Ordering Fast Food in the Age of the Statistically Challenged
I pulled up to the drive-thru and eyeballed the menu.
“Can I take your order, please?” intoned the disembodied voice.
“One chicken sandwich,” I replied.
“May want to rethink that order, sir.”
“Why is that?”
“Small chance the bird is from Vietnam and very small but not infinitesimal chance it caught the avian flu.
“Is it dangerous to eat? I haven’t read anything about that.”
“Scant evidence on catching it through ingestion, but if it were me I wouldn’t chance it.”
“Don’t need to warn me twice. I’ll have the burger.”
“Surely not the beef burger? Bovine spongiform encephalopathy—mad cow disease, you know.
“Mad cow? I thought there were something like two cases in the U.S. last year and even those were controversial.”
“Low probability, high disgust-ability. Prions—infectious little protein particles—get into your head and cause your grey matter to deteriorate. I gather from your silence you’ve never seen a PET scan of an infected person’s brain? Looks a lot like Swiss cheese.”
“Pork sandwich, then.”
“The other white meat not fit to eat. Trichinosis.”
”How likely is that?
“Thirty-eight cases in the U.S. last year.”
“Doesn’t seem very risky.”
“Well I’m no statistician, but I’d sooner quit pork than build a bomb shelter. Mushroom cloud: Instant annihilation. Trichinosis: Stomach acid dissolves the Trichinella cyst and releases worms, which make their way to the small intestine and lay eggs. The larvae travel the circulatory system and curl up inside your muscle cells where they hijack vital cell functions. Nasty symptoms—nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, fever, excruciating pain, difficulty coordinating movement, and respiratory paralysis. Makes me nauseous just thinking about it.”
“O.K., you’ve sold me on the two-egg omelet.”
“Um, salmonella. Also, we stop serving breakfast after noon.”
“The salad bar.”
“Affects the nerves, you know. Double vision and drooping eyelids, slurred speech, dry mouth and difficulty swallowing. If untreated can cause paralysis and respiratory failure.”
“O.K. Just give me a glass of water.”
“One glass of cholera coming right up.”
“Cholera, you’re kidding?”
“We just recovered from a major U.S. outbreak, you know.”
“That was in 1911, if I’m not mistaken.”