Posts Tagged 'Why we bother'

Pop-up economics at St Pancras: not a crazy idea

I was walking through London St Pancras Station Monday lunchtime, and I thought: “That sounds like Tim Harford, the guy who presents More or Less on the radio”. This thought is not as weird as it seems. I listen to the podcast, and occasionally steal his ideas. I like him because I have an exaggerated respect for economists who talk like ordinary people, having met far too many of the other type.

By chance I was passing at exactly the right time to hear him record his new programme, Pop-up Economics, in which he stands up in front of people and tells them stories about economics. The first episode is on Radio 4 tonight. Here’s a really bad picture I took on my phone. It proves I was there, but not much else:

A bit of Tim Harford's head. Look, there were a lot of people there, ok?

A bit of Tim Harford’s head. Look, there were a lot of people there, ok?

He performed two stories, apparently from memory, of about 10 minutes each. I’m not going to tell you about them, because they were excellent – so it’s better if you listen to them on the radio (I think this show will be broadcast on 23 January, but you can listen to it on iPlayer afterwards). I can reveal that the first story covered the best way to match kidney donors to people who need a kidney, and the second one was about Full Tilt Poker. As someone who teaches people to tell stories, has an interest in economics, and who plays poker at Full Tilt, I couldn’t have been happier to hear what he had to say – unless I was suffering from kidney failure, I suppose.

Nate Silver’s numbers game

Nate Silver: hard to believe this man is a statistician

For the second US election in a row, the winner is a guy called Nate Silver, who might be the future of intelligent journalism. He rescues us from the tyranny of columnists who simply write about the comments of their own heads.

Nate blogs at, which is, since 2010, a New York Times blog. He analyses opinion polls, but he does it very, very well. He is entertaining and readable, even if you don’t care who just won the election in the US.

I discovered Nate’s analysis by accident in 2008 when I was looking for some statistics to undermine one of the nuttier blog opinions by data-lite controversialist Melanie Phillips (which made it very nutty indeed). Fivethirtyeight has a rigour that journalism seems to have mislaid in the internet era in a search for sensation. He does a seemingly simple thing extremely well: when an opinion poll is released, he adds it to a model which creates an aggregate. If the model is well-constructed, this has smaller margins for error and less chance of systematic bias. It is more likely to reflect the true state of the world.

The clever part is that he doesn’t just produce an average. He weights the polls, depending on their sample size, the way the information was obtained, the historical accuracy of the polling company, when it was conducted, the exact question that was asked, and so on. He looks for statistical bias – a consistent under- or over-reporting of candidate’s popularity. He adjusts his own model if he finds evidence that it is biased. Importantly, he writes nerdy blog posts about what he is doing, explaining his reasoning, and pointing out possible flaws in his work.

The result is that “outliers” – polls that, through random sampling, produce a freak result – have little importance on Fivethirtyeight – while on the internet and the news channels they tend to dominate the agenda, albeit fleetingly. This means his reporting is less shouty, but it has proved to be stunningly accurate for two elections in a row: at the time of writing, his analysis has correctly predicted the result in every state for the 2012 US presidential election, and the electoral college vote too.

Having a model doesn’t necessarily mean you will be correct – there are plenty of other statistical models which predicted the election less accurately. Fivethirtyeight carefully spells out the steps in its analytical process (though not the precise parameters of the model), so we can make an informed judgement on the quality of the findings. Any model is open to criticism from other statisticians – but this means they can have an adult, public conversation about what might be improved, or what the impact of a flaw in the analysis might be. We can learn from this, too.

This wouldn’t be important if it was just a different way to present the same news; but this type of analysis creates fresh insight. By polling day 2012, the model predicted a greater than 90 per cent chance of an Obama victory; and yet organisations like the BBC and the FT were using lazy phrases like “too close to call” and “on a knife edge”. If newspapers are prepared to do this type of analysis routinely, I suggest, it offers huge potential for creating an open, analytical type of serious journalism led by numbers and observed reality, not opinions.

Old jokes department: “And what do you do?”

Not every journalist can be a stats geek, though I think they should have more compulsory education in how to interpret data, and would prefer that newspapers enforced an in-house ban on reporting surveys that are statistical nonsense – which, in my experience, is most of them (I’ve written those survey-based articles in the past, and reported lots of rubbish data as if it were spotless, which I regret).

Newspapers and magazines are cutting back on conventional journalism. Budgets are tight. It’s probably too much to hope that we can create a new type of data-journalist, or that newspapers will suddenly grow a statistical conscience. It needn’t be expensive: a laptop and some specialist software is perfectly adequate to do the statistical research that can validate the claims that powerful people make. It’s the job of the media to investigate these claims – not just talk to one person who agrees, and another who disagrees. On Radio 4, More or Less does an entertaining job of validating reported statistics (download the podcasts, they are excellent). Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science posts are also a model of this approach.

It’s patronising to assume that readers can’t cope with statistical analysis. Clearly, many don’t like it, and some misunderstand it; but that’s true of any type of journalism that goes beyond the obvious. The conclusions (especially those that go against gut feel or conventional wisdom) may be unpopular: just read the critical comments on Nate Silver’s blog. It’s also true that science isn’t the last word on a subject, just a powerful way of testing an assumption. Statistics involves making value judgements in how you treat the numbers, in the same way as a journalist makes a judgement about how much credibility to give any source. But in statistics there is the opportunity to be explicit about those judgements, and then go where the numbers take us.

This type of insight is a fundamental tool, in an increasingly complex world, if we want to make informed decisions. The alternative is to just place trust in the conclusions of “experts”, of which there seem to be an ever-increasing number quoted on TV or in newspapers.

I’ll leave the conclusion to one of Nate’s commenters, who explains it better than I do:

Rather than cheer for Nate because we all like his Obama forecasts, how about cheering for him because he might believe in a world where numbers and rational analysis are vital to how we make decisions, even in those cases where we don’t like what the numbers imply?… It’s not about hoping you will win at Vegas. It’s about understanding how the Vegas game works.

Golden Crocoduck fever grips Talk Normal

Why post this clip? Because Sunday is a very important day for Talknormalists: it’s the day on which the annual Golden Crocoduck Award is announced. This is given by Peter Hadfield, also known as potholer54, to the creationist who offers the most flagrant breach of the 9th commandment: “the one that tells you not to tell fibs” as he explains.  The award is given every year on 28 October – the feast day of St Jude Thaddeus, the Patron Saint of Lost Causes. It’s too late for you to vote; but please check out the nominees in the video above (one of whom actually tries to convince viewers that the earth must be stationary because when we jump we land in the same place), and then the rest of his channel.

In the summer of 2006 I was asked to go on the BBC News 24 (now BBC news channel) to have a middle-aged-manchat with Peter Sissons about why there was this thing called YouTube which was becoming really popular with da kidz.  Why, he asked me, would people want to go to a web site to watch a fireman in a tumble dryer?  – he really did ask this – especially when there’s real TV on 24 hours a day, with politicians and experts standing outside buildings and stuff (he didn’t say this. I deduced it from the height of his eyebrows when he was watching the fireman video).

Get with it daddio! I sort of said – I was living in Hoxton, on the doorstep of London’s famous Silicon Roundabout, and we all spoke like that, even those of us who were old enough to know better – da peeps need to express themselves! This is the social media equivalent of the “everyone’s got a book in them” argument. It says that everyone has got a YouTube video inside them, waiting to get out: just maybe not a very good one.

So six years later I’m all for YouTube in principle, it’s just that much of it is total crap. I’m not talking about bands I don’t like or people I disagree with. There’s a ton of that on TV too. But watching the peeps express themselves on subjects such as why the earth is the centre of the universe, or how we know dinosaurs lived on earth alongside humans, can be quite disheartening. There’s eight years of material uploaded to YouTube every day. Much of it, it appears, is uploaded by people who were asleep in science lessons, aren’t really interested in looking up the answers, but still think we need to hear their half-formed ideas. Alternatively, they simply repost something by someone they decided to agree with, without stopping to think why they might learn something by checking whether it’s true.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell which bits are the worst, but luckily we have potholer54 to help us decide. If you have any interest in using logic and curiosity as a way to debunk pseudoscience, creationism and the denial of our role in global warming, he’s an excellent guide.

His videos are short (usually between 10 and 15 minutes), expertly researched with all sources listed, and very, very funny. It’s a great way to learn if ever you want to explain why there isn’t evidence for a global flood, or why Lord Christopher Monckton, the UK’s embarrassing denier of man-made climate change, is misinformed and wrong. The Monckton takedown starts here and ends (for now) here.

It’s hard to pick a favourite from his channel, but I always enjoy Hadfield’s demolition of American talk show host Bill O’Reilly:

Unlike most of his fellow ignoramuses on YouTube, O’Reilly is “paid to broadcast his ignorance to millions of people” (Hadfield’s description) via Sissons-era TV. This is one of the best arguments in favour of YouTube: without it we’d have a lot less potholer54, but the same amount of Bill O’Reilly.

I’m back and still irritated

Eco car. I found this picture on a site titled “World of Female”. It’s like Germaine Greer never happened.

As someone who would favour a republic in the UK, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee was never going to be a completely happy weekend – but it gave me the kick I needed to post again. So a bit of general business:

  1. Sorry I’ve not been here for you. I’ve been at university learning how to compile better graphs (among other things). It has been really difficult, thanks for asking, and a bit mystifying for the other students. For the last nine months they have been wondering why someone brought his/her dad to lectures.
  2. But I’m back now. Anything that’s bothering you Talknormalwise, let me know. With the pervasive doublespeak about negative growth, expansionary contractions and now the coyly-titled London Bridge Incident, the cause of Talknormalism needs us more than ever.
  3. Today I’m mostly annoyed by the phrase Eco cars. Delighted as I am to read about cars that run on stale bread or something (I haven’t looked into the mechanics in detail, as you have probably guessed), the phrase is like “Life guns” or “Health cancer”. It’s designed to make gullible people super happy, by convincing them that cars reduce pollution. To be clear, in case you were super happy until just now: cars never do this, even cute ones with mice in them (see above).
  4. THE NEXT BIT IS VERY IMPORTANT. You can tell I’ve been in academia: I bury the vital information in item five.
  5. If you like Talk Normal (“delightfully amusing”, Fortune Magazine), I’d appreciate if one or two of you can pop over to my book page on Amazon and review my book. At the moment I’m lacking those “I laughed until my head exploded” or “The most important book of the decade” five-star zingers, and so I will remain poor for ever. If you could write a review I won’t have to hire a word of mouth agency to write hundreds of fake reviews like all those companies with successful social networking strategies.
  6. In conclusion (academic writing style again, sorry) please write a review for me.

If you do that, I’ll be back shortly with a larger post featuring better jokes. Maybe a graph: let’s see what the reviews say.

The thoughts of chairman Tim (part 3)

In the final part of our guide to Talk Normal and Talknormalisation, how jargon has infected the media, why social media isn’t always a good thing, and tips for better writing. Ease yourself into the weekend, as local radio DJs say, by listening to it:

Again, if you’re a subscriber, you will need to visit the site. Hope you’ve enjoyed the podcasts. I’ve got another recorded interview for you next week, but someone else will be answering the questions. That, for some of you, might be a relief.

The thoughts of chairman Tim (part 2)

More from Talk Normal’s chief solutions advocate (that’s me): in this podcast we talk about HR jargon, CSR, thought leadership and other rubbish you hear at work. Stick in the headphones during your lunch hour and let us take you to a better place.

Eighteen minutes of joy. Note: subscribers – you’ll have to visit the site to listen, but it’s worth it.

The thoughts of chairman Tim (part 1)

All go at Talk Normal headquarters. My publisher has created three podcasts about Talknormalism, the problems that jargon causes, and what we can do to solve them. I’ll add the other two parts in the next few days. Here’s part one:

Maybe you can listen to it while you’re on mute in a conference call.

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