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OU on the BBC: More or Less - Inside interview

Updated Friday 26th October 2007

Tim Harford became presenter of More Or Less in October 2007 - and one of his first tasks was to be grilled by Kevin McConway, academic consultant for the Open University. Kevin was keen to discover what all those figures meant to him - and why he was getting involved with the series.

This interview was originally published in October 2007. Click the following links to listen to a more up to date interview with Tim or find out more about the current series of More or Less.

Tim Harford Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Fran Monks Tim, what attracted you to becoming the new More or Less presenter?

Tim: Well, I think it’s very important that we understand the numbers that surround us. In every news report, you’ll see statistics quoted, research cited, and it’s often done very lazily or with a deliberate intention to mislead. So I think one of the reasons why More or Less is so important, is that it’s obviously about statistics, which I see a lot in my role as a writer about economics, but of course it’s not just economics, it’s science, demography, sociology and the rest.

And something else which I think is important is there’s a real role for a programme like More or Less to bring good use of statistics to light. There is a lot of very careful work out there being done by everybody from economists to epidemiologists, who are really trying to work out what works and what doesn’t, whether you’re talking about the education system, whether you’re talking about treating diseases, and what these people say has a big effect on how we’re governed as well.

you don’t need to be a numbers boffin to understand the statistics behind everyday questions

So I think if you can understand this sort of research, you really understand the world around you when you can understand the ways the governments are thinking. So that’s very important. And I don’t think, by any means, that it has to be particularly complicated, you don’t need to be a numbers boffin to understand the statistics behind everyday questions, such as, 'Does it matter who my child goes to school with or not'. I mean this is the kind of thing that the parents think about all the time but we’re just trying to present credible answers to that sort of question.

How does your economics background help you to present this confusing world of numbers?

Tim: Well, I think, for one thing, economists have a bit of a nose for the dodgy statistic. When I was taught economics, one of the first things I was taught was how to spot bad statistics, which I think is a very useful skill, and of course it’s much easier to spot bad statistics than it is to create good statistics from scratch, but still that debunking point is very important. But the other thing that economics gives you, I think, is a real sense of the right sort of comparison, so an idea of, you know, are we talking about a coincidence here or are we talking about real causation? Where we see this number, what are we actually comparing it to? These are the sort of things that economists have to do all the time. So I think it’s a very common sense approach to statistics, and I think that common sense is what More or Less is all about, so I hope that my economics is going to fit in well with that.

What’s a bad statistic?

Tim: A bad statistic is one that accidentally, or quite often deliberately, completely misleads, either because it’s false, or because although it’s true, it just gives utterly the wrong impression because the concept is wrong. I discussed this with Andrew Dilnot, the previous presenter of More or Less, when I met him recently, and in his view the worst statistic of all time was that the number of children killed in the United States has doubled every year since 1953. And it doesn’t take very much maths to say okay well that would be, let’s just say there’s one in 1953 and two in 1954, it would mean four in 1955, eight in 1956, sixteen in 1957, and pretty soon you work out that by about 1980 the entire population of the United States will have died out. So that’s just an example of a bad statistic, but there are plenty out there, but there are also very, very good, valuable, important statistics, excellent work being done by statisticians, and I think we ought to focus on the good statistics as well as the bad in More or Less.

Kevin, you and your OU colleagues help people to understand and assess numbers and statistics, how does More or Less add to the work you do?

Kevin: Well, in my part of the faculty, we do a lot of direct teaching of OU students about statistics, mathematics, and in other parts of the University economics is taught as well. However, what’s going on there is we’re taking people who have specifically chosen to study some maths, some statistics, some economics, whatever it might be, and therefore, you can kind of assume that they’re open to the ideas in that or they wouldn’t have signed up for the course.

Also, they’re studying for maybe twenty hours a week, in some cases even more, and that’s really quite a substantial time commitment, and they’re sometimes studying things that are technically quite difficult. But that’s far from being all there is to numbers, to statistics. There’s a lot that can be understood without any major technical background, simply by people applying common sense and having some exposure to the right sort of questions to ask. These are questions that anybody can ask, and anybody more or less could understand the answers to, so we’re not talking about rocket science, to come out with the old cliché.

numerical information is in every news bulletin, its part of our lives

 

There’s also the thing that people who work with numbers haven’t always got a terribly good public image. You know, the economists are seen as dealing with doom and gloom and thinking about nothing but pound signs, that’s not true but that’s what some people think. Mathematicians are seen as a lot of sociopathic weirdoes that don’t think in the same way as anybody else in our part of the universe, and statisticians are well, statistics is boring, so people who work in it all the time must be terribly boring. But, actually, it isn’t like that. I mean, numerical information is in every news bulletin, its part of our lives, we’re actually all terribly interested in it in certain contexts - in relation to sport, in relation to opinion polls, and things like that.

So More or Less allows us to reach out to a much wider audience than we do in our direct teaching courses and the books we write and so on, to tell people, without preaching to them, without apparently teaching them in any way, this is stuff that you can do, this is stuff that you actually need to think about to be an engaged citizen in our world. We can do that to some extent with the courses but we can do it much more widely with More or Less.

 

Tim, how can you help us to get a grip on some of the critical figures?

 

Tim: Well, how do we get a grip on the critical figures, the important numbers that surround us? I mean there are some very simple things that anybody can do. So, one thing, which is something More or Less has been campaigning on for years, is just to ask yourself some basic questions. Number one, that number that I just heard that some politician spat out at me, or some journalist recited, is that actually a big number? When someone is quoting a £100 million of spending, you think to yourself, well hang on, there are sixty million people in the country, so £100 million of spending, oh hang on, did they just reveal that that was over three years? Okay, so that’s about £30 million a year for sixty million people so that’s roughly 50p per person per year. And that’s not very complicated maths. Now we understand whether to judge this as a large number or not.

I mean the second thing that you can do, if your intuition doesn’t back that up, is we mostly have access to the internet now. It’s very, very quick and easy just to check something, whether something makes sense. I was recently having an argument with an organisation. They pointed out that the Green Belt has been shrinking by three square miles a year; that’s three square miles a year has been given over to development. And so that sounds very worrying. So, is that a big number principle? So if they said well hang on a moment, is three square miles a year a lot? And I have no idea, off the top of my head, I don’t really know how big three square miles is. I don’t know how big the Green Belt is. But you can very quickly check, and if I recall correctly, the Green Belt around London is about 2,000 square miles. So three square miles a year is not nothing, but it would take 66 years for 10% of it to disappear. And that was available to anybody with an internet connection, which may of us have in offices, many of us have at home, you can very quickly compare.

And then a third thing you always want to ask, which is I think is a related question, is just to say well, that number that I’ve heard, what is that compared to? If someone says that fifty people die in some particular way, or because of some particular disease, just ask yourself, well hang on a minute, if this disease wasn’t present, how many people would be dying? If this condition wasn’t present, if this policy had been changed, what would be going on? There was a very interesting example of that in the last series of More or Less about rail accidents, and we look at the number of people who die in accidents on the railways and it looks very worrying, but when you actually compare it to the number of people who used to die in rail accidents, the rate has been falling fairly dramatically. So obviously every death is a death too many, but just that question, well what are we actually comparing this to, I think is very important. And, to be honest, we all have the mental arithmetic skills, the research skills to ask ourselves these very simple questions.

So we shouldn’t take statistics at face value then?

Tim: Context is very important. I’m not saying the statistic is wrong. I’m not saying when you see the statistic on the number of people who die on the railways, or the rate at which Green Belt land is being given over to development, I’m not saying that these statistics are made up. I’m just saying that unless you make some relevant comparisons, to ask yourself well how much is this per person, or how much is this compared to that, then you don’t really know whether what you’re seeing is important or worrying or good news or bad news, you don’t really have any way of interpreting it at all.

you mustn’t throw your political sensibilities out of the window when faced with numbers

 

 

Kevin: It’s really that people sometimes think of statistics as being some absolute truth that’s sitting there, but you mustn’t throw your, what you might call, political sensibilities out of the window when faced with numbers. We’re not saying the numbers are wrong. We’re not saying people are using the numbers to lie. What we’re saying is there may be other things you need to look at, and asking the sort of questions that can help you to see if there is something else you might have looked at instead that might be more relevant, might be differently relevant, might put a different angle on it so that you can actually see a fuller picture.

Tim: Most of the categories that we use for statistical analysis are entirely artificial, they’re constructed for a purpose, and if the statisticians are good, then they’ll be constructed in a useful and informative way, and if the statisticians are bad, then the categories won’t make much sense. But good or bad, we have to understand what the categories mean. We know what three means, and we know what a square mile is. Well we know what the definition of a square mile is, not all of us have an image in our minds about how big a square mile really is, how many football pitches it is, for example. But categories like the Green Belt, well that’s a particular definition, it’s a political definition, and it may not actually accord with our common sense intuition. And the same thing applies to the concept of being given over to development. What does it mean to be given over to development? Does that mean any kind of development? Does that mean that houses are actually being built on this land or just that houses may in the future be built on this land? This is just an example.

So if we want to understand what’s really going on, we have to ask them some reasonably sensible questions about how these categories are constructed. That’s something I think that More or Less tries to do, and that of course is something you can’t always do with common sense. I mean common sense alone doesn’t tell you what the Green Belt is, common sense alone doesn’t tell you want given over to development means, but More or Less looks at this sort of question and sometimes finds surprising answers.

What do you think makes More or Less work?

Kevin: I think More or Less works because it tells good stories. A kind of strange thing to say about numbers but that’s what More or Less does. It tells fascinating stories, it tells interesting stories, they’re stories about numbers, but they’re stories that are told in ways that build on people’s experience, that will be comprehensible to people who haven’t got huge technical training in economics or statistics, or whatever it is, and they’re interesting stories. There’s a variety of stories in any programme. Almost all More or Less programmes have three, four, five different stories that they tell in the course of the programme. And the standard of the story telling is really good, and that’s an important reason why it works. It tells a story so we can understand, that are clearly relevant to us, and they’re interesting.

 
Playing cards Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

 

How do you go about really demystifying statistics?

Tim: Well, that’s a very good question, how to demystify statistics. Sometimes it’s simply a case of finding out what the statistics are when previously there aren’t any, or the statistics aren’t being reported. So something I’m working on at the moment, for example, is the idea of food miles, how far our food travels. And it’s often that those who care about such things, the local food movement environmentalists tell us we should be very, very worried about how far food travels. So, of course, a simple question is, well first how far does food travel, and second is, well how much of a problem is that. So that’s one thing is to simply actually ask well, hang on, we have a story here, we have a concern but we don’t have any numbers, can we go and find the numbers? And sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s difficult, but sometimes the simple process of gathering the numbers and working out how big or small a problem is tells its own story.

At other times, we simply pick up the reports that the headlines have covered and we ask ourselves well what’s going on here. At the moment, we’re working on the report on hazardous drinking that made the headlines recently. Put the stockbroker belt as the place, the most hazardous drinking capital of Britain, and so what we do is a report for the listeners, and we tell them what the report really says, and usually what the report really says is something different. So there we revealed a secret some of the newspapers didn’t bother to tell you, and we’ve told the story behind the story, and I think that’s also engaging - people want to be involved.

At other times, we’re just trying to put a human face on a story. I mean this evening I’m going to interview a software engineer mathematician, basically a nerd, who’s made millions writing computer programmes to carry out foreign exchange trades. There’s not really statistics behind this but what we’re trying to do is ask how much money can your maths degree really make you in the City, and that’s a human interest story, but of course it’s about numbers as well, so sometimes that’s the way we do it.

But, you know, I’m new to this, this is the first time I’ve presented a radio series. I’ve worked before on television and in print, and what’s exciting to me is it’s obvious that the producers who work on the show are fantastically experienced and fantastically creative, so I’m looking forward to them teaching me new ways to bring numbers to life.

Do you believe that economics, numbers and statistics can solve every day problems?

one of the best ways to understand the world is through statistics

Tim: I think they can because ultimately what are statistics but an attempt to understand the world around us, and many of the decisions that we make, to make smart decisions, we need to understand the world. So a decision about where to send your child to school, or whether you should be buying or selling your house, is going to of course depend on your personal circumstances and your own judgment, but it might also depend on whether you can trust school league tables, or whether you can believe those indices that say that house prices are going up, or house prices are going down. So if you want to move beyond your own personal experience, if you want to move beyond anecdote and make sensible decisions, you have to understand the world. And one of the best ways to understand the world is through statistics. But statistics have their risks, they can mislead us, and hopefully More or Less listeners are going to be less misled than others.

I think the straightforward challenge for us on More or Less is to choose some stories that have everyday relevance. It’s not that this is a ‘how to do it’ programme, that every single story is going to make your life better. Some of them, I think, we report just because we feel that they’re of public interest or we feel they’re just fun. But I think we also need to pick stories, we need pick issues, where what we’re covering is actually going to tell you something that you can go out and use. I think that’s an aim for the programme and I’m fairly confident we’re going to be able to fulfil it.

Kevin, how does More or Less work for you from a teaching perspective?

Kevin: I think it works very well from a teaching perspective. There’s always a risk actually in thinking of this sort of thing from a teaching perspective. If people think that the point of the programme is to teach them stuff, they’d probably turn off in droves. It doesn’t actually come across like that, and I think that’s a major strength, because there are other programmes that have looked at this sort of thing that have come across as really rather too teaching - More or Less just doesn’t, and I think that’s a great strength of it.

I mean what we try to say in the written teaching material that we produced at the OU, is to try to tell interesting stories about things that are relevant to people’s lives and involve numbers and statistics, economic concepts and so on like that. It’s sometimes quite difficult for us to do that in a print medium because the production times are quite long. You know, what people are interested in this month, by the time the course material’s appeared in their post box, they’re probably not terribly interested in it any more.

More or Less is produced on a current affairs schedule, therefore it can pick up things when they’re in the news, and it can build on those, and in doing that, it can persuade people that the approaches of economics, the idea of using statistical data where statistical data is available, going and looking for it where they aren’t available and so on, can apply to a great wide range of things, and that sort of rubs off in persuading some people to say, well there’s a lot of technical stuff here that I’d actually like to know more about. So it complements things we do in teaching in a lot of different ways.

However, I have to say that’s not the main purpose of the programme, and it’s not the main purpose of the OU’s involvement with the programme, that’s concerned much more with just showing people how this is interesting and relevant to them, showing anybody who happens to tune into Radio 4, and that can be hundreds of thousands or millions of people.

If people want to get to grips with the numbers that hit the headlines, what are the key concepts we should get our heads around?

if you haven’t got the context of the number then you don’t really have anything

Tim: Well, context is the most important thing. If you haven’t got the context of the number, both in terms of its scale, its importance, but also in terms of the political context, who’s telling you this number and why are they telling it to you, if you don’t have that, then I think you don’t really have anything. But I think the second very important concept, when it comes to statistics, is that of causation. So here’s a straightforward example. Taller children have greater reading skills. So does that mean we should put children in a mangle and start stretching them, or put them on vitamin supplements? Well, no, taller children are older, and older children have better reading skills. So the fact that taller children have better reading skills hasn’t really told us anything.

Now, that doesn’t mean that you can’t come up with a meaningful statistical analysis of the relationship between a child’s height and a child’s reading skills. So you can compare tall ten year olds and short ten year olds, tall six year olds and short six year olds, so you can do good work. But if you’ve just heard a statistic reported on the news without that sort of concept being mentioned, then often what you’ve got is a spurious correlation, and the difference between a spurious correlation and causation is a very, very important one. And I just wish the media paid a bit more attention to it because often, as a listener, you’re hearing, you don’t know whether you’re hearing a report of work that has been done properly to take account of causation or work that hasn’t been.

So those are things. Simply the size, the scales, the number, is it a big number, very important. The political context, who’s telling me this, why are they telling me it, that’s very important. And then, are we hearing about correlation here, which is not that interesting, or are we hearing about causation, which is always very interesting but much harder to prove.

What do you want like listeners to take away from More or Less?

when somebody tells you a statistic, ask yourself, 'Why are they telling me that?'

Kevin: I think the thing I’d really like you to take away, is when somebody tells you a statistic, ask yourself, 'Why are they telling me that?' That’s it.

Tim: Well, the message would be that if you listened to More or Less, at the end of the half hour, you will not only have had some fun but you will also have learned a couple of things that you didn’t otherwise know about the news that week. So I’d like to think of it as a programme which is not only enjoyable but is actually going to give you the inside story on what the media are not really reporting and should be.

This interview was originally published in October 2007

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The following materials were originally collected in October 2007

 

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