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Stephen Jay Gould

August 9th, 2005 · Posted by Skuds in Life · No Comments · Life

I really do need to thank Tom Hamilton for this post which contains a link to this essay by Stephen Jay Gould

I know its a bit of a nerdish thing to admit, but I’ve been a fan of Gould’s for a long time, and half a dozen of his collections of essays have pride of place on my bookshelves. In later years he was probably more well-known for his ongoing spat with Richard Dawkins over punctuated equilibrium versus gradual evolution. (For what its worth I’m on the side of punctuated equilibrium but don’t shoot me down in flames for it – I know there are a lot of Dawkins fans in the left-wing blogging fraternity)

That particular essay had a big effect on me when I first read it in one of his books. Since then I have lent the book to friends who have been diagnosed with cancer and they found it very reassuring.

It is a brilliant demonstration of how our mathematical ignorance can lead us to assume that being diagnosed with a condition with a median mortality of 8 months after discovery means we will probably be dead in 8 months. Instead Gould interpreted that statistic as an indication that he had many years left in him and would probably die of something else before the mesothelioma with which he had been diagnosed.

And he was right. He died 20 years later of something different.

It is not impossible that the knowledge that he was probably not at risk, due to his informed interpretation of the statistics, increased his chances of survival – the relationship between mind and body is still a huge grey area.

So now, thanks to Tom, if I ever find myself pointing anyone else in the direction of this fascinating and touching essay (and I really hope I don’t have to) I can just give them the URL instead of spending half a night trying to remember which book it was in.

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