Matthew Parris Matthew Parris

Is it worth the worry?

Matthew Parris on Simon Briscoe and Hugh Aldersey-Williams' account of modern worries

I first met Simon Briscoe when, as a young MP enjoying a summer evening by the House of Commons terrace bar, I observed a youth in a Refreshment Department staff uniform pelting a group of Thames ducks with dry roasted peanuts. ‘Could you sink one?’ I asked.

‘Thanks,’ he said: ‘a pint of lager and a packet of crisps if you’d be so kind.’ We fell into conversation. Briscoe had recently landed a coveted position as a graduate trainee at the Treasury, but for light relief was moonlighting as a glass-clearer over the road at the Palace of Westminster. He went on later to an investment bank, and now writes on statistics for the Financial Times. I recall his explaining to me, on buying a 500cc motor bike, that he wished to place himself in a maximum death-risk category and then minimise (by skill) his death-chances within it. He loves numbers, hates the misuse of numbers, and has had a lifelong fascination with the calculation of chance.

Like Briscoe himself, this book, written with Hugh Aldersey-Williams, is pulled in different directions, and benefits from the tension. The authors’ instincts are iconoclastic and humorous. But their expertise is in the application of dispassionate judgment to factual assertions based upon statistics.

Had they wanted simply to take the mickey out of silly media scares they could have written a funny book sneering entertainingly at every kind of media-driven wave of public alarm. Had they wanted to produce a helpful examination of a range of national anxieties, they could have written a scholarly textbook deconstructing risk.

But the value and pleasure of this book is that it offers a well-judged blend of both. As a result it is both useful and funny. Sometimes indignant, sometimes downright scornful, and repeatedly dismissive of silly press headlines about this or that threat to humanity, the authors are nevertheless fastidious about facts and numbers, and their study remains ever-conscious of the reality of some risks.

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