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Data and tomatoes

15 April 2016


THE big religious story of the week must surely be the report from the statistics website FiveThirtyEight declaring that atheists are more likely to cut the fat off their meat. Or is it that cutting the fat off your meat makes you an atheist? As it happens, it doesn’t matter, because neither is true.

The point that FiveThirtyEight was trying to make — as reported on More or Less (Radio 4, Monday of last week) — is that when you gather large amounts of data, you can find many correlations between unrelated characteristics, and that to read causation into such correlations confounds the misinterpretation.

What prompted this spoof analysis was the Food Frequency Questionnaire. With questions such as “How many tomatoes do you eat in a month?”, the imprecision of the survey is laughable, even if the baseless hopes and fears that such data produces is far from comic.

We are particularly prone to believe these data-based pronouncements when they accord with our own beliefs. Thus, as a choral practitioner, I would have been content to accept the assertion, reported on Radio 5 Live’s Breakfast programme of Tuesday of last week, that singing in a choir can help people to deal with cancer.

The study apparently tells us that choir members display a greater reduction in stress hormones, and an increase in certain proteins that support the immune system. But did this study go the whole hog and test the resilience of non-singers who are encouraged or even compelled to sing in a choir? Or keen singers who are refused the opportunity to do so? Either scenario would seem to break basic ethical standards; but without such a control, is this not simply a study that tells us that doing something that makes you feel good is good for you?

The assumption that music is always therapeutic was undermined by the account in last week’s Book of the Week (Radio 4), Beethoven for a Later Age, which serialised the violinist Edward Dusinberre’s memoir of life in a leading string quartet.

The intensity of relationships within a quartet goes beyond what most of us will experience in our working lives; and, when one member dies, the feeling is something akin to amputation. But when one of Dusinberre’s colleagues dies, not even the music of Beethoven can provide respite. Indeed, he describes the music as a way of rechannelling emotional energy. Only when he is ready to grieve does the music provide the necessary soundtrack.

Statistics in a form simpler than the Food Frequency Questionnaire undermined Newshour Extra’s otherwise engaging round-table (Friday, World Service). The topic was Britain’s colonial past, and whether we should be proud or ashamed of it. The survey quoted at the start of the show revealed that 43 per cent of respondents regarded the legacy of Empire in a broadly positive way, as against 19 per cent.

A member of the audience was to point out that this left 38 per cent who did not appear to care either way — not a reassuring mandate on which to base such a blustering and opinionated debate.

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