From Hans Rosling’s surprise hit TV show The Joy of Stats to visual snapshots of the numbers in the news, there seems to be a new love affair with statistics, especially when they come in a graphic form that can be grasped intuitively. It doesn’t take a maths degree to see that a straight line sloping upwards suggests a relationship between the height and age of schoolchildren, for example, or that a large blob represents more murders than a smaller blob. We are ready, perhaps too ready, to give credence to statistics, which appear to manifest the mysterious labours of the mathematically literate in transparent, self-explanatory form. We too rarely question the assumptions that underlie the figures, and too often forget that an evident correlation between two things – US oil production and the quality of rock ‘n’ roll, for example – does not necessarily mean there’s a causal relationship. And we are often beguiled into believing that the past automatically predicts the future – a graph which shows anything increasing exponentially in the past can only spell doom for the future.
We need statistics. By collecting lots of simple information in numerical form we can see patterns that may help us understand problems and spot underlying causes. But this is where things get tricky. If the number of Elvis Presley impersonators continues to increase as it did from 1957 (170 worldwide) to 2007 (over 85,000 worldwide) one in three of us will be Elvis impersonators by 2019. Is this likely? Public health and economics, among other disciplines, rely on modelling human behaviour the same way animal behaviour, or the behaviour of water molecules, can be modelled: by looking at what they’ve done so far. Not surprisingly, this leaves the predicted future looking very much like the past. But people are not data points, and both individuals and societies can behave in unpredictable ways. You can calculate your probability of living to be 100 (one in six of the current UK population) but that’s an educated estimate of the odds, not a guarantee. Are we in danger of turning statistical modelling from a useful analytical tool to the new astrology?
journalist and writer; co-writer and performer, Edinburgh Festival Fringe smash hit Your Days Are Numbered: the maths of death
actuarial partner, London, PwC
author, Velvet Glove, Iron Fist and The Spirit Level Delusion: fact-checking the Left's new theory of everything
Chair: Hilary Salt
founder, First Actuarial plc; chair, Manchester Salon
Saturday 29 October, 12.15pm until 1.15pm, Lecture Theatre 2
The Battle of Ideas festival has a huge range of intriguing debates on tomorrow and Sunday. Readers of this blog might be particularly interested in the following...
Drinking by numbers: should we count our alcohol units?
Saturday 29 October, 10.30am until 12.00pm, Henry Moore Gallery Society Wars
associate fellow, Institute of Ideas; editor, Culture Wars; editor, Debating Humanism; co-founder, Manifesto Club
Dr Richard Smith
board member, Public Library of Science; former editor, British Medical Journal; author, The Trouble with Medical Journals
policy manager, SABMiller
Chair: Josie Appleton
director, civil liberties group, Manifesto Club
Doing it for charity?
Saturday 29 October, 12.15pm until 1.15pm, Henry Moore Gallery Society Wars
social policy writer; convenor, IoI Social Policy Forum; co-editor, The Future of Community
chief executive, Brook; chair, Compact Voice, the voluntary sector network
features editor, Catholic Herald; features writer, Daily Telegraph
Chair: Sheila Lewis
director, Volanti Consulting
Your mind, your high: is recreational drug use morally wrong?
Saturday 29 October, 1.30pm until 3.00pm, Courtyard Gallery Battle for Morality
Dr Michael Fitzpatrick
GP; author, The Tyranny of Health: doctors and the regulation of lifestyle and Defeating Austism: a damaging delusion
chief executive, UK Drug Policy Commission
Professor Neil McKeganey
director, Centre for Drug Misuse Research
Dr Fiona Measham
senior lecturer, criminology, Lancaster University; chair, Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs Polysubstance Use Working Group
Chair: Suzy Dean
freelance journalist; co-founder, IoI Current Affairs Forum
Eating ethics: are some foods morally bad for you?
Saturday 29 October, 1.30pm until 3.00pm, Café Food Fight
journalist and food writer; columnist, Guardian
freelance food writer and TV presenter; judge, The Great British Menu
freelance journalist; researcher, development and environment
award-winning journalist; writer on food and food policy; author, May Contain Bones (forthcoming); contributing editor, Prospect magazine
Chair: Rob Lyons
deputy editor, spiked; writer on science and risk; author, Panic on a Plate: how society developed an eating disorder
Moral panics or just panic?
Saturday 29 October, 5.15pm until 6.30pm, Upper Gulbenkian Gallery Thought for the day
columnist, The Times; author, Voodoo Histories
editor, spiked; author, Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas
columnist and broadcaster; writer, Evening Standard, Sunday Times and Guardian; 2011 winner of Orwell Prize for Political Journalism
Chair: Claire Fox
director, Institute of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze
And many more...