Tuesday, May 20, 2008

More Or Less A Wonderful Programme

* Britain has more surveillance cameras per head of population than anywhere else in the world.
* The death rate falls when doctors go on strike.
* Half a million chickens are thrown away each day in the UK.
* Over 400,000 ballot papers were spoilt in the recent London election.

You might well have seen any of the above headlines in newspapers recently. They all represent stories currently doing the rounds in the media based on statistics. But how accurate are the statistics and how robust is the analysis? That's an interesting question.

It is the nteresting question which is the subject of one of the best BBC Radio 4 programmes on air at the moment : More or Less. Like so many of the best BBC programmes, it is a co-production with the Open University. The idea of More or Less is delightfully simple : focus on some of the statistics which are endlessly used by the media and investigate the statistical significance of them. It sounds a bit dry and anorakki but it isn't, it's a wonderfully entertaining half hour. And the good news is that it is available as a podcast, and for that reason I am delighted to present the BBC More or Less Podcast with the News From Nowhere Podcast of the Month award for May 2008.

And because I know that I have whet your appetite, here are the programmes' take on the above statistical stories.
Surveillance Britain : I have often heard the claim that we have more surveillance cameras than anywhere else in the world repeated. On investigation, it turns out that this claim is based on one minute survey carried out a good few years ago. The survey was undertaken by counting the number of cameras on just two streets in Putney, counting the number of people living on the streets and multiplying the ratio up to represent the entire United Kingdom.
Deadly Doctors : The main statistical evidence for this oft-repeated story is a strike of doctors in one part of Israel a few years ago. During the three month strike the death rate did fall, but this can largely be explained by potentially dangerous medical procedures being postponed.
Chucking Chickens : Several leading newspapers recently reported the claim that we throw half a million chickens away each day in this country. Unfortunately, the first newspaper to read the research mis-read the numbers, by a factor of 100! All the other newspapers went on to copy the figures from the first inaccurate report.
Spoilt Ballot : It turns out that 400,000 ballot papers were listed as "spoilt" in the recent London Mayoral elections. But this did not represent large-scale electoral fraud - as at least one website claimed. In the ballot, electors had a second choice (the transferable vote systems being used). 400,000 voters chose not to make use of their second preference and their ballot papers were, quite rightly within the definitions, listed as being spoilt. This did not mean that their first choice was not counted, it was.

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