Intended for healthcare professionals

Observations BMJ Confidential

David Spiegelhalter: Doesn’t like Hunt’s use of statistics

BMJ 2016; 354 doi: (Published 07 September 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;354:i4795


David Spiegelhalter, 63, is Winton professor for the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge and the man who put the fun into funnel plots. A statistician, he cut his teeth on the Kennedy inquiry into deaths at Bristol Royal Infirmary and has made important contributions to understanding and presenting risk. He is the author of Sex by Numbers, a statistician’s take on the eternal theme. He may be the only participant in the TV programme Winter Wipeout to have subsequently been knighted. He also claims to be world champion at Loop, a version of pool played on an elliptical table with a single pocket.

What was your earliest ambition?

I wanted to be a racing driver. I was obsessed with cars and would have loved Top Gear. And apart from having poor coordination, slow reflexes, and a tendency to panic under pressure, I’m sure I would have been excellent.

Who has been your biggest inspiration?

My son, Danny.

What was the worst mistake in your career?

Not having a gap period after university to go somewhere utterly different and be challenged in ways other than doing stats. And trying stand-up comedy, although I’ve been trying to blot out that particular memory.

What was your best career move?

Taking my current job. It’s given me a unique opportunity to be a performing statistician and part of the community trying to improve how statistics and evidence are used in society. I’m hugely indebted to David Harding for funding my post and leaving me to it.

Bevan or Lansley? Who has been the best and the worst health secretary in your lifetime?

I don’t know. But I do know that I’m not a great admirer of Jeremy Hunt’s use of statistics.

Who is the person you would most like to thank, and why?

My partner—for putting up with me. But I’m also extremely grateful to Adrian Smith for inspiring me to study statistics when pure maths got too hard. Clement Attlee also deserves our gratitude.

To whom would you most like to apologise?

Some people in my distant past.

If you were given £1m what would you spend it on?

I’d treat us to a big trip—perhaps to the Galápagos—and then give a chunk to my favourite charity, the Karuna Trust, which works with the Dalit community in India. The rest, I’d give to those closest to me, on condition that they give 70% of it away in any manner they want.

Where are or were you happiest?

Having adventures with my partner in new places full of natural and man-made wonders.

What single unheralded change has made the most difference in your field in your lifetime?

The internet. But apart from that obvious candidate, the development of simulation based statistical methods, which freed statisticians from searching for the kind of neat mathematical solutions, usually based on utterly unrealistic assumptions, that still obsess economists trying to win a Nobel prize.

Do you support doctor assisted suicide?


What book should every doctor read?

The House at Pooh Corner, for a lasting depiction of wise humility.

What poem, song, or passage of prose would you like mourners at your funeral to hear?

This shouldn’t be my decision. But if I was asked I’d be torn between “Erbarme dich, mein Gott,” from Bach’s St Matthew Passion, and “Pretty Vacant” by the Sex Pistols.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

Sitting (alone) on the sofa while watching Plebs on television and eating upmarket crisps.

What television programmes do you like?

Scandi noir, war documentaries, Dad’s Army.

What is your most treasured possession?

I don’t care too much about possessions, except perhaps my original Crapper toilet, which I move from house to house. But I’d certainly regret losing photographs of my children and family.

What, if anything, are you doing to reduce your carbon footprint?

Not enough, but I’m trying to cut back on ruminant meats.

What personal ambition do you still have?

To walk 1000 miles in one stretch—I walked 500 miles to Santiago de Compostela, a highpoint of my life. I’d also like to see my grandchildren grow, and I want to develop equanimity in the face of death and decline, bring about world peace, cure cancer, and so on.

Summarise your personality in three words

Positive, methodical, unimaginative.

Where does alcohol fit into your life?

It fits very nicely, thank you very much. We’ve had a mixed relationship but seem to have reached an accommodation.

What is your pet hate?

Being patronised (I was youngest in the family and in every school class). Perhaps it’s why I get so infuriated when authorities patronise the country by trotting out badly interpreted statistics.

What would be on the menu for your last supper?

Barbecued whole fresh squid, avocado, samphire, and dry white wine. With chips.

Do you have any regrets about becoming a statistician?

Absolutely none—it’s a wonderful job, combining analytical rigour with real life problems and difficult concepts with the need to provide clear explanations for people with no interest in the details. And, having little imagination, I can’t think of anything else I could do.

If you weren’t in your present position what would you be doing instead?

Probably retired, trudging long distance footpaths while muttering to myself, wintering in India, doing amateur history, and writing self published books for a tiny audience. Sounds great—why am I still working?

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