IT HAS been a week of anniversaries. Woman’s Hour reached its 75th year, and Beyond Belief its 500th edition; and More or Less (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week) is now 20 years old. The latter was launched in 2001 by the presenter Andrew Dilnot and producer Michael Blastland, with the expectation of a one-off, six-episode run. It is now a staple of the Radio 4 schedule.
In the way in which it interrogates the data that sometimes inform — and often misinform — the news, More or Less is the most valuable production in the BBC’s vast news portfolio. And, in the way in which it educates its “loyal listeners” in the application of intelligent scepticism, the show is as good as almost any Master’s in media studies.
This education includes a series of rules that students can instinctively invoke when confronted by a suspect statistic. The first commandment: always ask, “Is that a big number?” Just because it’s got several zeros after it, that does not make it significant. The second: correlation does not indicate causation. The colour of your front door might not, in fact, have anything to do with the price that you might get for your house.
The proliferation of internet factoids means that More or Less has more than enough dodgy data to keep it going: the last example — involving a claim that painting your door blue will raise the value of your home by £4000 — is just one of many. But it’s not all trivia.
In the latest episode, Julia Galef, of the Centre for Applied Rationality, confronted the fury of listeners over her claim that Star Trek’s Mr Spock was so poor in predicting the fate of the Starship Enterprise and crew in any given scenario that, on average, he performed worse than random. Ms Galef’s mistake, her opponents say, was not to include all those predictions that Mr Spock made off-camera, unrecorded by the scriptwriters and the director of the TV series. There is not much you can say to that, and the discussion concluded with a useful corrective: being good at numbers does not necessarily mean that you are rational.
Nor does being a rational person inoculate you against demonic constructions of the brain, as David Aaronovitch made chillingly clear in his account of psychosis, The Delirium Wards (Radio 4, Friday; first broadcast in September). Ten years ago, suffering from septicaemia after a routine operation, Aaronovitch spent two weeks battling paranoid fantasies, cartoonish visions of brutality, and bizarre apparitions from the cast of Mary Poppins.
Delirium is a common side effect of induced coma, and can leave mental scars. However reasonable you may be in real life, under the influence your hallucinations may take on a cinematic horror. But none of what we heard supported the conjecture that these were visions wrenched from the victim’s dark side. Aaronovitch’s experience pointed not to a seamy subconscious, but, rather, to an over-stimulated brain making merry with external stimuli, such as films. We are not all fighting a perpetual war against our inner Dick Van Dykes.