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Page last updated at 11:20 GMT, Thursday, 12 February 2004

Predicting our fate


Producer, BBC Radio 4's More or Less

Wedding ring
Can statistics predict who we are going to marry?

BBC Radio 4's More or Less was broadcast on Thursday, 12 February, 2004 at 1500 GMT.

Are statistics more powerful, more spooky than your horoscope?

Anything, you might say, is more powerful than a horoscope.

So the question might be better put: do statistics have real power to predict your future?

In More or Less this week, we discussed the disconcerting sense that numbers sometimes seem capable of discovering more about you than you know yourself, even of knowing in advance what your actions will be.

In aggregate, we sometimes know sometimes quite accurately how many people will do what.

Autonomy

Take a very personal choice like who to marry.

We know statistically your chances of marrying someone who lived in the neighbourhood where you grew up.

For another example, if you subscribe to a publication like The London Review of Books, it is known with some accuracy where you're likely to choose to live or how many of you will renew your subscription.

Writing in the London Review, the magazine's publisher Nicholas Spice said the feeling that statistics could already know what we take to be self-determined decisions was one of the persistent, unsettling fears we had to put out of our minds if we were to be able to get on with life.

It seems to him to threaten belief in our own agency. We asked him on to the programme.

EXTRACT FROM THE MAZE
...perplexed
To know which turning to take next,
Looked up and wished he were a bird
To whom such doubts must seem absurd."

W H Auden

He likened this spooky sense to that of the character stuck amongst the hedges in W H Auden's poem, The Maze.

The man recounts many ways of describing his predicament in life, different ways of understanding himself.

The bird, Nicholas says, has a vantage much like statistics.

It cares little for our self-justifications or the rationalisations of our own behaviour.

With enough distance, he says, much of this appears to be is self-deluding and many of our decisions are predictable.

A statistician would reply that although patterns do emerge among aggregates, we have no way of knowing in advance which of us will conform.

Just as we know that a coin tossed many times will predictably produce about the same number of heads and tails but the next toss is unpredictable.

Also in this week's programme, we were trying to find out if the statistics can help overcome our reporter's fear of flying.

So which is it? Are statistics more powerful, more knowing about us than we are ourselves; or are they helpless in the face of our emotions?

Click here to have your say.


Producer: Michael Blastland
Editor: Nicola Meyrick


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