A bouquet of fallacies from Gary Becker and Stephen Dubner

Stephen Dubner quotes Gary Becker as saying:

According to the economic approach, therefore, most (if not all!) deaths are to some extent “suicides” in the sense that they could have been postponed if more resources had been invested in prolonging life.

Dubner describes this as making “perfect sense” and as being “so unusual and so valuable.”

When I first saw this I was irritated and whipped off a quick entry on the sister blog. But then I had some more systematic thoughts of how Becker’s silly-clever statement, and Dubner’s reaction to it, demonstrate several logical fallacies that I haven’t seen isolated before.

No, it’s not true that most deaths are suicides

I’ll get to the fallacies in a moment but first I’ll explain in some detail why I disagree with Becker’s statement. The claim that most deaths are suicides seemed evidently ridiculous to me (not just bold, counterintuitive, taboo-shattering, etc., but actually false), and my inclination in such settings is to mock rather than explicate–but Becker and Dubner are smart guys, and if they can get confused on this topic, I’m sure others can too.

To start with, the statement “all deaths are suicides” is hard to criticize because it is obviously wrong and must, like the Bible and much of the work of A. J. Liebling, be taken metaphorically. if somebody tells me that the temperature in Paris yesterday was 20 degrees C, I can argue, both from personal experience and the weather report, that it wasn’t. But if I tell Gary Becker that, no, I know his statement is wrong–both of my grandmothers died and neither of them committed suicide–that wouldn’t cut much ice with him. After all, he probably has a couple of grandmothers who died without committing suicide too.

Suicide is “the intentional taking of one’s own life.” Or, if we want to put a statistical spin on it, choosing an action that increases the probability that you’ll die sooner. I interpret Becker as saying that most (if not all) deaths arise from such a choice.

It’s not so simple, though. Consider the following example. A couple and their two children are driving on the interstate to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving, a few hundred miles away, when all of a sudden a tractor-trailer jackknifes right in front of them, resulting in a crash that kills them instantly.

Ha! Becker might say, in response to this hypothetical example. Everyone knows that flying is safer than driving. If this family had really cared about safety, they would’ve flown. Instead, they drove, which reveals their hidden preference: they really care more about saving money, or convenience, or having the kids watch DVD’s in the back seat, or whatever.

I don’t buy this argument. Even setting aside the kids’ deaths here–were they committing suicide too? Are four-year-olds with leukemia committing suicide? etc?–and setting aside the possibility that maybe Mom and Dad didn’t happen to be aware of the stats on flying and driving, there’s a bigger problem here, which is that people die all the time, even while making statistically correct decisions.

For example, suppose this particular family had flown to Grandma’s instead of driving, but then the plane crashed. It wouldn’t make much sense to say that they’d made the suicidal decision not to drive! OK, maybe you want to push this back one more step and say that the suicidal decision was to visit Grandma at all. But what if they’d stayed home and Junior had cracked his head open falling out of his treehouse. Or maybe the solution is to stay inside? Certainly not! The suicidal result could be that Junior and Missy get no exercise and die young of heart attacks. Also, being stuck in the house all day, they don’t learn how to make friends; as a result, they don’t succeed in the business world, they can’t get a job with health insurance, and so on.

Another line of reasoning is that, if only their car had been a Sherman Tank, the family could’ve withstood the tractor-trailer impact–thus, the death really represents the Smith family’s unwillingness to pay more for safety. But this line of reasoning is wrong too, both on an individual and a societal level. A tank isn’t cheap, either to buy or to drive, and the resources spent maintaining the tank (thus reducing the risk of death on the highway) are resources that can’t be used to make one’s life safer in other ways.

Just to nail that down one last time, no, I don’t see the evidence that “most (if not all) deaths . . . could have been postponed if more resources had been invested in prolonging life.” Transferring resources to avoid death from cause A could very well increase the probability of dying sooner from cause B.

A bouquet of fallacies

Now for the fallacies. The “puzzle” (as we say in the social sciences) is the “stylized fact” (ditto) that a scholar as intelligent and accomplished as Becker, and a pundit as intelligent as accomplished as Dubner, could get something so wrong. I will consider some fallacies that may have led them astray. As usual with this sort of thing, I hope that the exposure of these fallacies will allow people to better avoid them in the future.

The smart people fallacy. Lots of important issues have smart people on both sides, so it’s clearly a fallacy to think someone’s correct just because he or she is “smart.” Remember, Isaac Newton believed in leprechauns! Well, not really, but you get my point. Gary Becker is smart, but he can make mistakes–and the “smart people fallacy” can lead him to compound his mistakes, if people who know him just assume he must be correct and don’t call him on it.

The transitivity fallacy. We all know that a friend of a friend is not necessarily a friend. But we tend to forget that this lack of transitivity also holds with knowledge. Dubner knows and trusts Levitt; Levitt knows and trusts Becker. So Dubner should trust Becker, right? Wrong. The problem here is that knowledge and trust are contextual. Dubner knows Levitt enough to know when to take Levitt seriously and when to ask him some tough questions. Similarly, Levitt knows Becker well enough to trust him and also to evaluate his arguments critically. But when Dubner cuts out the middleman and reads Becker directly, he also bypasses two stages of critical filtering. That’s the transitivity fallacy.

The fallacy of qualitative counting We can imagine ways in which individual deaths could’ve been avoided–more money spent on safety here, more preventive screening there–so it’s natural to think that these possibilities cover everything. But, as Zeno taught us, you can add up lots and lots of little things and still not get so far. (Bill James once made a similar point about all the different unlikely ways you can get to first base without a hit, but I can’t remember where or what exactly he said. His point was that sometimes people list all these possibilities without recognizing that some of them are extremely rare.)

The fallacy of forgotten tradeoffs I mentioned this one above, and it’s a funny error for an economist and an economic journalist to make. At some level, I think they were aware of opportunity cost–Becker’s idea is that people are trading off safety for convenience, or, more generally, for quality of life–but they didn’t see their argument through to the end and realize that, no, you can’t just trade everything else in life off for safety. To draw an analogy, if you make a car bigger (without changing its engine), it will go slower, but that doesn’t mean you can strip down a Ford Fiesta and make it go 250 mph.

The illusion of control

Let me conclude by bringing up something that affects many of us in our professional lives: the tendency to focus on aspects of our lives where we feel we can make progress. I think the illusion of control is what leads Becker to write about suicide using mathematical expressions of optimality followed by phrases such as “That is, where a ray from the origin is tangent to the utility function (see Figure 1).” In another era, we might dig up some rocks and build a burial mound with our bare hands; in this white-collar era, we express our frustrations with the world with our words and equations. (I’m not saying that Becker thinks that he can control suicides by writing his article; what I think is that, when faced with difficult items beyond our control, we keep ourselves busy doing what we can control.) I’m surely involved in my own illusion of control by writing about these fallacies, but just maybe they will lead to a better understanding of the role of mathematical models in the social sciences. Dubner and Becker have made a contribution by putting there ideas out there where they can be criticized and refined.

P.S. The comments at the sister blog motivated me to add the following explanation in an attempt to avoid further confusion:

– I believe that Becker and Dubner are making a contribution by putting these ideas out there to be discussed (leading to the comments on this blog, among other things). I do not think Becker or Dubner are stupid–in fact, I explicitly characterized both Becker and Dubner as “intelligent” (not a controversial assessment in either case, I’d say!). I feel that I am showing them the deepest respect by stating clearly where I disagree with them and how I think they went wrong.

– I agree with several commentators that had Becker and Dubner made their points using a more accurate term such as “preventable death” rather than “suicide,” this would’ve helped. I still think they’re overstating it. Seatbelts and smoking save lives, but I don’t think “most if not all deaths” could be avoided using this or similar preventive measures. It’s not always clear ahead of time what preventive measures are the right ones to do. My grandmothers tried to live healthy lives, and they were lucky enough to live into their eighties. In what sense did they commit suicide? Did my grandmother who had cancer commit suicide because she didn’t live her life inside a lead-lined box? This just makes no sense to me. I do realize that Becker had a point to make; I just don’t think he made it well.

P.P.S. OK, one more time. As many commenters noted, Becker is saying that resources spent in other ways could’ve been spent in saving lives. This is an obvious point, and I think if he had said it this way (perhaps, in the words of a blog commenter, “”if people made different choices, taking into account all the constraints and tradeoffs they face, that there is no way they could postpone over 50% of deaths by an additional day,” he’d have gotten no attention for it, since lots and lots of people know this–it’s a valuable but obvious point.

It’s a paradox: had Becker said something correct, I wouldn’t have objected to it, but I wouldn’t have heard about it in the first place. Instead, he said something provocative and false, and he got everyone’s attention.

17 thoughts on “A bouquet of fallacies from Gary Becker and Stephen Dubner

  1. you said: " Or, if we want to put a statistical spin on it, choosing an action that increases the probability that you'll die sooner."

    you should continue that sentence with "sooner than the maximum expected lifespan of a human being"

    becker's idea is that humans routinely act such that their lifespans are systematically shorter than the maximum possible. as u mentioned, its coz they value not just the length of the lifespan, but the quality thereof. you could choose actions, both individually and societally, that would enable us to live the maximal amount of years, but that wouldnt be much of an interesting life.

    so i think your extended example is a bit off base. the decision to visit the grandparents, should be framed as :"what decision, visting them or not, using whatever mode, increase my expected lifespan? if i will NOT follow this decision, then i am voluntarily choosing a shorter life to gain "quality""

    so, at some point, your decision to visit (or not) the grandparents will hit upon the max life constraint. if staying in your house forever will actually probabilistically shorten your life, and driving to your grandparents house will also shorten it, there must be some "intermediate" decision (maybe flying, when the weather is good) that maximizes that lifespan.

    your core critique, that you cannot trade safety for all other things, is interesting, but strange. why isnt it possible?

    we know as humans, our lifespans are finite. the question, if we are interested, is to maximize said finite lifespans. you can trade-off so many things, to achieve this one goal. but at somepoint, you cant go higher than the finite lifespan, given technological realities.

    the fact that most people/societies believe that the maximizing the lifespan of a human is only 1 goal out of many laudible goals, is proof that we voluntarily will want shorter lives, but more interesting ones.

    i think this is where u are most true, and the real reason Becker is wrong: "there's a bigger problem here, which is that people die all the time, even while making statistically correct decisions."

    there comes a point where NO possible action will lengthen the expected lifespan. in this case, we cannot call this death as suicide, coz there is literally nothing more that can be done to maximize it, assuming thats all u cared about. moreover, if you tried, you might lessen the expected lifespan of other people coz you are siphoning resources from others — this would be considered "homicide". in this case, an economist might say that this society is along the efficiency frontier — pareto optimal, etc…

    also interesting is random disease. again, here u are right. death by disease (cancer, etc) is something where no action can increase that persons expected lifespan, without taking resources from others. pareto optimal…

  2. I wonder are you over-reacting somewhat, admittedly to an over-statement? Take out accidental death, murders etc so you are left with death by natural cause. This still leaves the majority of deaths: I don't know what proportion. Lifestyle does have a big effect on mortality. So I am guessing that most of us are not choosing the lifestyle that will maximize life expectancy. I suppose that's what Becker is thinking. In a way its a rather banal statement made "sexy" by the allusion to suicide. Personally I would not have put it that way because it somewhat trivializes the very serious problem of "real" suicide.

  3. Kevin:

    I agree that people make tradeoffs, but I don't know that people really know what it takes to increase life expectancy. And, again, what about the people who do whatever it is you're supposed to do to live longer? They die too!

    The thing that bugs me is that I don't think Becker or Dubner reflected upon the costs–including health costs–that could arise from trying to live life ultra-safely. They would see this in other contexts, I think. For example, if someone were to propose a new safety regulation (perhaps as part of some international trade agreement), I imagine Becker and Dubner would pop up and explain how such a seemingly beneficial rule could actually cost lives, by taking away resources that could be used to improve living conditions and life expectancy in other ways. And I think Becker and Dubner would be right to make such an argument. Regulations have costs and benefits and it's naive to think otherwise. But, then, why be so sure that people are being suicidal (or, more generally, that they have available options for extending their lives)? These options have costs too, which could very well result in lower life expectancies in other ways.

  4. I have a friend who worked for Becker. When the friend asked him how he felt when he was awarded the nobel prize, he replied, "I was worried people had become too comfortable with my theories".

    I later sat in on several lectures of his. I agree with him. I think Becker's gimmick is that any problem can be analyzed in a utility-theoretic framework. That doen't mean that all well-constructed theories are correct.

    The flaw with this argument of Becker's is that "extending life" and "everything else" are not strictly substitutes. They are complements. To sustain you must endure riskier short-term endeavors (driving to work) which will pay your grocery and medical bills. There is undeniably some substitution of risk aversion for pleasurable activities (driving to the opera), but getting the wrong flip of the coin shouldn't be called suicide.

  5. Andrew: On knowing,sure. But we mostly assume (rightly or wrongly) that people have some information or priors: I believe that smoking is bad for me so if I choose to smoke I know that I will probably die sooner than otherwise. For that reason I choose not to smoke but I have other lifestyle choices (alcohol, economics) which are probably bad for me but I quite like them.
    So most economists would sign up to some form of rationality whether the hard-line Muth expectations type or otherwise. As you probably know, there is a lot of counter-evidence from psychology and elsewhere and behavioural economists have been busy thinking about this. The fact Kahneman (& I suppose H.Simon earlier) got the Prize is indicative of how influential this work is.

    My sense is that the Becker/Dubner argument works better (though not necessarily perfectly) with lifestyle choices than the accident/safety story you have in mind.

  6. Even if most people die in old age, who can say if they had the resources to extend it or if it would be possible to extend it with those resources? Since when are they limitless and all powerful? I don't see the wealthiest living forever. I don't see anyone living past 120. If this were a matter of choice and resources, shouldn't someone have made the choice and had the resources? The alternative to "suicide" must be truly awful for that to have been everyone's "choice".

  7. Some background that may be useful in evaluating Becker's comments on suicide: his 1st wife committed suicide 40 or more years ago, leaving him with 2 daughters who were not yet adults. This is not in his Wikipedia entry, but I knew one of his daughters a few years after this, and heard it from her.

  8. You misinterpret Becker. Much of your post is devoted to making the obvious point that using resources to reduce the chance of dying from cause A may increase the chance of dying from cause B. So? You will anticipate this if you are informed and rational.

    I don't agree that all deaths are suicide, but Becker's idea is much more subtle than you give him credit for. You incorrectly read Becker as saying something stupid, and then attack him for the views you mistakenly attribute to him.

  9. cant we see it this way: the fact that it is so intuitive/natural that people commonly trade away maximizing longevity for quality of life means that people are voluntarily willing to live shorter (than absolutely possible) lives?

    this precludes situations where its impossible to extend one's life by giving up something else. there are many situations like this, but they are special situations, right? like, living with a fatal disease, unlucky deaths, etc. most folks dont die coz they were randomly hit by a bus while sitting on bench on the sidewalk, right?

    most people (correct me if i'm wrong) in the US die from lifestyle diseases, cancers such as liver and lung cancer. the term lifestyle diseases AUTOMATICALLY suggests the trade-off becker is alluding to. no?

  10. Using the word "suicide" to mean "failing to maximize life expectancy" is certainly a questionable use of terminology. But it isn't like Becker didn't qualify the remark and make it crystal clear what he meant: "…to some extent… in the sense that they could have been postponed if more resources had been invested in prolonging life."

    The idea Becker is getting across, that people do not act as if they are simply maximizing length of life but rather trade off that goal for other goals, is completely uncontroversial in health economics. The counterarguments here that speak to the argument involve computational limits to optimality, but they miss the point entirely. People knowingly do things which reduce their life expectancy because life expectancy isn't all that they care about, not because they really want to just maximize life expectancy but make errors.

    You can, in fact, "trade off everything for safety," subject to bounded rationality, but people do not. Tonight for dinner I will eat steak, even though my best understanding is that my life expectancy will be lower than if I were to have a skinless chicken breast instead. I would still choose steak even if I were somehow absolutely certain that eating steak was less healthy than eating chicken taking all relevant characteristics into account.

    Of the four alleged fallacies listed, the first two are just borderline ad hominem attacks which have nothing whatsoever to do with Becker's claim. The second two are not "fallacies" but rather confused commentary on basic microeconomics, and the confusion isn't Gary Becker's.

    Finally, the notion that suicidal behavior cannot be mathematically modeled is simply strange to me. Any lit search engine will readily display all sorts of mathematical modeling of suicide, much of it taken to data. Insulting all of the scholars who have contributed to this literature, presumably without reading any of it, is not good form. (For the record, I haven't written anything on the topic.)

  11. I took it as a rather silly remark that we may classify as provocative because it comes from a prize winner. If the same exact words came from Sarah Palin, many would think it was idiotic while others would think she's being brilliant (note I'm not saying how). Is there value in such a statement? It exists in the eye of the beholder, which is a version of the transitive fallacy. One can ascribe additional meaning to it if one wants.

    What interests me about such statements is not the value one may find in them but how they manipulate discourse. The use of the loaded word suicide is meant to drive discussion in a particular direction the speaker wants. The problem with that is the actual topic may be completely ignored in favor of the spicier stuff. This is so common I now believe such speakers are more interested in the heat and light than in the content of the discussion. My feeling is that someone interested in discussing the actual merits of such a position would approach it in a manner less calculated to inflame.

  12. Js:

    I don't agree that Becker's idea is subtle. I think he's saying that resources spent in other ways could've been spent in saving lives. This is an obvious point, and I think if he had said it this way, he'd have gotten no attention for it, since lots and lots of people know it.

    If Becker had said that, I'd have no problem. But that's not what he said. He said "most (if not all!) deaths." This includes my grandmothers, it includes four-year-olds dying of leukemia, people who get run over on the street, and all the rest. "If not all" implies that Becker thinks that it's at least plausible to liken these deaths to suicide.

    Beyond this, as I discussed in the blog, Becker is missing the more subtle point that resources spent to save lives could cost lives in other ways. This is a point that many people have made regarding topics such as labor laws in poor countries: spending resources to make people safer in the short term might have negative economic, and thus, health consequences. Had Becker not overstated his main point, he might have reflected on this more subtle issue.


    You refer to two of the fallacies I mention as "borderline ad hominem attacks." It's the nature of fallacies that they are easy to fall into, but they seem obvious once you point them out. (Think of simple visual and cognitive illusions, for example.) It may not be the most polite thing to suggest that someone has made such a mistake, but I think that we're unduly restricting our discourse if we avoid discussing such errors. And, just to be clear, I'm not using these fallacies to shoot down Becker's argument; I'm saying that I disagree with Becker's argument on substantive grounds, and then I'm speculating on how he could've made his mistakes.

    I agree with you on the chicken and the steak (at least, given our current state of knowledge about health, which is all we can go with on making our decisions). Where I disagree is with the statement that possibly all deaths are avoidable that way. See my first two paragraphs of the present comment.

    On other items, I agree with you that behavior, including suicidal behavior, can be mathematically modeled. I model behavior all the time. As I note in my blog above, I don't know that such modeling is always so helpful to people, but, like Becker, I do it anyway.

    Finally, you suggest that I'm "insulting all of the scholars who have contributed to this literature." I don't think I'm insulting any scholars here. (I don't even think you're insulting me by saying that I'm confused on basic microeconomics. Microeconomics is hard, and I'm sure I am confused in many points.) As noted above, I do mathematical modeling all the time; it's what I do for a living! For me to speculate on some of the underlying reasons for Becker's work is not to insult it, any more than it would be insulting to speculate on why Picasso painted the way he did, or to speculate on what anyone does.


    I agree. Becker (and Dubner) made deliberately provocative statements, and I was provoked. As a quantitative researcher, I do worry about the impact of these sorts of statements on the public discourse. I like cost-benefit analyses; even when I disagree with them, they have details that can be criticized and improved upon. But I'm not such a fan of over-the-top statements such as Becker's "suicide" remark, because it points the discussion away from details and subtleties. It's a statement that has the air of being tough-minded and rigorous but is not really empirical.

    That said, I could well believe that Becker and Dubner are doing a service by throwing this statement out there, in that it opens the door others (including Becker himself) to study the issue more deeply. I'd prefer if they were to do this without overstating their case, but maybe that's just a difference in style.

  13. as one who has had several friends actually commit suicide and who spent several years trying to do so myself (by ignoring my health and hoping for a quick death in my sleep), im disturbed by the "metaphoric" use of the term…but i do tend to believe that although most would deny it, everyone does have a subconscious "death wish" which does affect their conscious choices…until each individual brings that into their consciousness and deals with it, involuntary suicides are inevitable…

  14. The post pays attention to fallacies, rather than to Becker's state of mind. That is an honest, even-handed thing to do. Pardon me while I behave less scrupulously. Becker has a history of claiming that intervention is mistaken because people are largely responsible for the outcomes they face. Here, he has made inflammatory use of language, then qualified that use in a way that allows him to argue that he did not misspeak. The point is made here that he could simply have avoided the inflammatory language, and had his comment received as non-controversial. So we can wonder why he chose to torture the language in order to give the impression of controversy.

    Becker also clearly failed to think as completely about what he was saying as he might have done, in claiming that perhaps all deaths could be delayed by shifting resources. That is untrue, and among children it is certainly untrue that the resource choice is generally not theirs and so they cannot be engaging in suicide, even in Becker's fanciful use of the word. Even granting Becker license typically reserved to the Queen of Hearts, he is simply wrong in his statement.

    So, we have a man who tortures the language in making his point, makes statements that are simply wrong, even if we grant him the privilege of redefining words at will, and it turns out that all of this fuss and strain serves his particular view of the world.

    Sorry, but we don't need to be gentle with a man who engages in propaganda. When one abuses logic and language to serve your own ideology, that's propaganda, and it needs to be recognized as such. Dubner may simply be falling, again, for the outrageous attractions of controversial claims. Or he may share Becker's agenda. Either way, he has made himself a tool for Becker's agenda – not a position that should earn praise for a putative journalist.

  15. As noted by several commenters, underneath Becker's statment is the uncontroversial idea that people don't always act to maximize their expected lifespan. This statement alone, however, is not enough for Becker's suicide point. This latter argument requires, that people act to maximize their lifespan and that the failure to act in this fashion leads most (if not all) individuals to die earlier than they would have.

    Another way to say this is that anytime you fail to act in a way that maximizes your lifespan you are "attempting suicide". To get the actual "suicides" your death must be brought forward due to the non-maximizing action. As noted in the original blog post, connecting non-maximizing action in general with early death is hardly trivial.

  16. I think your PPPS nailed it.
    Attention-maximization competes with social epistemology maximizzation.
    You and Prof. Bostrom are on the more noble end of the spectrum.
    I suppose in the grand scheme of things, non-celebrity Prof. Becker is too.

  17. I think the notion stems from the use of the human capital model applied to health, as in Grossman 1972. From the handbook on health econ, here is a line from grossman: "Since health capital is one component of human capital, a person inherits an initial stock of health that depreciates with age – at an increasing rate at least after some stage
    in the life cycle – and can be increased by investment. Death occurs when the stock
    falls below a certain level, and one of the novel features of the model is that individuals
    "choose" their length of life."

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