Friday, 28 October 2011

The Battle of Ideas

Tomorrow I'll be at the Battle of Ideas at the Royal College of Art, London, to take part in a session titled 'Seduced by stats?'

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?


Timandra Harkness
journalist and writer; co-writer and performer, Edinburgh Festival Fringe smash hit Your Days Are Numbered: the maths of death

Bryan Joseph
actuarial partner, London, PwC

Chris Snowdon
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

Dolan Cummings
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

Christine Thompson
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

Dave Clements
social policy writer; convenor, IoI Social Policy Forum; co-editor, The Future of Community

Simon Blake
chief executive, Brook; chair, Compact Voice, the voluntary sector network

Ed West
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

Roger Howard
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

Felicity Cloake
journalist and food writer; columnist, Guardian

Matthew Fort
freelance food writer and TV presenter; judge, The Great British Menu

Kirk Leech
freelance journalist; researcher, development and environment

Alex Renton
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

David Aaronovitch
columnist, The Times; author, Voodoo Histories

Brendan O'Neill
editor, spiked; author, Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas

Jenni Russell
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...


Anonymous said...

From Dave Atherton

After the morning debates, yours happens to be around lunchtime, and we are suspiciously near Boisdale, oh and the weather forecast is good, there may not be too much opportunity to improve one self in the afternoon.

Mr A said...

Re your question about Elvis impersonators...

The answer is Yes. While not impersonators, I and about a dozen of my male friends all have Elvis suits, some of which are made to measure. Admittedly, this was due to a number of stag dos, but have them we do. Considering therefore, that 90% of my male friends have Elvis suits, my own personal experience yet again proves that statistics are invariably right.

That is why I believe everything ASH, Alcohol Concern etc say, no matter how retarded, mendacious, invented or spurious they may seem to everyone else with a working brain.

Did I mention Roy Castle died of lung cancer?

Mr "suddenly gullible" A.

dearieme said...

I'm an admirer of statistics, done well. But I recommend a question to ask of anyone banging on about, say, life expectancy. "Can you explain to me how life expectancy is calculated?"

Anonymous said...

I wandered over to Ben Goldacre’s place and via his twitter feed discovered that he definitely will not participate this weekend.

Apparently he would “literally rather slam his cock in the door”. I would have thought some of the sessions would have been right up his street so not sure why he is so anti.

Anonymous said...

Goldacre has made a career out of criticism but he never criticises the junk statistics about the effects of passive smoking. Perhaps he holds the same views about alcohol junk statistics?

I would have thought that the opportunity to listen to Dr Richard Smith, former editor of the bmj and author of The Trouble with Medical Journals talk about alcohol might be right up his street.

I can't understand why he has so many worshippers. Any suggestions?

Jonathan Bagley.