Week 23: Attach numbers to questions

 Reading this calendar because someone you love is pregnant? Consider going old school for your shower gift and giving the new parents a maiolica set, a popular gift given to women during the Italian Renaissance. When assembled, the scene on the inside is invisible, kind of like a pregnancy. |  The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Reading this calendar because someone you love is pregnant? Consider going old school for your shower gift and giving the new parents a maiolica set, a popular gift given to women during the Italian Renaissance. When assembled, the scene on the inside is invisible, kind of like a pregnancy. | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

If you’ve been following the calendar for the last three weeks, you’re probably feeling a lot less panicked over newsworthy numbers. You’re practicing with your personalized set of numbers. You’re finding denominators, interrogating averages, and identifying increases and decreases. Now we need to put all those skills together in a word problem:

If one child dies from choking every five days, and over half of all pediatric choking incidents are food-related, and over 12,000 children are admitted to the ER every year after choking on food, then what is the chance that your baby may suffer permanent injury or death after eating a couch Cheerio?

That paragraph is jam-packed with terrifying language about choking and ER visits, which makes Cheerios look suddenly sinister. But in this case, as with so many articles about pregnancy and parenting, the right number is being used to answer the wrong question.

As we saw with averages in Week 21, numbers are often used to contextualize a problem, or perhaps, less charitably to problematize something that wasn’t really a problem to begin with. Here, 12,000 ER visits are used to make choking seem like a huge problem. That number gets us concerned about choking, which sets the stage to look at Cheerios differently.

Before we dive deeper into that Cheerio risk, let’s find a denominator for that 12,000 ER visits per year, which refers to all foods eaten by all children. Assuming roughly 4 million children born each year, that’s loosely 72 million children, 12,000 of whom visited emergency rooms for choking. The article doesn’t provide any additional information about those 12,000 children, like how old they were or what they choked on. That’s a roughly 1 in 6,000 risk. Using my trusty personal number set, that’s 1 bean in six jars of jelly beans (which I would never give to a baby to use as a rattle, because choking hazard!).

So we should already recognize that choking is less scary than that statistic indicates. We should be even less concerned when we consider how that statistic is being used in articles like this one at Today. The title is about finger foods typically eaten by babies, but the figure quoted about choking—12,000 ER visits per year—refers to all foods eaten by all children.

This number isn’t “wrong,” but the stats on choking just aren’t relevant when it comes to even the stalest Cheerios, which are designed to decompose the moment liquid touches them. Including that statistic alongside a report of Cheerios and Gerber Puffs makes these foods look dangerous (and the parents who serve them irresponsible).

This is not the first time I’ve been particularly bothered by Today’s coverage of a parenting scare (see puffy foods and puffy coats for examples). But this language is hardly limited to Today. Even when there are real dangers presented in a news article, statistical data can make the risk seem much larger than it appears. That’s the case with both grapes and balloons, which are real hazards, but smaller than we make them appear.