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Welcome to Understanding Uncertainty

Welcome to the site that tries to make sense of chance, risk, luck, uncertainty and probability. Mathematics won't tell us what to do, but we think that understanding the numbers can help us deal with our own uncertainty and allow us to look critically at stories in the media.

The Norm Chronicles, By Michael Blastland and David Spiegelhalter, is now available for purchase! Some reviews are here, and here


'Tails you win: the science of chance' aired on BBC4 at 9pm on October 18th. The video trailer is up on Youtube

If you want to see where all the numbers came from in the programme, we've prepared a page of all the gory details.

Do you have a coincidence story? David Spiegelhalter is collecting them over at http://cambridgecoincidences.org.


Elsewhere on UnderstandingUncertainty:

Articles appearing in other places

This page contains the text of articles which have appeared in newspapers and magazines, as well as links to articles on other people's websites.

survival-paper-materials

Written instructions used to explain survival curves to participants in Rakow, Wright, Bull and Spiegelhalter (in press, Medical Decision Making).

For simple survival curves, all participants read the same set of instructions.

For multi-state survival curves, participants read one of two sets of instructions (depending on the kind of graph that they would subsequently see).

BBC website headline wrong shock horror

Bowel cancer screening 'does cut deaths', said the BBC News website today, in a report on a study using data from the NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme in England, published in the magnificently named journal Gut. Wow, I thought, that was quick, the programme has been going only since 2006 and didn't cover the whole country till 2010. Have they really found clear evidence of an effect on death rates already?

Are the Brits really fatter than other Europeans?

Lots of press reports in the last couple of days on how UK women are the fattest in Europe, for example in the Daily Mail and on the BBC News website. I'm still in Berlin, and it was in the papers here too. The tabloid-style Berliner Kurier went with the headline "Man, they are fat, man", while the N24 news service went with "British and Maltese are the fattest Europeans". But is it another dodgy league table?

The next Piccadilly line train is leaving from ....

Kings Cross Station now not only has a platform 9$\frac{3}{4}$, but also a platform 0. And for the numerically challenged, there are repeated announcements that 'customers are advised that Platform 0 is situated next to Platform 1'

kings-cross.JPG

I suppose the Underground platforms will now have to be given complex numbers.

The risk of queuing?

You’re finally landed after a nightmare flight in cattle-class. All you can think of is getting home, cleaning up the cat-sick and opening the post and a bottle of wine. Then you get to immigration control and are confronted by a queue that overflows the room, with a patient border official steadily working their way through the grumpy mob. It’s enough to make you want to stay at home.

A probability paradox?

I recently tweeted a link to this problem drawn on a blackboard, which got a lot of retweets.

Multiple Choice: If you choose an answer to this question at random, what is the chance you will be correct? A) 25% B) 50% C) 60% D) 25%

This is a fun question whose paradoxical, self-referential nature quickly reveals itself – A) seems to be fine until one realizes the D) option is also 25%.

Divide and rule: getting rates in a mess

I've been a bit inactive in here for a few weeks, because I've temporarily moved to Berlin. But it turns out that one can find bad presentations of risk in the German media too, and here's one, pointed out to me by my new colleague Jan Multmeier. The topic is a serious one: suicide rates in German troops serving abroad, and the error involves dividing by the wrong thing when calculating rates.

Lottery league tables

The Daily Mail and other media sources have featured league tables for the 'luckiest parts of the country' based on the proportion of the population that have become millionaires by winning the lottery. Straight Statistics have done a nice demolition job on this absurd story, pointing out that any comparison should be based on the number of tickets sold, not the population.

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