Tails you win: The Science of Chance

David Spiegelhalter

David Spiegelhalter

Last night David Spiegelhalter presented a TV programme on the science of chance. As usual it’s available on the BBC’s iPlayer for seven days.

Spiegelhalter is an entertaining speaker, I’ve seen him give talks a number of times, but I felt this programme was a bit pedestrian. There’s lots in it but that just makes it too “bitty”. For example, there is a brief bit about Apple making iPods less random and an overlong bit about a cricketer who was “unlucky” to break an ankle and so on. Nothing was dealt with in depth.

Upon reflection I think that the problem (leaving aside that I am not the target audience, but hey, I can have an opinion) is that there is a lack of drama and tension in the programme. It’s just one thing after another. So although the programme did progress through the history of chance there was no sense in these historical pieces of dramatic fights to uncover the truth.

In fact, I felt that the only attempt at tension was rather misguided. To create drama Spiegelhalter jumps out of an aeroplane after explaining how at his age the risk of dying is in some sense less than that of a younger person as he is more likely to die in the next few years. As he heads toward the ground the screen freezes, a caption asks “what happened next?” and the programme moves on to another topic, returning much later.

What happened next?

What happened next?…

Are we supposed to think that perhaps the parachute didn’t open and he tumbled to his death? Well the tabloids would have told us: “Risk Prof dies in ‘unlikely accident'” or the announcer would have dedicated the programme to his memory. So of course there was no tension or drama in this piece. Particularly since the programme titles showed the parachute opening.
The parachute opens

… the parachute opens like we saw in the titles!

Anyhow, there were many bits I did like such as the explanation of average age until death and the graphics used. Mercifully, he didn’t do the Monty Hall problem which has rather been done to death. And of course, as I said, Spiegelhalter is an entertaining speaker so at least he wasn’t putting me to sleep!

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