Skip to main content


Beware statistics bearing gifts

Numbers are a powerful way of strengthening a message - and when we see a statistic that backs up a strongly-held belief, it can be very easy to share it without thinking too much about it. But all statistics benefit from a quick check before use - and it's doubly important to do so when they tell us what we want to hear. A couple of days ago, I saw this message on a friend's social media. (I've removed the name at the top and added the words in red - otherwise it is unchanged.) The message is stark. But a couple of things worried me about it. Firstly, that subscript of 'Bristol for Europe' seemed a bit odd. It's clearly not part of the original post, and how exactly could the information come from both the BBC and a pressure group? But more importantly, the exchange rates quoted didn't feel right. I was sure sterling suffered as a result of Brexit (or, rather, BREXIT - being shouty is another flag that checking of data is required) - but a change like this
Recent posts

Review: The 13th Witch (The King's Watch series) - Mark Hayden ***(*)

Of all the flavours of fantasy novels, I only really enjoy those set in the real world (often described as urban fantasy, although some, as is the case here, are mostly rural) - whether it's the intricate cleverness of something like Gene Wolfe's Castleview , or when it's mixed with the police procedural, as in Ben Aaronovich's Rivers of London , Sarah Painter's Crow Investigations or Paul Cornell's Shadow Police . That meant I was delighted to discover Mark Hayden's King's Watch series. In many ways it's great, though it has proved to be something of a curate's egg. The good news is that Hayden does some things brilliantly. I love the idea of rather than a police tie-in, it's a quasi-military one linked to the Tower of London, with a group originally set up by King James I (the aforementioned King's Watch, headed by a Peculier Constable). Hayden's magickal (sic) world and its political complications are beautifully imagined - wheth

The incredible shrinking dilemma

Image from Unsplash by Todd Pham  I was very impressed with the first series of Amazon's show The Boys - the idea that superheroes would be used for commercial gain is such an obvious fit with America's culture. I wasn't thrilled by the level of violence and gore, but still enjoyed that first series, tolerated the second season and gave up pretty quickly as a result of the even higher level of ickiness of the newly released episodes. But before I did stop, I witnessed a character who could become tiny being carried in a bag of (ahem) white powder. Humans with the ability to shrink have been a common feature of sci-fi and superhero fantasies for ages. (I say sci-fi rather than science fiction, because of the dilemma I'm about address.) We've had The Incredible Shrinking Man (probably the best of the bunch), Fantastic Voyage, Honey I Shrunk the Whatever, Ant Man and more. But while I accept that SF has to be flexible about the science, in the tradition of Larry Niv

The green flight gap

Photo by  Etienne Jong  on  Unsplash The BBC has just spent a week attempting to encourage a more green way of life - a worthwhile aim, even if it often resulted in distinctly uninspiring advice such as 'Use a reusable coffee cup.' However, on a couple of programmes I heard a suggestion that struck me as simultaneously both sensible and stupid in its limitations. We were told to reduce shorthaul flights. I think the logic behind this is that it's easy to use a more environmentally friendly option like rail for relatively short journeys. And I certainly would both advise people to consider taking the trains and ask governments if they couldn't do something about the ridiculous situation that it's often much cheaper to fly than travel by rail. However, the flying elephant in the room (is that a mixed metaphor, or just Dumbo?) is that longhaul flights have a far bigger negative environmental impact than shorthaul. So why weren't we told to reduce them as well? I s

How long is a piece of podcast?

Image by Mateo Abrahan from Unsplash Listening to podcasts has transformed walking for exercise - and has been a revelation after the rigidity of traditional radio show formatting that requires a programme to be, say, 30 minutes long, no more, no less. However, a couple of podcasts I listened to this morning have demonstrated how things can go wrong at the boundaries. The (2022) podcasts in question were the 14 May episode of More or Less: Behind the Stats , lasting 9 minutes, and the 6 May episode of Kermode & Mayo's Take , which runs to 1 hour 59 minutes. These are clearly extremes - I think it's fair to say that most podcasts are in the 30-50 minutes range. But each illustrates a point. Let's take Tim Harford's More or Less first. This one demonstrates the danger of making a podcast that is just a radio programme repackaged. It is part of a series that is broadcast weekly on the BBC's World Service and has a rigid 9 minute slot. If it had been a real podcast

Archive Special: C. P. Snow alive and well at the BBC

This is an update of a post from 2013, which still seems very relevant today:  I was watching the BBC school soap  Waterloo Road*  the other day, and ended up rolling all over the floor moaning. Because we saw a 'science teacher' making one of the most basic possible errors. Would they have allowed an English teacher to write on a board that Hamlet was written by T. S. Eliot? Or a geography teacher to note down the capital of France as Belgium? I would hope not. Yet this is a comparable error. Take a look at this little snap. What is she doing? It seems she has invented a new kind of hydrogen peroxide that is made up of H-squared and O-squared. I have no idea what a squared atom is, and I wait with interest to see the BBC's drama department explaining all about these new particles. At the very least, I would expect a squared atom would enable us to perform cold fusion. In the meanwhile I just don't understand what kind of editing process at the BBC can allow H 2 O 2  to

Review - Nasty, Brutish and Short - Scott Hershovitz ****

Scott Hershovitz is a little harsh in applying Hobbes’ aphorism calling human life ‘nasty, brutish and short’  to children, but his idea of using children’s musings as a starting point for exploring some of the big philosophical ideas with an adult audience is little short of genius. Hershovitz points out that until about the age of nine, children are naturally philosophically minded, as demonstrated by their perpetual asking of the question ‘Why?’ Science communicators find a similar effect with science - pretty well all children are fascinated by science until they are 11 or 12 (I’m sure there’s a research paper in there for why one interest dies before the other). Not only does Hershovitz encourage this exercise in thinking by turning the questions back on his children, but he also stimulates readers to think about these issues themselves. As he points out, you might not always agree with him (I certainly didn’t), but it’s a valuable exercise to think through these big ideas – and y