The risks of trying to be funny

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was produced by the Winton programme for the public understanding of risk based in the Statistical Laboratory in the University of Cambridge. The aim was to help improve the way that uncertainty and risk are discussed in society, and show how probability and statistics can be both useful and entertaining.

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I’ve had a lot of publicity over the last few days, but none of it was welcome. It arose from the story below from the Daily Telegraph of June 6 with the headline “Britons are having less sex, and Game of Thrones could be to blame, says Cambridge professor


I really did say all this. At a talk for the general public at the Hay Festival plugging Sex by Numbers, I was talking about the decline in sexual activity over the last 20 years identified by the NATSAL survey, and said that the press was obsessed with the reasons for this. As a statistician, I couldn’t say why this decline had occurred, but Ipads have been mentioned. I then made the comments about box sets, and that this trend would mean there would be no sex by 2030 (I even got the sums wrong), and that this was very worrying – this was delivered with over-the-top enthusiasm, and got a gratifyingly big laugh from the audience. A standard use of ludicrous exaggeration as a source of humour (although it does lose somewhat in the retelling).

In spite of the obvious joke, the Telegraph chose to report this as a serious scientific finding (although the article has now been re-written). The consequence was the story spreading like a virus across a huge range of media, including the dailys, Newsweek and so on, all of whom just copied the Telegraph article and only one making any attempt to get in touch with me. The virus mutated in the process and the headlines became increasingly exaggerated, including Sex Will Be Obsolete by 2030 Because of Netflix, According to One Lone Scientist, and Couples 'will stop having sex by 2030' due to the large rise in TV ratings. Only one journalist identified that this was clearly a joke.

There has also been a queue of radio interview requests from the BBC, Australia, Russia, New Zealand, Argentina and so on, all keen to know about my research on how Game of Thrones was going to mean the end of sex. I didn't oblige. Also a stream of derogatory tweets about the idiot professor who is denying ‘Netflix and chill’ (a euphemism for casual sex).

This episode does not show journalism at its best, and it would be laughable if it were a deliberate April Fool. It also provides great material for getting laughs in future talks. But I also feel I have been casually exploited for click-bait (the Telegraph story is, of course, highly cited on Google), and amazed that this was done by a science journalist. But I’m not going to stop putting comic exaggerations into my public talks.


You are a champ and a fighter. Keep up the good work. :)