assume some more risk, but at least you’re not statistically likely to be old, meaning you’re safe in at least one respect. 

People Who Take Multivitamins Die Sooner

More than once, we’ve debunked for you the idea that vitamins are magic pills that make you healthier. Unless you’re vitamin-deficient, popping vitamin supplements will offer you no benefit whatsoever. Still, that’s just theory. If you look at a large sample of data from people, it’s totally possible that this will reveal better health among those who take vitamins. 

Flintstones vitamin

Lisa Brewster

Maybe the benefit comes from yelling “yabba dabba doo” before each dose.

For starters, we might theorize that vitamins do help people because people really are vitamin-deficient. You can get all the vitamins you need from food, because most of us aren’t starving or living through wartime shortages and can eat all the veggies we want, but maybe large numbers of people don’t. Maybe vitamin pills are the one thing keeping such people free of scurvy and random bouts of paralysis.

On the other hand, even if vitamins offer no benefit at all, we might still predict that people who take them will outlive those who don’t. If you take vitamin supplements, you care about your health so likely take other measures that do extend your lifespan. You also have enough disposable income to throw some away on this, which means you can also afford to stay healthy through other means. Plus, maybe these vitamins offer some kind of placebo effect. All of this might make you live longer. 

woman with yoga mat

Ave Calvar/Unsplash

If you have enough discipline to do anything once a day, you’ll likely live longer.

Nutrition scientists found themselves with a lot of vitamin data to examine thanks to the Iowa Women's Health Study, which surveyed some 40,000 women as they aged through 20 years. Comparing people who took vitamin and mineral supplements to those who didn’t, the researchers found that the supplemented humans were 6 percent more likely to die each year than their unenhanced counterparts. Wait, hold on. That wasn’t supposed to happen.

The one supplement that decreased mortality was calcium. Many of the people surveyed might have been deficient in calcium but for supplements. Every other vitamin and mineral was associated with a higher risk of death. This was even though the average person who took supplements was healthier than the average one who didn’t, at the start of the study. 

skull with bones

Jon Butterworth/Unsplash

Zinc. Not even once. 

Many of the women in the study took supplements because they developed diseases. These diseases increased their annual risk of dying, separate from any pill they took. But once the researchers took that into account and looked at what remained, the data still said the supplements were associated with a higher risk of death. The researchers were forced to offer the possibility that this was a case of causation, not just correlation, that people are taking vitamins and minerals in quantities that render them toxic

You shouldn’t consider any of this as medical advice, by the way. Maybe the levels of supplements you take are fine. For a thorough appraisal, we recommend you consult the guy who sells you weed.

A Century Ago, Rich Women Died Giving Birth More Often Than Poor Women

Giving birth used to be more dangerous than it is today, and we don’t mean just a little more dangerous. Your chance of dying while giving birth in 1940 was 50 times what it is was in 2000. In 1895, it was 100 times more. 

American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

That graph is from England. Luckily, medicine was more advanced in America. In America in 1915, the death rate among women giving birth was twice as bad as in England. About half that increase was due to differing methods of how deaths were categorized (which makes international comparison tricky even today), but the remainder was a genuine increased risk of death. 

The issue wasn’t America’s undeveloped health-care system. The issue was America’s developed health-care system, as we alluded to before, not jokingly. Expectant mothers in America were more likely to give birth in hospitals than people in comparable countries. The problem was, hospitals in 1915 were terrible places, particularly to give birth. 

Providence Hospital, Seattle, Washington

via Wiki Commons

Decent spots for ghost hunting. Lousy for childbirth. 

One big reason was the general lack of hygiene in hospitals, both in America and elsewhere. Doctors didn’t wash their hands in those days, and a doctor sticking his hands in you right after fishing through corpse guts often ended poorly. That wasn’t the only problem, however. Women in hospitals also suffered from a type of infection that clean hands did nothing to prevent. It was broadly called puerperal fever and was responsible for more than 40 percent of maternal deaths, until the right antimicrobial drug years later made it mostly a nonissue. Finally, obstetricians in those days were a little too keen on dousing women in chloroform then diving in with forceps. They’d even needlessly go spelunking and pry out the placenta before it came out on its own. Hemorrhaging ensued. 

Obstetrical forceps

Wellcome Images

“I can also remove your heart while I’m in there. It’ll only cause problems otherwise.”

Thanks to all that, a mother assisted by some midwife arriving on horseback stood a better shot at surviving the ordeal than one who headed to a city hospital. That in turn meant that the lower classes (those with no choice but to deliver at home) enjoyed lower maternal mortality than the upper classes. The poorer babies then more often died than those born to rich families, but the mothers didn’t. 

You almost never observe that kind of relationship between wealth and health. Anytime you hear that some strange factor correlates with a longer lifespan, your first question should be, “Okay, is this just another way of saying money correlates with a longer lifespan?” Often, the answer’s yes. Here, the answer’s, “No, Just the opposite.” 

The Stockdale Paradox: Optimism Kills

Vice Admiral James Stockdale spent over seven years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. At one point, he took a razor to his own scalp. Right after that, he attacked his face with a 50-pound stool. These were not suicide attempts. His captors had been planning to use him in a propaganda film, and he kept them from doing so by making himself unpresentable. During the remainder of his imprisonment, he didn’t need to take any steps to disfigure himself; the regular beatings took care of that.

Stockdale assumed a leadership role among the POWs. He instructed the others on how to respond to torture. He got them using a secret language, consisting of taps. For his own amusement, he left fake notes for his captors to find, and to further pass the time, he did logarithmic math by writing in the dust. 

James Stockdale

US Navy

Getting his nose stomped in nightly was a breeze after that. 

Years later, he was asked about the hundred or so American POWs in the Hỏa Lò Prison who died before the prisoners were released in 1973. Stockdale said the ones who didn’t make it were “the optimists.”

That sounds very strange because Stockdale himself had remained resilient and confident about ultimately getting out, which most people would describe as optimism. But Stockdale was talking about a specific kind of optimism, a blind optimism that denies immediate circumstances. An optimist in the prison would say, “We're going to be out by Christmas,” for no reason other than it would be nice to home then. When Christmas came with no relief, that brought more heartbreak than the stoic Stockdale experienced. It ultimately killed them.

Hỏa Lò Prison torture

Ryan Menezes

The torture didn’t help. But ultimately, it was the heartbreak. 

This is the least scientific of the phenomena we’ve talked about today. But we wanted to leave you with it because we began this post by saying that reflecting on your mortality will leave you delirious and feeble. That’s not really true. We’re confident you can face you truth about your transience and emerge even stronger than before. You’ll reach the point when you can say, “Death? Not today. Sometime next month? Quite possibly. But not today.”

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see.

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