Five Brushes With Death? Zero Brushes With Science


In a story which made a fair few headlines recently, a new study – and I use that term loosely – reports that the average person has five near death experiences throughout their lifetime.

Apparently research – and again, I use that term loosely – claims the average person has five brushes with death in their lifetime, including potentially fatal car crashes, near lightning strike, high voltage electric shocks, earthquakes, floods and that moment where you step out onto a road in front of a bus only to be pulled back at the last moment. Which was enough for both the Express and the Mirror, who both ran with this story.

So, how was this study, this amazing new research, conducted? Well, for one thing, the study took the form of a survey. A survey sponsored by a prominent insurance company. I won’t mention their name, becuase mentioning their name is precisely the point of this trumped-up nonsense of a survey – it’s little more than glorified PR. Still, I’ll pull it apart anyway, because it’s always worth being aware of the angles involved in these kind of stories.

Well let’s take a look at the reported methodology of the survey. As the Mirror reports, most individuals can recall the feeling of a near-death experience in a potentially fatal car crash and 40 per cent of people claim to have seen their lives flash before their eyes as a result of this scenario. Guys, any potential pitfalls in that so far?

That’s right – we’re asking people to remember events, or feelings of past events (Which is even more unreliable). Genuine studies, conducted by psychologists (not life insurers, then) have shown that asking people to remember events and recall feelings about potential events results in wildly inaccurate results. It turns out people aren’t that great at reporting on what they think they remember, especially regarding traumatic or dramatic events in their lives. So there’s one issue. I’ll crack on…

Researchers asked 1,000 people about the times in their life when they felt they might die and ranked the occasions. They found there were five most common reports of close shaves.

Right, so we’ve 1000 people recalling when they felt they might die, and they’re ranking them? How are they ranking them? The Mirror clearly doesn’t feel that matters. What’s more, they found 5 common close shave scenarios. Which is different from saying 5 scenarios or events that happen to each of us on average. Completely different, in fact.

Commenting on the study, nameless insurance broker spokesperson Pete Markey said:

“Life is precious and many Brits seem to have had a heck of a lot of lucky escapes. The purpose of this report wasn’t to scare Brits or get them thinking about their mortality in a morbid way, but at the same time people need to realise they’re not infallible. Amazingly the study revealed that over one third of Brits never take out life insurance – this is definitely something everyone should think about.”

Sure, the purpose isn’t to scare people – it’s to flog life insurance off the back of something dramatic and scientific-sounding but ultimately utterly nonsense and flimsy. It reminds me, in fact, of the ‘things we Brit’s are confused about’ which Trystan covered a few episodes back.

These surveys and studies crop up from time to time in the media, as Nick Davies mentions in his book ‘Flat Earth News‘. In these stories the format is almost always the same – catchy headline announcing something shocking, unusual or weird, then 3 or 4 paragraphs trumping up the science and interest angle, before para 4 or 5 which almost always starts “the survey, sponsored by xyz.ltd, polled n number of people’. Look out for it in the future. They write themselves – ‘Jack Nicholson in the Shining voted scariest film character’… ‘the survey, featured by lovefilm.com, polled…’ It’s textbook. “Harold Shipman voted most notorious serial killer in a survey sponsored by Help The Aged…”

Keep your eyes out for them. They’re not news, they’re just PR. So don’t go banking on having 5 lives.

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