By the numbers: body-part appraisals don’t add up

Some of the stuff I find scientifically interesting just isn’t very practical.

How do cats lap up milk with their tongue? Have you ever tried to do that? Why are bees’ eyes hairy? The fact that the universe is expanding surely affects us somehow. It’s scientific but it just doesn’t seem very pressing.

Sometimes science is very practical and delivers new, important products like iPhones and Wii consoles. Science has been used to create chickens that are 90 percent chicken breasts. Science has created watermelons the size of grapefruit, but they cost the same as full-sized watermelons. See, very practical.

At the same time, a lot of practical things aren’t very scientific, such as life and disability insurance. Did you know that if I die, my wife will get $10,000 dollars? That’s practical? I’d call it incentive. The fact is I am only worth $10,000 because I am so old. If I were younger than 25, I would be worth $120,000.

Now that kind of reasoning is patently unscientific. Show me a 25-year-old who is worth that kind of money. I was that age once, I know. However, now that I might actually be worth something, the insurance company says I am worth less. Does that sound scientific to you?

In the disability part of the policy, insurance companies put different values on body parts. This practice certainly isn’t biblical. “The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of thee.” If I lose both hands, both feet, both eyes or one hand and one eye — but I am still alive — I will still get the full $10,000 at dismemberment. (Boy, in today’s economy that is really tempting.) It isn’t clear if I have to lose all of those things, or just one of the pairs to collect. Do I get the money if I lose both hands, or do I also have to lose both feet and eyes? That wouldn’t be practical. I mean, if it’s just one hand and one eye, then it might be worth it.

You would have to be pretty determined to cash in though. If you quit after the first appendage and only took off one hand, one foot or one eye, you would only get half of the settlement. That makes the other body part equal in value to a whole body. (That doesn’t seem scientific.)

Another thing, is half my life over if I lose a leg? This assumes that hands, feet and eyes are all of equal worth and that without all of them you aren’t worth anything at all. (They may have a point there.)

I wonder what the insurance company would do if you found the part you’d lost. I think they should have to pay even if the doctors reattach the appendage. At the least, that would help defray the rising costs of medical insurance.

A hand is worth more than a bird in a bush and it is obviously worth more than a foot. I can’t play guitar with my feet. Is the loss of one eye exactly half the loss of losing two eyes? I don’t think so! If you lose two eyes, you can’t see at all. Insurance companies assume that losing two eyes is the same as being dead. I bet blind people don’t think so.

How did insurance people arrive at these values? Did they do a scientific study to determine the amount of pain involved? On who? Is that legal? Was the pain suffered in losing a body part exactly half the pain of dying? How do they know? Putting value on body parts doesn’t seem either practical or scientific.

I think these are imminently practical questions that science should address. But science costs money and, unfortunately, the folks with the most to gain from the answer to these questions are the least valuable people.

Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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