More or Less was an idea born of the sense that numbers were the principal language of public argument. And yet there were few places where it was thought necessary to step back and think - in the way we often step back to think about language - about the way we use figures: what they really measure, what kind of truth, if any, they capture. Tim Harford explains - and sometimes debunks - the numbers and statistics used in political debate, the news and everyday life.
Skip to content
My OpenLearn Profile
- Personalise your OpenLearn profile
- Save your favourite content
- Get recognition for your learning
More or Less
Tim Harford presents BBC Radio 4's surprising and refreshing guide to statistics in the news.
Available on BBC iPlayerBBC Radio 4 on Friday
5th October 2018 at 4:30PM
Are boys getting more top A Level grades than girls? Last week it was reported that more boys were getting top grades than girls in A Levels. This bucked a trend which previously showed that girls got better grades. But is it as simple as boys getting better? We find out that it really depends on what subjects you take. Is a lack of school swimming lessons leading to more deaths by drowning? Are more young people really drowning due to children in primary schools receiving fewer swimming lessons? That was the question posed to us by one loyal listener after she read newspaper headlines suggesting that was the case. So what do the numbers say? Tim Harford talks to Mike Dunn from The Royal Life Saving Society. Why are dress sizes so weird? "What clothes size are you?" - the question every woman hates to be asked. Not only because it's a bit rude, but because quite frankly it's hard to know the answer. Today most shops hire a 'fit' model - a real life woman who they consider to have the dimensions of their perfect customer. They then create clothes to fit her dimensions - waste, hips and bust. More Or Less takes one size 8 fit model shopping to show how sizes differ between shops.
Grenfell Tower's death toll
In the early hours of June 14th a fire engulfed Grenfell Tower, a residential tower block in West London. A large number of people died and in the aftermath residents, the wider public, politicians and celebrities all expressed frustration that a tragedy like this one was able to happen in 21st Century Britain.
Some people were also sceptical at the numbers of fatalities being reported by the police - and then the media. Were the police being too conservative in their estimates?
A local resident emailed the programme asking us to look into the numbers. Tim Harford talks to Commander Stuart Cundy, who oversaw the Met police operation following the fire; to ask him why it is has been so hard to establish the death toll.
Houston - we have a problem
Hurricane Harvey has caused devastation in Texas and neighbouring states. Commentators have speculated that this will be one of the costliest storms in history. We explore why this might be - could the US Government's flood insurance programme be inadvertently contributing to the problem by supporting the buildings in flood plains?
How many sexual partners do we have?
Recently on the Today programme John Humphreys said: "Thirty years ago a man would have had eight sexual partners and women three, now those averages are 12 for men and eight for women" This sparked a discussion on Twitter among our listeners. How can the number of average partners of men and women be so different? We speak to Sir David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor of Risk at the University of Cambridge.
Are children in Manchester ready for school?
"Thousands of children in Greater Manchester are starting school unable to speak in full sentences or use the toilet" ran a headline in the Manchester Evening News earlier this week. The new mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham also made the claim. Can that really be true asked a loyal listener? More or Less investigates.
Will we need 10 new power plants by 2040 for the electric car revolution?
Sales of new petrol and diesel cars will be banned from 2040 in the UK. So it's expected there will be a huge increase in the number of electric vehicles on our roads. But what will happen when we all try and charge them? Newspaper headlines have quoted us as needing ten new nuclear power plants to cover it and some have even suggested we won't have enough power to charge these vehicles. So we set out to look at the numbers driving the electric car revolution.
Maths underpinning science
Professor Alison Etheridge from the University of Oxford tells the programme why maths can sometimes be overlooked. She talks about her interest in genetics and why mathematicians need to be more vocal about their work.
And we deal with a number of complaints about last week's programme.
Are natural disasters on the rise? Following the devastating hurricanes to have battered the Caribbean and the United States, the floods in Asia and the mudslides in Sierra Leone, the UN Secretary General told a press conference that the number of disasters in the world has quadrupled since the 1980s - is he right?
Theresa May said at Prime Ministers Question's that pay for certain police officers who started in 2010 had risen by 32%. This statement outraged the Police Federation - Tim Harford puts this claim into context and discovers that that the Prime Minister picked this particular group of officers for a reason.
We like a specific number on More or Less but the English language isn't always so exact. It turns out that people love words that give a sense of size, but are vague about an actual number, terms like zillion and umpteenth. Helen Zaltzman is the presenter of the podcast 'The Allusionist' that looks at the way we use language. Tim has been talking to her about what are called indefinite hyperbolic numbers.
A present for a Statistically significant other.
Last series, Dave called us for help. 'What should he buy his statistics-mad partner who also loved cross-stich?' Zillions of More or Less listeners got in touch to suggest ideas - so did he take their advice?
£350 million claim again
Boris Johnson has made the claim again that when the UK leaves the EU it will gain control of £350 million a week. The UK Statistics Authority has written to the Foreign Secretary to tell him it is a mis-use of official statistics to make this assertion. We take a look at why they have taken this action.
Disadvantaged students going to university
We look at two claims - is Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn correct to say that there are fewer students from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university now. Plus - is it true that disadvantaged students from England are twice as likely to go to university than those from Scotland.
Is it true that British vets train for seven years while in Spain it only takes a year to qualify?
The value of Half a Crown from 1887
A loyal listener and a friend were recently discussing a Half Crown coin that they found at a sale. They wanted to know how much it would be worth in today's money. The answer is not as straight forward as you might think.
Is Uber safe?
Recently Transport for London took the decision not to renew Uber's London license. One criticism of the company is that its drivers commit too many sexual offences. Billboards around the capital last year said that 32 of the 154 allegations of assault made against London taxi drivers between February 2015 and February 2016 involved Uber drivers. But is that a big number and how do the total number of allegations made compare to the years before Uber was even operating?
The Brits seeking European passports elsewhere
In partnership with Reality Check, More or Less has spoken to each of the other 27 countries in the EU to find out whether an increasing number of Brits living abroad have applied for citizenship. This has certainly been the trend in many countries. We'll reveal the most popular countries and tell the tale of how easy it may or may not have been to get the numbers!
How do we know if there is more domestic violence around?
If you want to look at whether the amount of domestic violence in the UK is going up or down, how would you measure it? Over the last three decades, this is something that Sylvia Walby, Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University, has been trying to figure this out. We speak to her about ways to improve the current statistics available.
Big polluters: container ships versus cars
A number of websites have claimed that '15 of the largest ships emit as much pollution as all the cars in the world.' That is a very catchy statement which gives an indication of the pollution produced by shipping containers around the world. But is it true. We look at the different types of emissions produced by container ships and cars.
Did missed appointments cost the NHS £1 billion last year?
New figures published recently suggest that the financial cost to the NHS for missed appointments was £1 billion last year. But our listenersare curious. How has this figure been worked out? And don't missed appointments actually ease the pressure on an overcrowded system?
Graduate pay - is it always higher than non-graduates' pay?
It is often claimed that if you go to university and get a degree, you will earn more than those who do not. But is that always true? We take a look to see if there are occasions when having a degree makes little difference or whether the benefit of a degree has changed over time.
How much cocaine is on a bank note?
Tim Harford speaks to Richard Sleeman who works for a firm, Mass Spec Analytical, that specialises in working out how much cocaine can be found on bank notes across the country. Do some parts of the country have more cocaine on their notes than others? Is it true that 99% of bank notes in London have cocaine on them?
Is it true that one in five can't name an author of literature?
Last year the Royal Society of Literature made this claim - but what was it based on? It turns out a polling company found that 20 percent questioned failed to name a single author. Should we be surprised? We took a look at the data.
Diet Coke Habit
The New York Times claims that Donald Trump drinks 'a dozen' Diet Cokes a day. With each can of 330ml containing 42mg of caffeine - what impact, if any, could this have on the President's health?
Gender Pay Gap
This week the Office for National Statistics has published analysis trying to find out why it is that on average women are paid less than men in specific industries and occupations. We examine their findings, as well as taking a look at the current discussion about equal pay at the BBC.
Alcohol reaction times
We take a look at a study that suggests that people's reaction speeds are affected over time by regular drinking. It recommends that official guidelines for the amount of alcohol consumed a week should be lowered. But what does the evidence show?
Bus announcements - when is too many?
Transport for London has introduced a new announcement on its buses to warn travellers that the bus is about to move. We discuss the benefit of such messages.
How many words do you need to speak a language?
Ein bier bitte? Loyal listener David made a new year's resolution to learn German. Three years later, that's about as far as he's got. Keen to have something to aim for, he asked More or Less how many words you really need to know in order to speak a language. We find out with help from Professor Stuart Webb, and put Tim through his paces to find out how big his own English vocabulary is.
First sexual experience - checking the facts
A short film for the Draw A Line campaign has made the claim that one in three girls first sexual experience is rape. This seems shockingly high, but what is the evidence? Is it just for the UK or a global figure? We go back to the reports that were used to source the claim, and find the research has been misinterpreted.
How long can a shark go for without eating?
A recent episode of Blue Planet II stated that after a large meal a Sixgill shark might not have to eat for 'up to an entire year'. Tim Harford speaks to Dr David Ebert, a shark expert who has studied the stomach contents of Sixgills over the years. And to Professor Alex Roger, a zoologist who advised the Blue Planet team, to try and find out how accurate the claim is and why the deep sea is still a mystery.
The wonder of Prime Numbers
Oxford mathematician Vicky Neale talks about her new book - Closing The Gap - and how mathematicians have striven to understand the patterns behind prime numbers.
A Swiss mummy has recently been identified as a distant ancestor of Boris Johnson. But some people have been getting tangled up over just how many great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmothers the Foreign Secretary might have. We tackle an email from one listener - none other than the broadcaster Stephen Fry.
How many transgender people are there in the UK? Plus a statistical take on park runs.
How many people have UN staff raped?
It was reported in a number of the newspapers this week that UN staff are responsible for 60,000 rapes in a decade. We unpick the back of an envelope calculation that has resulted in this extraordinary figure.
Gender in literature
How are women depicted in books? Author Ben Blatt has carried out an analysis of the types of words used to describe them, and also their absence in some of the classics.
How many people did Stalin kill?
How do you extract facts from a regime that was so profoundly secretive? We speak to Professor James Harris and Professor Barbara Anderson about why there are so many different figures and how historians and demographers calculate death tolls by regimes.
The wealth of Mr Darcy
The male love interest of 'Pride and Prejudice' is supposed to be fabulously wealthy. It says in the early 19th century English novel that Mr Darcy has an income £10,000 a year - that seems to impress the fictional characters. Two hundred years later, it's not clear how remarkable it really is. We speak to Professor Stephen Broadberry of the University of Oxford.
Investigating the numbers in the news.
Series devoted to the world of numbers.
A BBC questionnaire has found 1 in 5 children surveyed were caring for a family member with an illness or disability. The suggestion is that this could mean that 800,000 secondary-school age children are carrying out some level of care. Loyal listeners have doubted there can be so many young carers. Tim Harford and Ruth Alexander look into the numbers.
On the 20 September 2017, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, where residents are United States citizens. George Washington University has published a report – commissioned by the Puerto Rican government – claiming that the hurricane accounted for nearly 3,000 deaths in Puerto Rico. President Trump disputed these official figures, tweeting that the Democrats were inflating the death toll to "make me look as bad as possible". So, who is right, and how do you determine who died as a result of a natural disaster? Tim Harford speaks to the lead investigator of the George Washington University report, Dr Carlos Santos-Burgoa.
The shadow chancellor John McDonnell recently claimed 'for the first time shareholders now take a greater share of national income than workers'. But is it true? Tim Harford speaks to The Financial Times’ economics editor Chris Giles.
Loyal listener David from Sheffield has been in touch to query a claim he heard on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week that more people visit museums than attend football matches. Ruth Alexander finds out if we really do favour culture over the nation’s game.
Plus, what is the most dangerous sport? Tim Harford thinks he has the definitive answer.
From the 10th July to the 31st of October 1940 the skies above Britain were a battle zone. The German Luftwaffe launched large scale attacks aiming to reach London, they were held back and ultimately defeated by the Royal Air Force which included many nationalities. The bravery of the pilots – known as ‘The Few’ - cannot be disputed but is it really true that the average life expectancy of a spitfire pilot during the Battle of Britain was just four weeks, as is often claimed. Tim Harford and Lizzy McNeill look into the statistics and consider which of the armed forces had the highest death rate.
Does domestic violence increase by 30% when England loses a World Cup match? It’s a claim that’s often made and has most recently heard on the Freakonomics podcast. But is it true?
Is the tonic wine Buckfast really linked to 40 per cent of arrests in Scotland, as the website LADbible claims? Jordan Dunbar discovers the numbers are much exaggerated.
A listener noticed something rather strange while tucking into a bowl of his favourite cereal: “Sainsbury's Blueberry Wheaties purport to contain 72% wheat and 35% blueberry filling. This makes 107%. When I put this to Sainsbury's, I am met with incomprehension. ‘What's wrong?’ they say," he emails. We investigate, and find out the supermarket is not making a mathematical mistake.
And, has there been a rapid resurgence in the number of babies being named Ian?
This week BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind programme announced the results of The Loneliness Experiment. It was a large survey conducted by the programme in collaboration with the Wellcome Collection. The largest survey into the issue of loneliness to date, said All in the Mind, while the accompanying BBC press release reported that “The survey results indicate that 16-24 year olds experience loneliness more often and more intensely than any other age group. 40% of respondents aged 16-24 reported feeling lonely often or very often, while only 29% of people aged 65-74 and 27% of people aged over 75 said the same.” In the editors' notes, the press release cautions that “This was a self-selecting sample, so people experiencing loneliness might have been more attracted to take part, inflating reported levels of loneliness.” But much of the reporting by other BBC outlets and the wider media was not so restrained. Tim Harford speaks to Deirdre Toher from the University of the West of England about why the survey's results need careful interpretation.
Listeners have been asking us to explain the schools funding row. When headteachers marched in protest at school spending last week, the Minister for School Standards, Nick Gibb, went on BBC Radio 4's Today programme to say "We are spending record amounts on our school funding. We are the third highest spender on education in the OECD”. BBC Education correspondent Sean Coughlan explains how he discovered that the OECD figure includes university tuition fees paid by students.
Is it true that "Polish Pilots Shot down 60% of German Aircraft on Battle of Britain Day"? Lizzie McNeill fact-checks this claim found on the side of a van.
New figures reveal that same-sex divorce rates are higher among women than among men. Tim Harford discusses why this may be with Marina Adshade, economist at the Vancouver School of Economics and author of “Dirty Money”, a book about the economics of sex and love.
Plus, what makes a listener loyal? A nine-year debate rages on.
Copyright free: The image is a drawn diagram from an academic at the OU
Uncertainty within the Realm of Statistics
Mathematician and tutor, Katie Chicot, questions the role of "certainty" within the realm of statistical data. She interviews Carol Calvert on the issue, following her talk entitled 'Data – love the uncertainty'.Read now ❯Uncertainty within the Realm of Statistics
Tony Hirst and Hans Rosling introduce us to visualising development data and explore bar charts, line charts and scatter graphs.Watch now ❯An introduction to visualising development data
Is there anything sinister in the statistics which appears to show left-handed people die before their time?Read now ❯Diary of a data sleuth: When the data you don't collect affects the data you do
Study with the OU
Take your understanding of concepts, theories and applications in pure and applied mathematics to graduate level. You can also include optional statistics, theoretical physics or mathematics education. You'll cover a wide range of topics and develop an understanding of mathematical problems and approaches. Practise with essential methods and tools, and increase your familiarity with mathematical software. Gain an appreciation of the role and construction of rigorous proof. And build your experience of communicating mathematical arguments and conclusions.Learn more ❯BSc (Honours) Mathematics
Copyright free: Pixnio under (PBD) licence
BSc (Honours) Mathematics and Statistics
Gain extensive knowledge of probability and statistics. Combine this with pure mathematics or applied mathematics. This degree will equip you with problem-solving and decision-making tools. You'll experience using statistical software and practise conducting and communicating statistical investigations. You'll develop your understanding of time series analysis, multivariate data analysis, regression analysis, and hypothesis testing. You'll also explore classical and Bayesian statistics.Learn more ❯BSc (Honours) Mathematics and Statistics
Develop your knowledge and understanding of theoretical physics and the underpinning mathematics. This degree will teach you how to use essential techniques and relevant software. Explore fundamental physics concepts, including Newtonian mechanics, special relativity, electromagnetism and quantum mechanics. Practise using applied mathematics tools, including mathematical methods, modelling and numerical methods. You'll also learn skills in communicating clear and concise arguments and conclusions.Learn more ❯BSc (Honours) Mathematics and Physics
You might not realise it, but maths is an essential component of healthcare. In fact, sloppy calculations can have fatal consequences. This free course, Using numbers and handling data, is designed for those contemplating a future in the health services industry.Learn more ❯Using numbers and handling data
Modern society is often referred to as 'the information society' - but how can we make sense of all the information we are bombarded with? In this free course, Visualisation: Visual representations of data and information, you will learn how to interpret, and in some cases create, visual representations of data and information that help us to see things in a different way.Learn more ❯Visualisation: Visual representations of data and information
This free course, Exploring data: graphs and numerical summaries, will introduce you to a number of ways of representing data graphically and of summarising data numerically. You will learn the uses for pie charts, bar charts, histograms and scatterplots. You will also be introduced to various ways of summarising data and methods for assessing location and dispersion.Learn more ❯Exploring data: Graphs and numerical summaries
Dr Katie Chicot, Senior Lecturer, Staff Tutor in Mathematics & Statistics
Katie Chicot researches infinite combinatorial structures.
Katie completed her PhD in mathematics at the University of Leeds. Desiring to bring the beauty and clarity of mathematics to a broader audience Katie became the Clothworkers’ Fellow in Mathematics at the Royal Institution. Soon after she became an Associate Lecturer with the Open University and then a Staff Tutor.
Katie is involved in many projects which bring maths to the public and schools. She is a Holgate Lecturer with the London Mathematical Society and serves on the council of the UK Mathematics Trust.
Katie has an interest in gender in STEM and has been made resources that help women to return to STEM employment such as the short course Return to STEM.
Tackling mathematical problems and encouraging others to engage with mathematical investigations are the cornerstones of Katie’s work.