Reading beyond figures: using Bayes’ theorem to interpret the numbers

Award-winning science editor and author delivers latest Business School Summer Series webinar.

The Business School (formerly Cass)’s second Food for Thought webinar was delivered by Tom Chivers, award-winning journalist, Science Editor at Unherd and co-author of How to Read Numbers: A Guide to Stats in the News, who discussed the importance of context in the validation of statistical reporting.

Mr Chivers spoke about the common pitfalls of both reporting and consuming numbers that lack contextual meaning and how this links to Thomas Bayes’ theorem.

“The pandemic has really shown the importance of clear and accurate reporting of numbers,” Mr Chivers said.

“There’s a tension in journalism between the need to attract attention, to get clicks and views, and the need to tell truthful, accurate stories. Good statistical journalism puts numbers in context and is honest about uncertainty and complexity; but often there’s pressure to make things sound more dramatic than they are.

“Bayes’ theorem is especially relevant these days, because it helps us understand how new information – such as a new study on whether wine causes heart disease, or a new PCR test result saying that we do or don’t have Covid – can only be interpreted in the context of the information we already have.

"It’s a vital, simple, enlightening equation, and I was thrilled to be able to talk about it.”

Tom Chivers

The session was hosted by Dr Aneesh Banerjee, Senior Lecturer at the Business School. Dr Banerjee said Mr Chivers’ talk and the summer webinar series as a whole offered valuable insights and a chance for deeper thinking in the lead up to the Business School’s name change in September.

“The Business School ran its inaugural Summer Series last summer in the midst of the first lockdown, aiming to provide brief insights into current affairs, research and human behaviours from both academic experts and practitioners.

“The series has returned this year with renewed focus on organisational culture and the lessons we can learn from Reverend Thomas Bayes in the weeks before the new name formally takes effect.

“Mr Chivers’ talk about the use of statistics in reporting is a highly relevant topic at a time where our daily lives are so heavily dependant on Covid data, and the conflicting interpretations of it across various media sources.

“We thank Mr Chivers for taking the time to join us and look forward to the rest of the series.”

Find out more about the upcoming Summer Series events.

Featured Cass Experts