Cautionary Tales – The Spreadsheet of Life and Death

26th June, 2020

Clive Stone was dying, and the drug that might help him was unavailable: a spreadsheet somewhere said that the numbers didn’t add up. But Clive Stone wasn’t a man to accept that sort of decision without a fight.

How do we value human life? What happens when we turn flesh-and-blood people into entries on a spreadsheet? And, perhaps just as worryingly, what happens when we don’t?

Written by Tim Harford with Andrew Wright. Producers: Ryan Dilley with Pete Naughton. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Editor: Julia Barton. Publicity: Christine Ragasa.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Heather Fain, Maya Koenig, Mia Lobel, Carly Migliori, Jacob Weisberg, and of course, the mighty Malcolm Gladwell.

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Further reading and listening

Read Clive Stone’s story in his own words on the Kidney Cancer Support Network; the story was also covered by the Telegraph, the BBC, the Guardian and The Oxford Mail.

Spencer Banzhaf’s article, The Cold-War Origins of Statistical Life, was indispensable on the history of the concept. For a recent exploration of the issues, see Howard Steven Friedman’s book Ultimate Price.

Thomas Schelling’s fascinating book, Choice and Consequence, contains his essay, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”.

The BBC reported on the value-for-money of the cancer drugs fund.

NICE offers a useful explanation of QALYs and how they are used.

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