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Understanding Uncertainty's Blog


Numbers and the common-sense bypass

June 16, 2014 Comments (0)

Yesterday the Sunday Times [paywall] covered a talk Anne Johnson and I had given at the Cheltenham Science Festival about the statistics of sex, and the article said more people are having sex in their teens, roughly 30% before the age of 16. Let’s leave aside whether this is an accurate statistic or not, and simply look at what happened when the Daily Mail lifted this material into an article of its own. They made a number of errors, but the cracker was when the statement by the Sunday Times...

A heuristic for sorting science stories in the news

June 1, 2014 Comments (0)

Dominic Lawson's article in the Sunday Times today[paywall] quotes me as having the rather cynical heuristic: "the very fact that a piece of health research appears in the papers indicates that it is nonsense." I stand by this, but after a bit more consideration I would like to suggest a slightly more refined version for dealing with science stories in the news, particularly medical ones. "Ask yourself: if the study had come up with a negative result, would I be hearing about it? If NO, then...

It's cherry-picking time: more poorly reported science being peddled to journalists

March 18, 2014 Comments (0)

Today the Daily Mail trumpeted “For every hour of screen time, the risk of family life being disrupted and children having poorer emotional wellbeing may be doubled”, while the Daily Telegraph said that "for every hour each day a child spent in front of a screen, the chance of becoming depressed, anxious or being bullied rose by up to 100 per cent”. These dramatic conclusions come from a study whose abstract states – Across associations, the likelihood of adverse outcomes in children ranged...

More deaths due to climate change? Or maybe not.

February 4, 2014 Comments (0)

Coverage of a paper just published by Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health included dramatic headlines such as the Guardian's Heat-related deaths will rise 257% by 2050 because of climate change. But a closer look at the numbers in the paper paints a rather different picture. Figure 4 of the paper shows the number of deaths expected per 100,000 people in each category, and how the authors estimate this will change into the 2080s. But the vertical axes for the two plots are different,...

How surprising was the cluster of cycle deaths in London?

January 4, 2014 Comments (0)

More or Less recently featured Jody Aberdein talking about the cluster of 6 cycle deaths in London over a 2 week period. The paper with the details of the analysis can, for a while, be freely obtained from Significance magazine. Details of the statistical methods are given here - these are necessarily quite complex due to the need to allow for all possible 2 week periods.

New content for GCSE Maths announced

December 4, 2013 Comments (0)

Following the consultation discussed previously on this blog, the Department for Education has announced the revised content for GCSE Mathematics. Compared to the current content, the most notable changes are (a) separation of probability and statistics, (b) removal of the data-cycle, (c) increased material. The proposed content for probability is as follows: Probability record describe and analyse the frequency of outcomes of probability experiments using tables and frequency trees apply...

PISA statistical methods - more detailed comments

November 25, 2013 Comments (0)

In the Radio 4 documentary PISA - Global Education Tables Tested, broadcast on November 25th, a comment is made that the statistical issues are a bit complex to go into. Here is a brief summary of my personal concerns: to get an idea of the feelings about PISA statistical methods, see for example an article in the Times Educational Supplement, and the response by OECD. The PISA methodology is complex and rather opaque, in spite of the substantial amount of material published in the...

Complaint about the Press Complaints Commission

November 24, 2013 Comments (0)

What a strange organisation the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) is. They say that a press article is inaccurate, but consider it reasonable that the inaccurate headline remains uncorrected. Brief Timeline 12th july 2013. Keogh report on 14 hospitals is due out. Professor Sir Brian Jarman provides data and briefs journalists on above-average deaths in hospitals being investigated. He emphasizes that such deaths cannot be interpreted as ‘avoidable’. 13th July. The Sunday Telegraph leads...

Press Complaints Commission decide on '13,000 needless deaths' story

November 4, 2013 Comments (0)

I was of a number of complainants to the Press Complaints Commission about the Sunday Telegraph story headlined 13,000 died needlessly at 14 worst NHS trusts, as the Telegraph journalists had been explicitly told by the originator of the figures, Professor Brian Jarman, that this was an inappropriate interpretation. My objections were expressed in an article in the British Medical Journal. The Press Complaints Commission has now told me that “The Commission decided that the Sunday Telegraph...

Probability and stats feature strongly in 'Core maths' proposals for 16-18 year olds

October 14, 2013 Comments (0)

The government is pushing ahead with proposals for a maths qualification to be taken by 16-18 year-olds who got at least a grade C in Maths GCSE but are not doing maths A level. Further details were released on October 8th by the Department of Education, coinciding with the release of a report by the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME) from its 'expert panel on core mathematics'. This report includes the 'indicative content' contained in the table below The importance of...