A classic from the Journalism bookshelf:
The Tiger That Isn’t – Seeing Through a World of Numbers, by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot
Review by David Hayward, Hayward Black Media consultancy and Coventry University, previously BBC College of Journalism head of journalism.
Although this book was only published in 2007, it is of such importance I believe it already merits its place as a classic on the journalism bookshelf.
When I am lecturing students or talking to aspiring young journalists, there are two books I recommend as essential they read, devour, keep with them at all times and continually refer to.
They are Bad Science, by Dr Ben Goldacre, and this edition’s featured classic journalism text, The Tiger That Isn’t – Seeing Through a World of Numbers, by Andrew Dilnot and Michael Blastland.
The reason is simple. Historically non-specialist journalists have struggled to grasp the complex principles of numbers, statistics and science. This book is a perfect guide to debunking many myths surrounding the use of numbers in everyday life.
It takes on the work Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot began when they created and presented the BBC Radio 4 programme More or Less. Michael is a journalist, broadcaster and author, Andrew is Principal of St Hugh’s College, Oxford and formerly Director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies.
The opening lines clearly establish the need for the book:
“Numbers saturate the news, politics, life. For good or ill, they are today’s pre-eminent public language – and those who speak it rule. Quick and cool, numbers often seems to have conquered fact.
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“But they are also hated, often for the same reasons. They can bamboozle not enlighten, terrorise, not guide and all too easily end up abused and distrusted.
Potent but shifty, the role of numbers is frighteningly ambiguous. How can we see through them?”
The next two hundred or so pages, provide an entertaining and enlightening guide, on how to make sense of the world of numbers and how not to be misled by the lies damn lies and statistics. It is beautifully written and has a clarity which makes it simple to understand subjects otherwise daunting to the novice.
We learn how to assess what makes a big number. Just because a figure has several noughts, it doesn’t necessarily make it vast. For instance we discover £300,000,000 is actually quite small, when put into context of timescale and coverage.
This particular figure was used to illustrate the sum the UK government was planning to spend revolutionizing childcare over a five-year period. When explained just how many people the £300m would cover and for how long, it actually became quite a piffling number.
This is what the book does so successfully. It offers an idea of perspective when dealing with numbers and statistics. It gives you the ability, if not to become a statistical genius, then at least to know when to question figures you are presented with, on a daily basis.
We are given an insight into how numbers are counted and calculated, how to read and use averages, who is rich and who is poor, targets, risk, sampling and chance, the fact that numbers go up and down – and that shock figures are not always so shocking.
I worked with Michael Blastland at the BBC College of Journalism. Based on this book, Michael devised a short presentation, which he would deliver to journalists across the BBC. It was one of the most useful things the College of Journalism has done. The look of realisation around the room every time he spoke was astonishing.
Understanding numbers and statistics is vital to the work of any journalist, as Michael and Andrew say at the beginning; it is the pre-eminent public language. By reading this book journalists and journalism students can gain a more coherent grasp of what numbers are saying and how to report them. A must read.
The Tiger That Isn’t – Seeing Through a World of Numbers by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot. Profile Books, 226 pages, ISBN 978-1846681110, RRP £8.99 (paperback)