More or Less
Numbers, figures and statistics capture, describe and explain every aspect of our lives, whether we like it or not. There are the numbers on the clocks that define our days, the numbers that drive the multiple functions of our computers the numbers that referee the thin line between a beautifly baked cake and a hard-set lump of floor, butter and sugar If we care to look for them, we can find numbers everywhere. And once we start looking, it quickly becomes clear that they make the world go around in far more ways than we might possibly imagine.
Browse through today's papers, or listen to the main news bulletins on the radio, and you're likely to be assaulted by all sorts of numbers, covering economics, politics, science, history, health, entertainment and sport, from the latest figures on house prices to the mass of refugees on the move in the latest trouble spots. Some of these numbers you will be able to more or less rely on, such as the plethora of statistics from yesterday's football fixtures, or the temperatures given in the weather forecast. And then there will be other numbers that, despite appearances, may not be so clear cut in their meaning, such as the value of your home, the results from new medical research, or statistics emanating from politicians.
Statisticians and mathematicians live for this sort of information. It's the language they speak. But what about the rest of us numerically challenged folk? Numbers can mean little without their interpretation, so how do we make sense of them? How do we negotiate our way through the daily onslaught of facts and figures? Which are the ones that reveal and give us a genuine insight; and which are the ones that mislead and obscure a deeper truth?
One answer is to switch the radio back on and tune in to Radio 4 for 30 minutes every Thursday afternoon for the new six-part series of the BBC/OU co-production More or Less. Since its debut in 2002 the programme has devoted itself to breaking down and analysing the powerful language of numbers, and to discovering what they tell us and that thev don't tell us. In the past its presenter Andrew Dilnot - formerly Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, now Principal of St Hugh's College, Oxford - has investigated house prices, poverty measurements, drug testing and research into nursery care and child behaviour.
The producer Michael Blastland says the initial idea for the programme came from a reaction to Radio 4's comprehensive coverage on the language of words. "There was a conspicuous gap in the language of numbers, which is the dominant language of most public argument. We wanted a programme that would step back, look at the numbers we see in headlines and elsewhere, and ask what kind of thing are they really measuring, how are they measuring it, what kind of truth do they convey, are they being abused or are they offering us powerful insight?"
According to Blastland, and despite the fact that numbers manage to wriggle their way into absolutely everything we do, people tend to have an oddly ambivalent attitude to figures. One reaction is to dismiss them as 'lies, damned lies and statistics', and another is to take them as the gospel truth. Everybody seems to want absolute precision and accuracy. More or less is operating in the shadier areas. "We drift around in this rather bizarre way either venerating numbers or ridiculing them," says Blastland. 'the answer is usually somewhere in the middle, but finding out exactly what it tells you can be a difficult thing."
In some cases this entails attempting to throw a little light on a mathematical concept that has been either misunderstood or mangled. So the programme might take a news story and use some of the techniques that mathematicians or statisticians would employ to decipher the number. In other cases it might confront a number that simply doesn't seem true or misrepresents a story. One example was a forecast of the number of cancer cases that the press reported as a bad thing because it showed a large increase," says Blastland. "They'd assumed that every cancer case meant a new case, whereas it actually meant more people were surviving with cancer, so the head count of people with cancer was going up because those people were living longer and not because they were dying. It was measuring survival not death."
Sometimes a number needs to be looked at long and hard, and asked what it's really saying. Some big numbers, for example, think they can get away with it just because they are big. More or Less is having none of it. "A few years ago," recalls Blastland, "the goveniment announced what appeared to be a very large increase in the money available for nursery care. They said it would pay for a million extra childcare places over five years. We took that seemingly large number and divided it by a million places and divided it by five years, and then divided it by the 52 weeks, and it turned out they were suggesting a couple of pounds a week would buy a childcare place."
In this way More or Less takes numbers and statistics by the scruff of the neck and drags them down to a more human, and therefore understandable, scale. It has also had a few startling revelations up its sleeve: a recent piece on pregnancy due dates discovered that the dates are calculated on an ordinary mean, when a mode would be a more sensible approach. "So it could be argued that every due date in Britain based on the last menstrual period is wrongly calculated," says Blastland. Whether it's childbirth, government spending, crime figures, education targets, passive smoking, global warming, music, sport, evolution, measurements, dates or even superstitions, it all turns up for scrutiny on More or Less.
Some people run a mile as soon as numbers are mentioned. Others love them. More or Less embraces both groups, as its emphasis remains firmly on examining and understanding the potency of numbers. "It's not about knocking other people's use of numbers," says Blastland, "though we recognise they are often abused. We are clear that sometimes numbers give us powerful insights. It's about appreciating their power, and acknowledging that we all use them and enjoy them even if we don't know it."
More or Less starts 3.00pm on Thursday 13 January on BBC Radio 4
[Ozone Winter/Spring 2005]