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More or Less: Behind the Stats
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More or Less: Behind the Stats

Author: BBC Radio 4

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Tim Harford and the More or Less team try to make sense of the statistics which surround us. From BBC Radio 4
639 Episodes
A coronavirus check-in, our daily mask use measured, and a minister's claim on the universal credit cut questioned. There was a time when the latest Covid statistics were headline news daily, but as the pandemic has stretched on into its second year and third wave people don't pay as much attention. But on More or Less we still keep an eye on them because that’s how we roll. A recent article estimated that 129 billion single-use face masks are used every day around the world. It sounds wrong, but how wrong is it? And how did it get so wrong? Making up the shortfall from the £20 weekly cut in the universal credit benefit means working an extra two hours a week - or an extra nine, depending on who you listen to. We run the numbers. Plus, has the number of periods women have in a lifetime increased fourfold? And how many holes does a drinking straw have?
Tim Harford talks to Jordan Ellenberg, professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, about the pandemic, geometry and drinking straws. (multi-coloured straws/Getty images)
New data appears to show that double vaxxed people between 40 and 79 are getting Covid at higher rates than people who are unvaccinated, but that's not the case. It's all down to how Public Health England estimates the size of different populations. The Office for National Statistics described 2020 as "the deadliest year in a century". Now that we're more than two-thirds into 2021, we examine how this year is shaping up. We answer your questions on the new health and social care levy, and have words of congratulations and caution following Emma Raducanu's astonishing win in the US Open. Plus, where do you stand on in the dishwasher vs kitchen sink debate? GUESTS: Mathematician James Ward Adele Groyer of the Covid-19 Actuaries Response Group Helen Miller of the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
Should we be worried that the protection against Covid-19 provided by the vaccines is going down? Could it really be the case that eating a hot dog takes 36 minutes from your life? The Bank of England holds 35% of Government debt. Who owns the other 65%? Has the UK spent more on Test and Trace than on its operations in Afghanistan?
The Bill for Afghanistan

The Bill for Afghanistan


American President Joe Biden has said the war in Afghanistan cost more than $2 trillion. Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic International Studies helps us unpick what’s included in this figure.
English Covid restrictions were lifted in July. Back then, some predicted that there could be as many as 6,000 hospital admissions a day by the following month. So, what happened? The Metropolitan Police says it’s spent £50 million on policing Extinction Rebellion since 2019. They’re on the streets again – can it really be that costly? The economics correspondent at The Economist Duncan Weldon puts government borrowing during the pandemic into context and talk about his new book, 200 Years of Muddling Through. Are we running out of lorry drivers? And to what extent is Brexit to blame? We look at the numbers behind a claim that there is a shortfall of 100,000 lorry drivers in the UK. Plus, disturbing evidence that Star Trek’s Mr Spock may actually be terrible at logic.
Writer Julia Galef talks to Tim Harford about the role of numbers in helping us think more rationally, and what Star Trek’s Mr Spock can teach us about making predictions. Julia is author of The Scout Mindset, a book about how our attempts to be rational are often clouded or derailed by our human impulses, and the ways we can avoid these traps. Producer: Nathan Gower (Image: Leonard Nimoy as Mr Spock. Credit: Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images)
Dr Robert Moses, a pioneer in African-American civil rights and mathematics education has died at the age of 86. Charmaine Cozier looks at an extraordinary life, from the courthouses of 1960s Mississippi to the classrooms of modern public schools, and traces the philosophy and values that threaded their way through his life. Presenter: Charmaine Cozier Producer: Nathan Gower Portrait of American Civil Rights activist Robert Parris Moses, New York, 1964. (Photo by Robert Elfstrom/Villon Films/Gety Images)
A year later than planned, The Tokyo Olympics, have now finished. Thousands of athletes have competed in events that few thought might go ahead and there’s been record success. This week we take a look at Olympic numbers – how many records were broken in Tokyo, what factors might have influenced the races and what else can the data tell us? Tim Harford speaks to Dr Joel Mason, who runs the blog, Trackademic. Producer: Olivia Noon
As some countries rapidly roll out vaccination programmes, there have been concerns that increases in infection rates amongst vaccinated groups mean vaccines are less effective than we hoped, especially in the face of the feared Delta variant. Epidemiologist Dr Katelyn Jetelina from the University of Texas Health Science Centre School of Public Health explains why this isn’t what the numbers show – rather than decreasing vaccine effectiveness, increasing rates can be explained by a statistical phenomenon known as ‘base rate fallacy’. Presenter: Charlotte McDonald Producer: Nathan Gower
Breaking Climate Records

Breaking Climate Records


June saw a brutal heatwave shatter a number of all-time temperature records in Canada and the Northwest of the USA. But when can we attribute new records to man-made climate change, rather than natural variation? Peter Stott, an expert in climate attribution at the UK’s Met Office, explains how climate change has dramatically increased the probability of seeing such extremes. Presenter: Tim Harford Producer: Nathan Gower
The Rise of Delta

The Rise of Delta


The Delta Variant was first identified in India, fuelling a huge wave of cases and deaths. It is now spreading around the world, becoming the most dominant variant in many countries. This week we take a look at the numbers - where’s it spreading, how is this different to previous waves and what can be done to stop it? Tim Harford speaks to Professor Azra Ghani, Chair in Infectious Disease Epidemiology at Imperial College, London and John Burn-Murdoch, the chief data reporter at The Financial Times.
The Freedom Day Gamble

The Freedom Day Gamble


On the day the Government plans to drop the remaining Covid restirictions, Tim Harford and the More or Less team try to work out how long cases will continue to rise and whether we can be sure the link with deaths and hospitalisations has been broken. Is this “freedom day" or an unnecessary gamble with people’s lives?
In recent months, Twitter has rarely been out of the headlines in Nigeria. After it deleted a tweet by the country’s president, the Nigerian government responded by banning it altogether. In the media coverage of the story it has been commonly claimed that Nigeria has 40 million Twitter users – but could this really be true? We spoke to Allwell Okpi of the fact-checking organisation AfricaCheck. Also, which places have the best full vaccination rates in the world? Turns out, its some of the smallest. We run through the top five. Producer: Nathan Gower
To some on the internet, the cheap anti-parasitic drug Ivermectin is a potential wonder drug that could dramatically change the global fight against Covid-19. It has passionate proponents, from a small group of scientists to the more conspiratorially-minded. But with a scattered evidence base of varying quality, what - if anything - do we know for sure about Ivermectin? And is uncovering the truth a more complex process than some appreciate? With Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz from the University of Wollongong, Australia. Producer: Nathan Gower
The UK’s Covid cases are still rising and Scotland is being hit particularly hard - so are we speeding up our vaccination programme in response? Will many of the UK’s coastal towns, not to mention central London, be underwater in the next few years? Do the country’s poorest households really pay more than half their income in tax? What are the top five places with the best vaccination rates in the world? The answers may surprise you. We speak to Tom Chivers, a science journalist who has written a book called “How to Read numbers” with his cousin the economist David Chivers.
Maths and the Mayflower

Maths and the Mayflower


This year sees the delayed 400th anniversary celebrations of the Mayflower voyage, an event seen as a crucial moment in the history of the United States. But how many people alive today can trace back their lineage to those first 102 passengers? Tim speaks to Rob Eastaway and Dr Misha Ewen about maths and the Mayflower.
The Delta variant is behind the big increase in the number of new Covid 19 cases in the UK since April. We take a look at what impact vaccines have had on infections, hospitalisations and deaths. Chris Packham told viewers on the BBC’s Springwatch that blue tits eat 35 billion caterpillars a year. We get him onto the programme to explain. How much does Type 2 diabetes cost the NHS a year? While exploring a dubious claim we find out why its hard to work that out. Is it true that on in two people will get cancer? We’ve looked at this statistic before but listeners keep spotting it on TV. We also ask: if the SarsCov2 RNA is 96% similar to the RNA of a virus found in bats - is that similar, or not?
The origins of Covid

The origins of Covid


To find out where a virus comes from, researchers compare it to other viruses to try to trace its origin. This leads to claims like SARS-CoV-2 is 91 or even 96% similar to other known viruses. But what does that really mean? Tim Harford talks to the virus ecologist Marilyn J Roossinck.
The official number of deaths attributed to Covid 19 around the world in the whole of 2020 is 1.88 million. The global toll this year surpassed this figure on 11th of June. We look at how things are worse worldwide, despite vaccines and lock downs. Does the UK have the worst bathing sites in Europe? That’s certainly a claim made by a number of newspapers. We show why this is not the case. Health Secretary Matt Hancock has been in the news again with comments regarding care homes during the pandemic. Just how good was the government’s ‘ring of protection’ around care homes during the first wave - and the second? We speak to Steven Johnson about his book ‘Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer.’
Comments (30)

Furry Canary

Well, that ended rather abruptly.

Aug 14th

Andrew Jackson

Light relief late on Sunday evening, when I normally listen to this podcast.

Jul 10th

Audray Harkins

As ever, David Spiegelhalter twisting statistics to fit his narrative. Claiming we are nowhere near the death tolls of the first wave because he a) claims daily deaths were somehow 40% higher than reported in the first wave (but assuming for some reason current reported deaths aren't), b) claims that new "daily" number is nowhere near the current figures and c) fails to look at weekly figures which are well above the actually reported 1st wave peak and pretty close to that 1st wave peak+40% (they are exactly 35% above the 1st wave peak). Liberally using assumptions that flavour his argument like one might use brown sauce on a bacon butty. And then he gives talks to apparently teach scientists to provide statistical figures in a trustworthy fashion...

Jan 31st

David Morgan

Best Superman joke ever!

Jan 14th


hey. my

Dec 8th

Behzad Tahmouresi


Dec 6th

Top Clean

👍 An interactive dashboard that estimates Covid-19 incidence at gatherings in the U.S. has added a new feature: the ability to calculate county-level risk of attending an event with someone actively infected with Coronavirus (Covid-19). Previously, the dashboard estimated exposure for different size events by state.👍

Nov 22nd

Alex K.

Quick! where can I deposit money at 5%? More like 2% these days, and at that rate it'll take me 36 years to double my money.

Oct 8th

Nahed abu-asbeh

Thank u for the info. I have a question: is it possible to to wash the medical mast and reuse it?

Apr 15th
Reply (1)

Andy Jones

Why do you keep repeating segments? Annoying starting an episode only to listen to what I have already heard in the previous cast.

Mar 29th
Reply (2)

stephen murray

do the salaries comparisons allow for cash payments? and wouldn't HMRC be a better source of data than ONS for "official" incomes?

Sep 21st

Owen Thurgate

Well, I have to say the research on this one wasn't really up to the usual More or Less high standards. Speaking as a professional forester I can safely say a novice planter could easily plant 300 seedlings in a day and a motivated experienced person would comfortably reach a 1000. Additionally, seedling trees from a nursery cost a matter of cents/pence per tree a far cry from the costs you quoted. Together these figures make the project entirely feasible, requiring only 700,000 people to plant 500 trees each or 1.4 million to plant 250 trees each, not far of the rate for a novice. The costs for that number of two year old seedlings in the UK probably in the region of £55m, possibly less in Eithiopia.

Aug 27th

Hans Dampf

"Nucular"? Really?

Jul 7th

Martin Crook

glad to hear that the scientist is an advocate of the nonlinear Theory model of radiation risk. something the nuclear industry has been lobbying hard to discredit

Jun 22nd

Michael Jiggens

No need to worry then, let's just get fat and ill.

Mar 2nd

Michael Jiggens

Ah good, no need to worry then... Let's just carry on as we are, business as usual. It's difficult to convey sarcasm in the comments section, but I tried.

Mar 2nd

Adam Borwne

tried searching for Economics with Subtitles on castbox but it returned no results. anyone know if it's going to be added?

Aug 29th

Ilona Pinter

could you look at the stats on undocumented migrants in the UK? as far as I know there are only estimates at the moment (eg LSE study, compas research) but no official statistics. it's unclear what stats the government relies on this. they don't accept the estimates but don't seem to offer any alternatives.

Jun 22nd
Reply (1)

R Knox

excellent podcast, really brings stats to life!

Apr 26th

Gabriele Gnozza

lettori. .zampata. .stai. ?

Jan 12th
Reply (7)
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