As I enter the porter’s lodge at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, I fleetingly reflect that I may be about to receive an intimidating tutorial from the college principal, Andrew Dilnot. It is not that the economist has a stern reputation, but today’s circumstances are unusual. He recently stepped down from presenting More or Less, a BBC Radio 4 series about numbers in the news. I have been recruited as the new presenter, and am ready to be patronised – or worse.
I needn’t have worried: as he strides into the lodge in a pale brown linen suit and blue tie, Dilnot’s smile is genuine enough, and as we walk together through north Oxford’s leafy residential streets, he is more eager to identify shared acquaintances in the world of economics than to lecture me on the art of radio presenting.
Dilnot has suggested we visit the Cherwell Boathouse restaurant. It’s tucked away down an alleyway, just next to a shed where punting poles, oars and cushions are hired out. On a sunny day in Trinity term, the slow-drifting river would be packed with jostling punts full of rowdy students. Today we gaze out on to a silent river and a row of moored boats.
Once we’re seated, I again fear that my tutorial may begin. But despite his formidable qualifications (CBE for “services to economics’’; pro-vice chancellor of Oxford) and 11 years as director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies – the UK’s leading tax think-tank – Dilnot is not prone to lecturing. He preaches a message of statistical self-help, both through More or Less, and his new book, The Tiger That Isn’t, written with the radio series’ creator Michael Blastland – it’s already into its third reprint.
“We are trying to show people how they can interpret the numbers that are thrown at them,’’ Dilnot says. That is often a less technical business than it seems. He advises people to ask simple questions, such as: “Is that a big number?’’ The answer is often not hard to work out. One of Dilnot’s favourite examples is the Labour government’s promise in 1997 to spend £300m over five years to create a million new childcare places. But if you take apart the numbers it looks less impressive: £300m for a million places is £300 per place. Over five years, that’s £60 per place – or a little over a pound a week. Good luck finding childcare for that sort of money.
We pause for a moment to contemplate the menu. The waitress tells us the foie gras is off. Dilnot declares he doesn’t eat foie gras, anyway, having once visited a farm in France and seen how it was made. Even without the foie gras, the choices all look a little rich, until Dilnot points me towards the lighter set menu page tucked away at the back of the large leather folder. His belief in self-reliance then reasserts itself, as he refuses to offer me any recommendations.
He plumps for the Tivoli ham with asparagus, followed by grilled chicken and vegetables. I am still wondering what Dilnot saw at the farm, and choose a fried lentil cake, with gazpacho to start. Dilnot refuses a glass of wine, claiming it will send him to sleep. He also turns down the offer of bread. “I am eating for the college at the moment,’’ he says, patting a nonexistent pot belly. That leads us on to the evidence for and against different diets, but Dilnot is more taken by the research into links between diet and crime.
“I can’t remember if we mention it in the book,’’ he says (they do), “but there was a randomised trial of prisoners in the late 1990s. Some got nutritional supplements and others did not.’’ The trial showed big improvements in the behaviour of prisoners who received the supplements. It’s an example of how to do statistical work properly, and it contrasts with most of the crimes against counting that Dilnot and Blastland tend to document. But Dilnot complains that the results have been binned by the Home Office, and that the Home Office refuses to explain why there has been no follow-up work.
Our starters arrive, and we stop the professional chat to eat. The gazpacho tastes good, and Dilnot professes to enjoy his ham. But neither dish is exciting enough to divert us from the conversation. I ask Dilnot whether the failure to act on good research, such as the prison experiment, suggests an inbuilt bias somewhere in favour of sloppy statistics over careful work?
“There should be a market for good statistical work,’’ he says. “But we are biased in favour of a dramatic story.’’ He relates one example: rigorous statistical work on the safety record of UK railways after privatisation showed that, despite popular belief, privatisation accelerated a pre-existing trend towards ever safer rail travel. But while Dilnot discussed this work in depth on his radio programme, it didn’t get much interest in the rest of the media. “Senior journalists told us that Hatfield [the 2000 train derailment that killed four people] had proved that things had got worse.’’
But perhaps, I suggest, the fault lies with the statisticians themselves, for being uninterested in – or incapable of – presenting their research in a way that is engaging, persuasive and comprehensible to the rest of us? He acknowledges this, ruefully, but also points out how easy it now is for anyone to get online access to good statistics and find out for themselves what is happening.
“It doesn’t need to be complicated. Often you just need the right number.’’ But not enough people seem interested in doing that. Dilnot is perplexed by this. “I love looking at the numbers. There’s always a surprise there. When I’m researching a new topic, I get a boyish surge of excitement whenever I discover another thing I didn’t know.’’ But this is probably not surprising, coming from a man whose earliest professional memory is of analysing the government’s Family Expenditure Survey using a computer that spat out numbers in base 16.
We can’t all give numbers the sort of loving embrace that Dilnot does. But we can, he believes, do a lot better than we think. One simple trick is to try to humanise statistics. Faced with a question such as: “how many petrol stations are there in the UK?’’, ask yourself how many petrol stations there are in your town, and how many people. It’s the first step towards grasping a sensible answer to the bigger question.
As we tuck into our main courses, I can’t resist teasing him about this bigger game of humanising statistics. Dilnot has written that just about the only question that can’t be partially answered with reference to personal experience is: “how many penguins are there in Antarctica?’’ I ask him if he actually knows the answer; two million, he suggests, before launching into an extended monologue about the difficulties of a credible penguin census.
I steer the conversation away from penguins and back to something in his book that intrigues me. The book alludes to what the sociologist Joel Best labelled “the worst social statistic ever’’. I ask him to tell me more. “The worst social statistic ever,’’ Dilnot recalls, “is that the number of murders in the US has doubled every year since 1953.’’ He leaves it to me to figure out why it’s so bad. It isn’t hard: even if there had been just one murder in 1953, I reckon aloud that the entire population of the US would have been dead sometime in the 1970s. (Later, I check my numbers, and I’m not far off. There would have been more than 30 million murders in 1978, almost 70 million in 1979, and the last available victim would have perished in 1980.)
Over a decaffeinated coffee (he resists dessert but easily persuades me to have a strawberry creme brulee), Dilnot jokes about how deeply he absorbed the details of the UK economy, after his many years at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). “My wife said that if I left, I’d only be useful for Mastermind, with my specialist subject as UK Budgets of the 1980s and 1990s.’’ In the end, he left in 2002, for a much broader remit at St Hugh’s. Why did he make the move? There’s the commute, he admits. The IFS is in London, but ever since Dilnot went to Oxford as a student, he has lived in the city, now with a wife and two daughters.
But there’s more to it than that. Dilnot says that he came to realise that one of the IFS’s most valuable – if unmeasured – outputs was of good economists. (The Institute’s alumni include the economics editors of the BBC and of the Financial Times.) An Oxford college would, he reasoned, be an even more important training ground for future high-flyers. And he is passionate about the way the college system brings together academics from different disciplines, who would normally never have a reason to talk to each other.
Given Dilnot’s familiarity with how statistics are produced – like sausages, the process is not pretty up close – it is surprising that he still believes that numbers can do a lot of good. He delights in skewering the perverse consequences of the New Labour fad for using targets to try to improve the performance of the public sector. And yet he says he feels torn: “Despite all the unforeseen and adverse side effects, there seem to have been important improvements in performance, too.’’
I ask him how government targets could be set more sensibly. He argues for simplicity, surprise audits, sanctions for those who “game’’ the system, and a willingness to change frequently what is measured. All these recommendations are aimed at persuading the managers of schools and hospitals that the best way to win plaudits is to do a good job.
The time comes to settle the bill and leave, and we walk back to the college together. He gives me some (solicited) advice about how to make a radio series, and then asks me what I plan to do with my afternoon. I tell him I am going to find a quiet place to write up this interview, so he offers the college library. “Somehow the smell of Oxford libraries puts me to sleep,’’ he says. I always found that too, so it is refreshing to hear one of the university’s senior figures agreeing. I head to the library feeling relaxed – and far from intimidated.
Tim Harford is the author of ‘The Undercover Economist’ and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s ‘More or Less’
Cherwell Boathouse restaurant, Oxford
1 x Tivoli ham
1 x gazpacho soup
1 x lentil cake
1 x grilled chicken
1 x strawberry creme brulee and lavender ice cream
1 x bottle sparkling mineral water
2 x decaffeinated coffee
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
First published at ft.com.