More or Less. The show with more episodes than Star Wars.” So said its presenter, the economist Tim Harford, with the faintest hint of an eye-roll, which suggested his weekly task of analysing the statistics peddled across the news might finally have done his head in. It was subtle, sure. But for the immaculately serene Harford, notable.
Some widely disseminated facts that Harford has, since March, fascinatingly debunked on the show (Wednesdays, 9am): that birds sang more loudly during lockdown. (Actually they were singing more quietly, due to the Lombard effect. Look it up.) That lockdown will have a significant impact on the climate. (Not true. The 5 per cent reduction in emissions over this year is equivalent to one hundredth of a degree centigrade.) That pangolins are the most trafficked commodity. (False. It’s timber. Then fish.) Even if you already assume that at least three-quarters of the numbers you read are totally wrong anyway, actually hearing the line “there have never been any days when the 100,000-a-day testing target was met” (20 May episode) was sobering.
All this often startling information Harford delivers, or receives, with such a stunningly neutral, non-judgmental voice, I have on occasion wondered if he was biochemically different to other people. He’s a miracle of equanimity. Is he, actually, someone who gets extremely stressed out behind the scenes, to that point where a person can’t possibly get any more stressed out, and has weirdly returned to normal? Is he someone who is secretly cross-addicted to writing furious articles?
Harford is Radio 4’s community outreach officer, standing on the doorstep, speaking in a way proven to minimise the surface area of irritation/panic. “Last week I told you that would be the last in the series. Apparently not,” he opened this particular edition. It seems the station is insisting Harford keep on debunking into at least July. No reprieve! Great for us – but for him? I got the feeling he’d rather not. “… All these numbers are a bit rickety…” he sighed at one point. And, doomily, “cometh the hour, cometh the actuary”. The phrase of the pandemic, hands down.
More or Less
BBC Radio 4
This article appears in the 24 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Political football