“When chance seems cruel, some call it fate. And when chance is kind, we might call it luck.”, says Professor David Spiegelhalter.
This opening quote is an interesting and an important one to keep in mind whilst watching ‘Tails You Win’, a new BBC Four documentary to be aired this week, carrying on the mantle from Professor Hans Rosling who attracted much attention with “The Joy of Stats” two years ago.
Annoyingly for statisticians, Spiegelhalter introduces himself as a mathematician – he is actually Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk, at Cambridge, which would seem to cover both disciplines - but he proceeds over 60 minutes to describe through fun examples, catchy graphics and suspect acting this thing we call ‘chance’.
The history of chance and risk are looked at with references to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and some of the programme is filmed in a beautiful church. On a number of occasions Spiegelhalter talks of efforts and a desire to ‘tame’ or ‘overcome’ chance and unpredictability, mirroring a social sciences view of risk where the term “colonisation of the future” has been coined.
And in a move to relate to the viewer that chance and probability are relevant to their lives, Spiegelhalter calls upon a number of different guests to explain different situations where chance is at play, including an ex-England cricketer, a seismologist, the chief economist at the Bank of England and a meteorologist amongst others.
But some of the examples may leave viewers confused or even angry. There is little explanation of how some of the stats displayed are calculated – telling viewers that you can add half an hour to your lifespan by running for half an hour, for example. Helpfully for the curious, data to support these claims can be found at Spiegelhalter’s website. Unhelpfully, there is no mention of this in the programme.
The seismologist describes a telephone call she received from a concerned resident asking whether it was safe to drive out of town to see her daughter. The city was experiencing aftershocks after an earthquake. The seismologist responded that there was a higher chance of an automobile accident than from suffering anything serious from an aftershock. This is one of those examples of statistics that are true but that don’t actually help. How on earth did her reply help the caller? Did the seismologist think her comments would reassure the concerned resident? Think of someone who suffers from fear of flying – telling them that flying is statistically safer than driving doesn’t help their fear at all. Telling the concerned resident that she should add the worry of driving to her worry of aftershocks, or perhaps replace one worry with the other, might actually add to her worries, not reduce them. The mathematics of statistics is very different from the psychology of statistics – the not-always-logical but still very real way that we as human beings actually relate to the risks that are part of our lives.
Similarly, some of the health-related examples sound like the kind of stats that tabloid newspapers use to fill articles. I found myself thinking what most newspaper readers probably think – that “if you believed everything you read, you’d do nothing”. At times it sounded like a telling-off, especially for smokers and drinkers.
But there are more good examples than bad ones in this programme, and viewers will be both informed and entertained. Spiegelhalter takes a historical look but doesn’t forget the present, often linking the two to describe concepts, and different industries and settings are used to show how chance applies everywhere and is relevant to our daily lives.
This is a fun and informative programme well worth watching, and uses great graphics, visual representations, numbers, a bit of acting and humour to describe concepts such as coincidences and weather forecasting (remember Michael Fish and that infamous 1987 weather forecast? It makes an appearance in the programme) and help viewers answer questions such as “shall I take an umbrella when leaving the house?” and “how can I maximise my chances of living till I’m 100?”.
If you want to maximise your chances of living to 100, tune in this Thursday to BBC Four. And if you don’t live to see 100, you’ll be entertained at the very least (though only for 60 minutes!).