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The unexpected result

April 17, 2005

I trust insurance company studies for one reason: they have a financial incentive to tell the exact truth.  The bottom line motivates them to put their prejudices aside and go for the right answer.

So I was surprised by a link one of my sons sent to me, about an insurance company study which found: “High-powered cars less likely to crash.”

Say, what?  Wouldn’t it make sense that muscle cars get in more accidents?  Well, sure it makes sense, but it also made sense to Aristotle that heavier objects would fall faster than light objects.  It just didn’t turn out to be true.

The way science works is; you have an hypothesis, which is basically just a well-formed guess.  You collect data and see how well it fits the hypothesis.  If there’s a good fit, you perform analysis and peer review, and then you have a theory, which is a strong predictive model.  If contrary data comes up, you need to figure out why it is different and possibly alter your theory or even create a new hypothesis. 

That is why unexpected results are so interesting.  They lead to stronger theories.

…Progressive, the third-largest auto insurer in the United States… found cars with more than 200 horsepower actually generate 17 per cent fewer claims than those propelled by less than 200 horsepower.  However, when the more powerful vehicles are involved in accidents, the dollar value of claims averages 22 per cent higher.  Progressive said the effect is consistent: the more powerful a car model, the fewer but more costly its claims.

The insurer’s news release made no mention of factors that might skew the statistical correlation, such as the tendency of high-powered cars to be newer, more expensive and driven by more affluent owners.

I could pose an hypothesis that the reason for this correlation is that owners of more powerful cars are richer, which means they tend to be better-educated, which has been correlated with lower accident rates.  To turn that hypothesis into a predictive model (a theory) would require more study.

Here are some other contrary results I find interesting:

  • Giving stimulants to some children calms them down

  • When bicycle helmets were made mandatory in Britain and Australia, head injuries went up while bicycle ridership went down
  • Air bags kill some people
  • Only a few models of SUV’s are really safer than normal cars
  • Civil-service tests in Boston were found to have an inverse correlation to on-the-job performance in the Boston police department
  • Speeding in town is likely to make little difference in your arrival time and may (if a lot of people do it) actually result in overall average slower traffic
  • Recycling (except for aluminum) isn’t necessarily a direct benefit to the environment.  The recovery process is often toxic and very, very expensive.

Does anyone have other examples to add to the list?

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Lucas
    April 18, 2005 at 15:54 | #1

    Another possible explanation is that more powerful cars can accelerate faster, allowing drivers to get out of intersections quickly if they realize there’s a problem.  Note that the expected value of costs is still about 1% greater than for normal cars: claims were 22% more expensive, but happened only 17% as frequently.

  2. April 18, 2005 at 17:21 | #2

    I also think that people are a little more careful with expensive cars.  Further, I think if you go to higher end vehicles it’s most likely to be car buffs buying them, and as such they might have a little more driving skill than other people.  As for counterintuitive things:

    Crack cocaine is actually no more addictive than regular powder cocaine.  Furthermore is is also no cheaper to produce.  It’s only market forces that makes crack cheap while powder cocaine expensive.

    Karl Marx used to claim that he wasn’t a Marxist.

    Cocaine used to be used as a treatment for heroin and morphine addiction.

    Life expectancy of children born today is actually lower than that of their parents.

    An Italian study found an inverse correlation between amount of pizza one eats and one’s risk of getting heart disease (though pizzas in Italy, from what I gather is quite different than pizza we eat here in North America).

  3. April 19, 2005 at 07:37 | #3

    Life expectancy of children born today is actually lower than that of their parents.

    Does this mean that the life expectancy of a new-born is less than that of a twenty-year old,
    or does it mean that the life expectancy of a new-born today is less than that of a new-born twenty years ago?

  4. Lucas
    April 19, 2005 at 12:25 | #4

    SS: Could you cite a study for the claim that crack cocaine is not more addictive than powder?  I’m find it extremely doubtful, and it doesn’t jibe with anything I’ve read.  Smoking freebase cocaine causes enormous volatility in dopamine levels, usually considered one of the main indications of “abuse potential.”  Also I don’t find Marx’s claim that he wasn’t a Marxist at all surprising—of course he didn’t subscribe to an *ideology* (like Marxism), he just came to the correct conclusions.  And it is in no way counterintuitive that the life expectancy of a newborn is less than a 20-year-old.

  5. Abhi
    April 19, 2005 at 17:10 | #5

    Hmm….one of the counter-intutive useless fact that I know of is about lack of an outside source to blame for one’s misery. J.F. Henry and A.F. Short presented evidence that when there is an external cause of one’s unhappiness, the extreme response is rage and homicide; in the absence of an external source, the extreme response tends to be depression and suicide. Thus, while extreme success, marriage and children are associated with a lower suicide rate, they are also correlated with a higher homicide rate.

  6. April 20, 2005 at 00:50 | #6


    I’m not sure, it’s just something I read in the Globe and Mail.  It said that the life expectancy of kids born today is lower than that of their parents.  So I would guess something like newborns have a lower life expectancy than someone who’s now 20. 


    That’s something I read in Dominic Streatfeild’s book Cocaine as for whom he cites:

    Reinarman & Levine (Date Unknown) Crack in Context: Politics and the Media in the Making of a Drug Scare.  (Publisher/Publication unknown).

    Reeves $ Campbell (Date Unknown) Cracked Coverage.  (Publisher/Publication unknown).

  7. Lucas Wiman
    April 21, 2005 at 15:49 | #7

    I actually read that book last week.  Streatfield, if memory serves, came to the conclusion that while freebase cocaine is not as addictive as the “one hit and you’re hooked” media claims, it is substantially more addictive than insuffulated cocaine.  Streatfield points out that studies of cocaine blood levels in Bolivian coca chewers are similar to those of US recreational users, but that chewed cocaine is much less euphoric than snorted cocaine.

    Studies have shown that frequent freebase use leads to greater depletion of D2 receptor sites (which seem to be mainly responsible for euphoria) than frequent use of equivalent amounts of intranasal cocaine HCl.  A number of studies have shown that the speed of action is extremely important in addiction to dopaminergic agents.  This is why methylphenidate (ritalin) is schedule 3 (some potential for abuse), while cocaine is schedule 2 (high potential for abuse).  Methylphenidate and cocaine have nearly identical neurological effects once in the brain—the former is just taking across the blood-brain barrier much more slowly.

  8. July 20, 2006 at 13:22 | #8

    :o hh: Are you joking when you implied that Crack Cocaine is no more addicting than Powdered Cocaine. The powdered cocaine could be the most amazing product available, and still Crack Cocaine’s rush wins the addiction potential. THE RUSH When Crack Cocaine is smoked compares with, if not tops the RUSH/HIGH of even intravenous Cocaine. The instantanious effects along with it’s overwhelmingly powerful rush is the basic reason why it is much more mentally addicting in the majority of Cocaine/Freebase Cocaine(CRACK) users. The physical addiction “probably” doesn’t have quite as much of a difference in the two different forms of the drug. So YES, the mental addiction caused by Crack Cocain is much worse, maybe that is why crackheads will do almost anything just to catch a buzz. It is possible that people like the drug more for it’s numbing abilities, drip or duration of it’s effects, but any of you know that and Addict wants and NEEDS his rush.

  9. CultV
    March 10, 2007 at 19:26 | #9

    Yes, crack cocain is much more addictive than snortable form.. It’s same chemical either way, the problem with crack is that it’s used in smaller doses more times a day than cocain would be. The duration time is shorter, the rush is stronger because lungs are a wonderful organ to stream chemicals into the blood in no time. Imagine how fast a chemical gets dispersed into the blood when lungs have a surface area (don’t know exactly)several magnitudes of order larger than your nose.

    It’s not more or less addictive chemically, but it lets you get exposed to it much more frequently

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