I live in fear of Tim Harford. He hosts the Radio 4 and BBC World Service program More Or Less. The premise of this brilliant programme is that they interrogate statistics that have entered the public realm but sound a bit dubious. Classically it is politicians who are subject to fact checking but the programme’s range is broad, it’s up-beat and playful; Tim Harford is fantastic but he terrifies me.
My interest in statistics will be well known to any regular follower of Stan’s Cafe. Our performance installation Of All The People In All The World is entirely built on statistics, it is our biggest hit and virtually everyone loves it. When we first performed the show my greatest fear was that visitors would spend all their time questioning the integrity of all the statistics in the show. It was difficult to work our what counted as ‘due diligence’ for statistics we included in this artwork but we did our best.
In the event I was surprised to find very few people questioned the numbers and when they did these were usually numbers we had questioned ourselves and done extra work on verifying. Yet ultimately, it is an work of art not a government report, so although we would divide the 73.4 Million people who traveled through Heathrow Airport last year by 365 to reduce the amount of double counting and label this “People who travel through Heathrow Airport each day” (aesthetically I’d rather say “Yesterday” than “Each Day” but this would imply an unjustifiable level of precision). Of course my fear is that Tim Harford will land on the show and point out that this new number fails to account for passengers who use Heathrow for connecting flights and are thus counted twice in the day, once as an Arrival and again as a Departure, or for business passengers who fly to a destination and return on the same day. The man could make mince meat of the show! Except he always comes across as a very reasonable chap, so I’m sure he’d understand.
Anyway, my admiration for Tim Harford was increased today when I heard his recent TED Talk which starts with the amazing story behind Keith Jarrett‘s Köln Concert, which I’d never heard before and then went on to make an argument for ‘mess’ and ‘disruption’ being a valuable element of a creative process.