understanding uncertainty

In the previous article we looked at a psychological study which claims to provide evidence that certain types of extra-sensory perception exist, using a statistical method called significance testing. But do the results of the study really justify this conclusion?

In March 2011 a highly respected psychology journal published a paper claiming to provide evidence for extra-sensory perception (ESP). The claim was based largely on the results of a very common statistical procedure called significance testing. The experiments provide an excellent way into looking at how significance testing works and at what's problematic about it.

A recent study from Harvard reported that eating red meat is associated with a 13% increased risk of death. But what does this mean? Surely our risk of death is already 100%, and a risk of 113% does not seem very sensible? To really interpret this number we need to use some maths.

Many risks we take don't kill us straight away: think of all the lifestyle frailties we get warned about, such as smoking, drinking, eating badly, not exercising and so on. The microlife aims to make all these chronic risks comparable by showing how much life we lose on average when we're exposed to them.

Probabilities and statistics: they are everywhere, but they are hard to understand and can be counter-intuitive. So what's the best way of communicating them to an audience that doesn't have the time, desire, or background to get stuck into the numbers? This article explores modern visualisation techniques and finds that the right picture really can be worth a thousand words.

Do you think bungee jumping is riskier than smoking? Would you take a medicine with a 10% risk of serious side effects? Or board a plane with a 1% chance of crashing? Risk is a very complex topic, studied by researchers all over the world. In the Big Risk Test, which is now live as part of BBC Lab UK, we want to find out how people deal with risk, particularly to try and understand what makes people have such different opinions and feelings about life's chances.

This article is based on a talk I gave at the recent John Cage exhibition in the Kettles Yard gallery in Cambridge. Cage is perhaps best known for his avant-garde music, particularly his silent 1952 composition 4′33″ but also for his use of randomness in aleatory music. But Cage also used randomness in his art.

England's performance in the World Cup last summer was thankfully overshadowed by the attention given to Paul the octopus, who was reported as making an unbroken series of correct predictions of match winners. David Spiegelhalter looks at Paul's performance in an attempt to answer the question that (briefly) gripped the world: was Paul psychic?

Comparing and communicating small lethal risks is a tricky business, yet this is what many of us are faced with in our daily lives. One way of measuring these risks is to use a quantity called the micromort. David Spiegelhalter and Mike Pearson investigate.

David Spiegelhalter explains that waiting for an infinite number of monkeys to produce the complete works of Shakespeare is not just a probabilistic certainty, it also gives us an insight into how long we can expect to wait for a rare event to happen.

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