The Tiger that Isn't by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot

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The Tiger that Isn't by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot

Category: Home and Family
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: All the tools you need to deconstruct the numbers which are pushed at us day in, day out in an easy to read and enjoyable book.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 184 Date: August 2007
Publisher: Profile
ISBN: 978-1861978394

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Does 40% mean a) one quarter, b) 4 out of 10 or c) 1 in 40?

In a world where one third of the people who were asked that question got it wrong, you can be forgiven for thinking that the general understanding of the figures which are pushed at us, day in, day out is pretty low. You might also wonder if some of the people pushing the figures take advantage of the fact. Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot's book sets out to give you the tools to dismantle what we're told and reduce it to something which we can all understand.

In this simply-written, easy to understand book Blastland and Dilnot of Radio 4's More or Less empower us all by letting light into areas where we can be so easily bamboozled. Averages are an excellent example. Did you know that most people have more than the average number of feet? Just a few people with only one or even no feet are sufficient to bring the average down and produce a seemingly ridiculous statement which is absolutely true. Similarly with incomes - most people earn less than the average. The very few people who have enormous incomes are sufficient to sway the average so that it doesn't really have much relevance to the man in the street. When you look at averages you need to know what's included in the range which might distort the result.

That's an example of figures being used correctly, but where they can still confuse. Unfortunately there are many situations where journalists writing about numbers or politicians using them do so wrongly. In November 2006 the Daily Telegraph reported on a proposal to increase the retirement age for men to 67 and commented that one in five men who would otherwise have lived to draw their pension would not now do so. It sounds authoritative but when you think about it, one fifth of men do not die between the ages of 65 and 67. One fifth of men die before they're 67 - unless wholesale slaughter was planned - but that's an entirely different point. Some 4% of 65 year-old men die before they reach the age of 67 - not 20%.

The book is packed with similar examples, such as the senior government advisers who believe that people earn two or three times more than they do, or the dozen GPs who had higher patient death rates than Harold Shipman, or the minor contretemps in the school dinner queue which can see you branded a thug. Blastland and Dilnot take them all apart and then tell you how to examine such figures in future.

They're brilliant with figures. I'm less certain about their abilities with words, because there is one point where I think that they're wrong. They suggest that there are politicians whose calculations assume that childcare costs £1.15 a week. They've gone back to a promise made by the government in 1997 to spend an extra £300m over the next five years to create a million new childcare places. They then do the sums and point out that you might be able to get childcare in rural China for £1.15 a week but not in the UK.

Now, I'm no apologist for this government, but I think Blastland and Dilnot are being unfair. I read 'create' as meaning 'to cause to come into being', in much the same way that I would see creating hospital beds as meaning that buildings and equipment would be funded and trained staff made available. I wouldn't see this as meaning that the cost of caring for patients would be covered. Looking back to 1997 I know that many people wanting childcare lamented the fact that they simply couldn't get places and my reading of 'create a million new childcare places' is that the government was tackling this problem. This isn't a charitable interpretation - I really can't read it in any other way and it's born out by a statement the then Prime Minister made in 2002 when he referred to Over £300m invested in childcare since 1997, creating places for more than 900,000 children. Plus, we're considering a government who have elevated spin to an art form. Why would they be coy about saying that the places were free if that was what was intended?

It might be that the politicians did intend us to think that the childcare would be free and deliberately used language to obfuscate what the money was specifically provided for, and right that it relied on people's general fear of figures to succeed in doing that, but this is not the point which is made in the book. There it implies that the money was intended to cover the cost of childcare and makes mockery of the fact that a figure which seemed large was obviously inadequate for the purpose. By stating that a sum which was earmarked for one purpose was inadequate to provide for another undermines the argument that governments do such things deliberately to confuse.

I know I'm carping. Apart from this point it really is an excellent book and I don't doubt that most people would benefit from reading it.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag.

If you enjoy this type of book then we think that you'd also enjoy How to Read a Novel by John Sutherland.

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Magda said:

Oh, how very useful.

The degree of in-numeracy is astonishing.

The degree to which it's socially acceptable, even among people who would turn their noses up when somebody expressed ignorance of literature is just sad.


Sue replied:

Well, the tiger is what happens when people see shapes and shadows moving in the trees. It looks very frightening, but in fact is just shadows on leaves moving in the breeze - nothing frightening at all. The same thing happens with numbers - people see figures presented in such a way that they seem frightening when in fact they're not - The Tiger That Isn't.