Radio 4’s More or Less: Behind the scenes with presenter Tim Harford

More or Less is a BBC Radio 4 programme which discusses statistical issues raised in the news, politics and everyday life, as well as what’s fun about numbers. The programme was originally presented by Andrew Dilnot, now Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, as a one-off series of six programmes.

However, the show met with great, positive response and has continued with much success, winning the Royal Statistical Society‘s award for Statistical Excellence in Journalism in 2010. Since October 2007, the show has been presented by Tim Harford, a journalist for The Financial Times who writes the regular column, ‘The Undercover Economist’, which is also the title of his first book, a Sunday Times and Amazon bestseller. talks to Tim Harford about the programme’s success, how each edition is put together, the getstats campaign, our current perception of economics and numbers, and how we need to respect the anoraks of statistics.

1. With an educational background in philosophy, politics and economics at Brasenose College, Oxford, when and how did you first become aware of statistics as a discipline?

It was probably not until I started doing my Masters in Ireland when I became aware you could do proper regression analyses and statistical control. It was not something I studied as an undergraduate. I was interested in probability and played a lot of games which I still do – what is the most likely number to come up on three dice and so on, but statistics not until I was at a more advanced level in my education.

2. Your column for The Financial Times, ‘The Undercover Economist’ reveals the importance of economics in every day experience. How does statistics play a role in your work?

I started writing the column in 2005, so long before I started presenting More or Less. I tended originally to steer clear of statistics. It’s very easy to say when one is reporting statistical results that these are the buttons pushed and here are the results. One has not conveyed the understanding of the situation and in order to explain what is going on, it’s much easier to explain the theory behind the statistics. Often with statistics, no one knows what is going on but it’s how the numbers fall. I think it has changed more for economics. The whole idea is about statistics and empirical work. We look at the numbers in a clever way and have discovered ways to look at it that no one has done before, whereas previously it was very much about explaining the logic. Empirical work has become a lot sexier for economics.

Hal Varian said long before Nate Silver became a household name that statistics is going to be the sexy profession in years to come.

3. In a recent edition of Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe (broadcast 7th February 2013, BBC2), Brooker opened with numbers and how the Office for National Statistics is frequently in the BBC News. Brooker mocked how as a nation, we should be scared of numbers. What is the importance of numbers in today’s society?

I agree that we do fetishise numbers. But they are very important. The quintessential example of this in the media is where they are now used in graphic design. There is a big 3 all of a sudden on the screen and then in tiny print, someone explains what the 3 actually represents, which could be anything – the number of people on the panel enquiry board, the number of times UK politician Harriet Harman blew her nose during a recent speech. It’s become cool to use numbers graphically but actually that doesn’t convey that we have used them with any knowledge. I think the best way to think about the Office for National Statistics is its budget of a few hundred million pounds (the budget of the UK government is £500-600 billion, which works out as £10,000 per person) which tells you the government spends a fraction on the ONS in order that we understand statistics, which is important.

Hal Varian said long before Nate Silver became a household name that statistics is going to be the sexy profession in years to come.


4. In 2010, Radio 4’s More or Less, for which you are Presenter, won the Royal Statistical Society’s award for Statistical Excellence in Broadcast Journalism in 2010. What is it that you aim for with each programme and how do you plan out each one with your researchers? I was listening to the New Year’s Eve 2012 programme and you have UK politician Jack Straw and Professor David Spiegelhalter both involved.

The Royal Statistical Society felt apologetic that we had not won the award three times in a row. We were really happy to accept it and we’re equally happy just to get pats on the back for what we’re doing. It’s very nice to be recognised.

The New Year’s Eve programme was pre-recorded as we were all on holiday and enjoying Christmas. A typical More or Less is a magazine format – three or four substantial items plus little bits of information in between. We’re always aiming for a mix. Ideally, the perfect More or Less will be a direct response to a news item that week where you really do some investigation, expose what is going on and clarify it. You have an item like that and then a big explanation about something that is generally important, perhaps not in that week’s news and we try to present it in a way that is very memorable. Finally we present something that is lighter, different, quirky or funny. We had an item I loved which was about mathematical mistakes in popular songs – there is a Paul Simon line ‘Two times two is twenty-two/four times four is forty-four’. I think he knows that wasn’t right but we had all of these different songs where numbers had been used and they were all wrong.

Kate Bush sang a song about pi and it was wrong in the fifty-third digit. We just had a great time, listening to music. Offhand, I made some comment that pi goes on forever. Presumably there are fifty-three digits of pi that represent what Kate Bush said that don’t come at the beginning. Then we received letters from a maths professor saying that it was not necessarily true and you need a supplementary assumption about pi. We don’t know whether it’s true or not. We got the maths professor on the programme the following week to explain why I couldn’t make such an assumption and I learnt something fascinating about number theory. So it’s great fun to have that interaction with our listeners and some of our best items have been clarifying some previous error that we made. Of course we make mistakes! How do you not?

It’s great fun to have that interaction with our listeners and some of our best items have been clarifying some previous error that we made.

5. How quickly can you react to a breaking news story? Do you have a big pool of ideas for stories or go with the moment?

More or Less is recorded on a Thursday evening and it goes out on a Friday afternoon. We can react to something that has happened on Thursday. We could even react to something on Friday but it would break the normal schedule of recording. It would have to be something extraordinary to get us to do that. To be honest, it can wait until the next week as we’re not a news programme. Normally some of the material has been prepared way in advance, for instance, an interview with an author who has written an interesting book about numbers. We may sit on that for three weeks or even three months because that can go out at any time but at the same time, you want two or three items that are up-to-date and responding to either the previous week’s programme or an item in recent news. Sometimes it’s a really quick debunking. The producer will say, “Someone has said this in the newspaper, can we do anything with this?” Then I might just write a paragraph saying that it doesn’t make any sense and then we move on. Normally we want to have some proper calculation time and treat it well.

There is a whiteboard in the corner of the office with a whole bunch of ideas written there. You do want that mix. You want topical via timeless, funny vs serious, heavily produced vs simply produced. The simplest way for me to do something is for me to write the script and have a reporter in the studio and discuss it with him or her. It can be much more complicated and we can send Ruth Alexander out on the road, involve music, etc. You do not want four contemporary economic stories treated in a really basic way one week and then another week, everything sounds great but could have been recorded twenty years ago.

6. What kind of feedback do you receive from your audience? Do they include statisticians or members of the public who say they struggled with maths at school but find More or Less fascinating?

We get lots of listeners emailing us and we do encourage that. Obviously we get people writing in saying, “That was great” or “You’re an idiot”. But you will get people writing in, in great detail, who have solved a problem. People will really get to grips with an issue we’ve raised and sometimes they are professional statisticians or mathematicians, or they are people who understand numbers, have time on their hands and solve problems for us, which is terrific.

The best response from a listener we’ve ever received was when we asked our listeners to let us know what they were doing whilst they were listening to the programme. We were planning on creating data visualization on the results we received and we just learnt so much about our listeners – a truck-driver from Ohio downloading the podcast  – people from all over the world and it really gave us a sense of whom our audience was, which was wonderful and unexpected at the same time. It was just a little idea and became a big project.

…we just learnt so much about our listeners – a truck-driver from Ohio downloading the podcast…

7. With this year being the International Year of Statistics, does More or Less have any plans or objectives with regards to this celebration?

I don’t think so as we are a news and current affairs programme. 2013 being the International Year of Statistics isn’t actually news but that’s fine, we will have plenty of statistical news to talk about! There is a problem with officialdom in general, as we feel we should talk to the Office for National Statistics as they are the official place to go to. We do an item on the census and on the Labour Force Survey when we talked to some of the people who went out onto the field and the trouble they had doing these surveys. But generally official news about statistics is not news. The news is when statistics is used to tell a story or misused to tell a story that is not true. That’s the point we’re speaking from. I did not realise 2013 was the year of International Statistics. There are a lot of International Years! I used to work for the World Bank where there were a lot of Years for everything!

8. The former presenter of More or Less, Andrew Dilnot is Chair of UK Statistics Authority. Did he give you any advice upon leaving?

We had lunch! I interviewed him for the Financial Times when he left More or Less. He didn’t move straight to the UK Statistics Authority at the time. I remember him being very friendly. It was quite a long time ago, and I suspect he did give me excellent advice and I took it on board and tried to implement it but I can’t recall anything in particular. He’s always been very supportive.

There was a feeling at the BBC that perhaps the show could not continue without him and the original producer, Michael Blastland left as well. But I think to their credit, they said “Let’s give it a try” and I think the idea is stronger than they gave it credit for. Although Andrew and Michael were both fantastic at what they did, the idea can live on, we can still bumble along and make a programme.

9. The getstats campaign has been designed to make the general public better informed about statistics and the difference it can make in every-day lives, for example, helping MPs make sense of using statistics in their speeches. More or Less won the Mensa award for promoting intelligence in public life, so the two have similar goals. What are your thoughts on the getstats campaign so far?

I think it’s a good idea and they have got some recognition now. People recognise the brand ‘getstats’. So the challenge now is achieving institutional change; getting newspapers and politicians to take statistical literacy more seriously and none of that is easy. In the New Year’s Eve programme, we found that Jack Straw was an anorak for statistics. I didn’t know that until I read his book before he came onto the programme. Unfortunately, it’s not something that’s respected and it should be respected.

10. Do you think governments and learned societies can do more to raise awareness of statistics and economics and stop people being afraid of numbers?

We just have to keep plugging away. I think the realization that it’s fun, not always that hard, that we are actually being very badly served. What’s been really good is people like David Spiegelhalter and Ben Goldacre bringing statistics to the fore and they both have very different styles. Goldacre is very pugnacious and Spiegelhalter is very cuddly – they both make it fun in different ways to understand statistics and you feel that you are learning something and that you are being let in on something, on a secret and that you understand the world better.

So in that sense, I don’t think it’s any different from Steve Jones promoting evolutionary biology, Brian Cox promoting astronomy, Sir David Attenborough about the natural world or Steven Levitt about economics – it’s the same thing that you have engaging people talking about the subject. The topics are already intrinsically interesting and will get there. There will always be people who are interested and listen and there will always be people who don’t care.

11. If one is a regular statistician or economist without a radio show or twitter feed or a blog, what advice would you offer to improve awareness of their field?

It depends on who you are and what you are trying to do. In terms of statistics, what’s the story and why does it matter? The story may be that we don’t understand the answer to this question or that the story is clear and we do understand what’s going on. Technical or academic people get tied up in detail that does not matter to the everyday punter and forget details that are potentially quite fascinating. Alfred Kinsey is famous for supporting human sexuality and just the fact that he identified his subjects by hanging around famous gay meeting points, men’s toilets and Penn Station – this is not a technical piece of information but it is interesting. It tells you something when he says that 10% of his subjects are identified as being gay and you think, “OK but that doesn’t tell me anything about how many people are gay. That tells me something about what Kinsey was doing.” Very often, when you talk to people who are doing statistical work, there are fascinating details that don’t get mentioned and very boring details that do. It’s different telling the story to writing the academic paper.

12. You recently referred to Significance as the Hello magazine of the statistical community (in your ‘Undercover Economist’ column) which speaking of social media has a free app for International Year of Statistics – Please could you clarify what you meant by this?

It was a joke, just a joke! I just meant it’s not a learned journal, it’s got good, glossy pictures in it and it is great fun to read.

13. What has been the most exciting development that you have seen in statistics or economics during your career so far?

The growing influence of randomised controlled trials in economics – they’ve really broken through in development economics in particular.

14. You are currently a Visiting Fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford where Andrew Dilnot is Warden. Does this role involve any teaching or are you currently working on any particular research?

Being a Visiting Fellow is a great honour but carriers no teaching or research responsibilities.

17. What do you see as the greatest challenges facing the professions of economics and statistics in the coming years?

For statisticians I am acutely aware of the ongoing challenge of getting people to take statistics seriously – in policy, in the media and probably in academia too. As for economics, we have a banking crisis to contemplate. Two big related challenges will be incorporating sensible accounts of the banking system into macroeconomic models, and understanding how better to regulate the banking system. I feel we need to consult accident experts in other fields from psychology to engineering to organisational behaviour.

18. Do you have any plans for upcoming book projects?

Oh yes – always! And the next book has a working title of “The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: How to run/ruin an economy.”

19. Are there people or events that have been influential in your career?

David Bodanis, the author of E=MC2, persuaded me to start write and I owe him a huge debt. There are many others I could mention, but perhaps I should restrict myself to Martin Wolf at the Financial Times, and Peter Sinclair and Paul Klemperer, two economics teachers who particularly influenced me.


Copyright: Photograph appears courtesy of Tim Harford. Copyright: Fran Monks