Coronavirus statistics

I was thinking of writing a post giving a kind of glossary of various statistical terms and tools that are relevant for interpreting reports about the current pandemic, but Sylvia Richardson and David Spiegelhalter have already done a better job of it than I could have done. So, just follow the link here.

Sylvia Richardson has been elected to be the next president of the Royal Statistical Society, as of January 2021. David Spiegelhalter himself held this position from 2017-18.

Britain’s toughest quiz

A year ago that I wrote a post explaining that one of the traditions of the Royal Statistical Society is that every year around Christmas it publishes a quiz that is widely recognised to be one of the toughest out there. The questions are never strictly statistical or mathematical, but they do often require an ability to think laterally and logically, as well as a good general knowledge.

So, in case you’ve nothing better to do over Christmas, this year’s version of the quiz has just been published. Feel free to have a go and submit your answers; otherwise send me your answers and we can submit a team effort. (Teams of up to 5 people are allowed). Don’t worry if you struggle though: my net score prior to last year’s quiz was zero, a value that didn’t change following last year’s quiz.

As a guide to what type of thinking goes into the questions and solutions, here are links to last year’s quiz and solutions.

In any case, happy Christmas and hope you have a great holiday.


Statistics of the decade

Now that the nights are drawing in, our minds naturally turn to regular end-of-year events and activities: Halloween; Bonfire night; Christmas; New Year’s eve; and the Royal Statistical Society ‘Statistics of the Year’ competition.

You may remember from a previous post that there are 2 categories for Statistic of the Year: ‘UK’ and ‘International’. You may also remember that last year’s winners were 27.8% and 90.5% respectively. (Don’t ask, just look back at the previous post).

So, it’s that time again, and you are free to nominate your own statistics for the 2019 edition. Full details on the criteria for nominations are given at the RSS link above, but suggested categories include:

  • A statistic that debunks a popular myth;
  • A statistic relevant to a key news story or social trend;
  • A statistic relevant to a phenomenon/craze this year.

But if that’s not exciting enough, this year also sees the end of the decade, so you are also invited to nominate for ‘Statistic of the Decade’, again in UK and International categories. As the RSS say:

The Royal Statistical Society is not only looking for statistics that captured the zeitgeist of 2019, but as the decade draws to a close, we are also seeking statistics that can help define the 2010s.

So, what do you think? What statistics captured 2019’s zeitgeist for you? And which statistics helped define your 2010’s?

Please feel free to nominate to the RSS yourselves, but if you send me your nomination directly, I’ll post a collection of the replies I receive.

Thanks to for pointing out to me that the nominations for this year were now open.

Woodland creatures

The hedgehog and the fox is an essay by philosopher Isaiah Berlin. Though published in 1993, the title is a reference to a fragment of a poem by the ancient Greek poet Archilochus. The relevant passage translates as:

… a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.

Isaiah Berlin used this concept to classify famous thinkers: those whose ideas could be summarised by a single principle are hedgehogs; those whose ideas are more pragmatic, multi-faceted and evolving are foxes.

This dichotomy of approaches to thinking has more recently been applied in the context of prediction, and is the basis of the following short (less than 5-minute) video, kindly suggested to me by

Watch and enjoy…

So, remarkably, in a study of the accuracy of individuals when making predictions, nothing made a difference: age, sex, political outlook… Except, ‘foxes’ are better predictors than ‘hedgehogs’: being well-versed in a single consistent philosophy is inferior to an adaptive and evolving approach to knowledge and its application.

The narrator, David Spiegelhalter, also summarises the strengths of a good forecaster as:

  1. Aggregation. They use multiple sources of information, are open to new knowledge and are happy to work in teams.
  2. Metacognition. They have an insight into how they think and the biases they might have, such as seeking evidence that simply confirms pre-set ideas.
  3. Humility. They have a willingness to acknowledge uncertainty, admit errors and change their minds. Rather than saying categorically what is going to happen, they are only prepared to give probabilities of future events.

(Could almost be a bible for a sports modelling company.)

These principles are taken from the book Future Babble by Dan Gardner, which looks like it’s a great read. The tagline for the book is ‘how to stop worrying and love the unpredictable’, which on its own is worth the cost of the book.

Incidentally, I could just have easily written a blog entry with David Spiegelhalter as part of my series of famous statisticians. Until recently he was the president of the Royal Statistical Society. He was also knighted in 2014 for his services to Statistics, and has numerous awards and honorary degrees.

His contributions to statistics are many, especially in the field of Medical Statistics.  Equally though, as you can tell from the above video, he is a fantastic communicator of statistical ideas. He also has a recent book out: The art of statistics: learning from data. I’d guess that if anyone wants to learn something about Statistics from a single book, this would be the place to go. I’ve just bought it, but haven’t read it yet. Once I do, if it seems appropriate, I’ll post a review to the blog.

Christmas quiz answers

Just in case anyone attempted the Royal Statistical Society Christmas quiz that I included in an earlier post, the solutions are now available here. I managed to match my personal all-time record of zero. Funny though, looking at the solutions, how obvious everything should have been. Bit like looking at last weekend’s results and spotting all the obvious bets!

Christmas quiz

I mentioned in a previous post the Royal Statistical Society (RSS), which is the UK’s foremost organised body of statisticians. In addition to its role in promoting and publishing all-things statistical, it is also famous for one other thing: its annual Christmas quiz, which is widely considered to be one of the toughest quizzes around. It’s been going for 25 years and is famous enough that it gets reported in full in the Guardian.

Though produced by the RSS, the questions have nothing to do with statistics, and not much mathematics either. That said, the questions do require a good general knowledge, logical thinking and a capacity to approach problems laterally; skills that are useful for statisticians. My personal total score for the quiz over the last 5 years or so is zero. 

So, the 2018, 25th anniversary, edition of the quiz is now available here. If you like a good challenge you might enjoy having a go at it. Good luck, and remember that you can’t possibly do worse than me. I’ll post a link to the solutions once they are available.

Just to give you some idea of the types of questions you’re likely to face in the quiz, here’s a question from the 2017 edition:

If 5 is IHNTOBBTTAS, and 10 is IDAATINELR, what will 20 be?

Can you get the answer? There’s a clue in the question title. Once you’ve had enough, scroll down for the solution.






The polymer £5 note introduced in 2016 by the Bank of England features the quote “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat” (initial letters IHNTOBBTTAS), while the new polymer £10 note features the quote “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” (initial letters IDAATINELR). The polymer £20, due for release in 2020, will feature the quote “Light is therefore colour” – so the answer is “LITC”.

Obviously I failed to find this solution in much the same way as I failed to find any solution to any of the questions in each of the quizzes for the last five years. I didn’t look at the quizzes in previous years, but you might extrapolate my more recent scores to get a reasonable estimate of what my score would have been if I had.

If you want further practice, you can find the complete 2017 version of the quiz here and the solutions here.



Statistic of the year


The Royal Statistical Society (RSS) is the UK’s main organised body of statisticians. Its aim is to promote the importance of statistics and data, and it does so by publishing research journals, holding regular meetings, funding conferences and through many other activities. It was founded in 1834 and currently has more than 9,000 members worldwide. The RSS has close ties to universities, research institutes, government statistical offices, industrial organisations and other agencies whose role involves the use or development of statistics. A list of past presidents of the RSS reads like a who’s who of the most famous British statisticians from the last 200 years.

Obviously an organisation with a prestige like that wouldn’t fall into the trap of trivialising statistics with a competition for ‘Statistic of the year’, right?

Wrong! Welcome to the Royal Statistical Society’s Statistic of the Year. In fact there are two statistics of the year: the ‘National Statistic of the Year’ and the ‘International Statistic of the Year’. In the words of the RSS, this competition is…

… a new initiative that celebrates how statistics can help us better understand the world around us

Personally, I’m not convinced that designating an individual number as statistic of the year, in the same way that you might designate Harry Kane Lionel Messi as player of the year, does much to celebrate or promote the importance of Statistics, but perhaps this just conveys my lack of intelligence or humour.

Anyway, I thought you might like to know what 2017’s International Statistic of the Year was:

2017 International Statistic of the Year

Just click the above link to find the winner. I’m not joking and I’ll give the reason for that choice in a subsequent post.

Meantime, please take the opportunity to make a nomination for the 2018 Statistic of the Year. I’ll keep you posted once the results are out.


Nomination from 0, the number of current under-30 year-old tennis players who have ever won a male grand slam. (Del Potro has just turned 30).