The Thought Show

The Thought Show

United Kingdom

A look at the numbers behind the news; the true story about what’s making a buzz on social media and a compact guide to the way we live.


The Death Rate of White Americans  

Throughout the 20th Century the developed world saw mortality rates fall but one group who may no longer be benefitting are middle-aged white Americans. This is according to research from the eminent economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton. But the work has been criticised for statistical problems and for not focusing enough on black Americans. Tim Harford attempts to explain what is really going on. We examine the disturbing rise of fake celebrity social media accounts targeting children. This comes in the wake of a case currently going through the courts in Australia, where a man who allegedly impersonated Justin Bieber online has more than 900 charges of child sex offences against him. We talk to parents of children who have been targeted, and to law enforcement professionals concerned by this growing trend. The average English-speaker knows about 25,000 words which can be combined into an infinite number of sentences. Many people believe that, whatever language you speak, the words you know have a profound influence on the way you think, though this is a controversial theory among linguists, as Lane Greene explains. (Photo: Harmonica playing steel workers perched on a girder on the 22nd storey of the Murray Hill building, New York. Credit: General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

The Ignorance Test  

Following the death of Professor Hans Rosling - perhaps best described as a kind of international development myth buster – we rebroadcast one of his interviews for More Or Less. He asked presenter Ruth Alexander three questions from his Ignorance Test, part of his project to investigate what people know and don’t know about key-aspects of global development. Most people do badly. How do you fare? Has there been a rise in anti-Donald Trump fake news since he became President of the United States? We’re familiar with accusations that right-wing fake news is being shared online, but what about fake news from the left? Also, what lures people to delve beneath the earth, peering into the dark recesses that exist underground? Simon Cox hears from the urban explorers trying to find the hidden layers of cities that exist deep beneath our feet, and from a caver who sees his pastime as “mountaineering underground”. (Photo: Hans Rosling, Statistician, Founder of Gapminder speaks about the impact of growing global population on resources at the ReSource 2012 conference Credit: Matthew Lloyd)

Could North Korea Wipe out 90% of Americans?  

A single nuclear weapon could destroy America’s entire electrical grid, claims a former head of the CIA. The explosion would send out an electromagnetic pulse – resulting in famine, societal collapse and what one newspaper has called a “Dark Apocalypse”. But are hungry squirrels a greater threat to the electrical grid than North Korean weapons? A group of anonymous keyboard warriors who claim they helped Donald Trump win his presidency in the “Great Meme War” have moved their fight to Europe and are trying to help elect a right wing leader for France. Conversations in secret online messaging forums reveal a systematic effort to sway opinion but is it working? Also, the power of applause and why we humans like to clap. (Photo: The launch of a surface-to-surface medium long-range ballistic missile Pukguksong-2 Credit: Getty Images)

Will One in Four People Develop a Mental Health Problem?  

The claim that “one in four” of us will suffer from a mental health problem is popular amongst campaigners, politicians and the media. But where is this figure from and what’s the evidence for it? A paranoid conspiracy theory questioning the reality of the shooting dead of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 has acquired a new, disturbing power in America. Rumours that the killings were staged by actors have been pushed by alternative media mogul Alex Jones. His online news site Infowars has millions of listeners and viewers. One grieving father, Lenny Pozner, tells how he has led the online fightback. Also, from ancient Greece to Instagram – has the six-pack become the ultimate sign of success for today’s young man? (Photo: Commuters pass through Grand Central Terminal during morning rush hour Credit: Getty Images)

Baby Boxes – are they really saving infant’s lives?  

Since Finland started giving families simple cardboard boxes for their new born babies to sleep in 75 years ago, cot death has fallen and child health has improved. Governments and individuals across the world have adopted them and companies have sprung up selling them. But can a cardboard box on its own really have such a huge effect? Elizabeth Cassin and Charlotte McDonald have been finding out. Thousands of videos aimed at children are posted on YouTube that initially look like some of their favourite cartoon series, but closer inspection reveals weird and often disturbing content that is potentially unsuitable for young children. Who is making this content and Is the onus on parents to take responsibility for their children’s viewing or should the host platform, YouTube, be doing more? And why do millions of people round the world practice yoga and how has it become so popular over time? Valley Fontaine hears from the director of a 98-year-old yoga institute in India, an instructor who teaches yoga for you and your dog, the founders of a yoga festival in the UK, and the 2016 women’s yoga champion. (Photo: A Box of baby essentials. Credit: Getty Images)

The Concrete Facts About Trump’s Wall and China  

If the US is going to build a wall on its border with Mexico, it’s going to take a lot of concrete - millions of tonnes, in fact. But this is a tiny amount compared with China’s concrete use. It’s often said that China used more concrete between 2008-2011 than the US did in the whole of the 20th Century. It sounds astonishing - and is it true? Wesley Stephenson finds out. After comments by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche divided opinion over transgender women, we speak to members of some of Nigeria’s secret gay and transgender groups who rely on each other on social media for support. Also, Joey Daley from Ohio has documented his mother Molly’s dementia. One film in which she failed to recognise him for the first time was viewed nearly 2 million times. Joey speaks to BBC Trending about how it feels to care for someone with dementia. And Lee Kumutat examines why blindness comes to define the identity of people who have little or no sight. She talks to people in Jamaica, Ghana, Scotland and California about how they navigate a world which seems to see them as either inspirational or deserving pity. Or both. Image: Getty/Credit: David McNew / Stringer

The Attention Span of a Goldfish  

Is it really true our attention spans are getting shorter in the always-connected world of social media, smartphones and hyperlinks? The statistics say that the average attention span is down from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to eight seconds now. That's less than the nine-second attention span of the average goldfish. But the statistics are not all that they seem - and neither is the received wisdom about goldfish. Twitch is a live video streaming platform used widely in the gaming community. The death of a well-known gamer has opened a huge debate about player safety. And, there is something satisfying about working with our hands, whether it is making something, fixing something or caring for someone. Maria Margaronis asks what it is about our tactile skills that make us so fundamentally human. (Image: Shutterstock/Goldfish)

Why are Hollywood Actresses Paid Less than Men?  

There has been a steady stream of top Hollywood actresses who have complained that they have been paid less than their male co-stars. Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence and Natalie Portman have all pointed out the disparity. So why in the 21st Century is this still the case? Charlotte McDonald reports. We investigate a far right website in Sweden that has been secretly recording phone calls with journalists and academics and then posting heavily-edited versions of the conversations online. The man behind it says he is trying to broaden the debate about immigration. But the site’s targets say their words are being distorted and they feel intimidated. And how does listening differ from hearing? How important is the art of listening to human relationships and how can we develop that skill? Datshiane Navanayagam reports. Image: Jennifer Lawrence at the Oscars. Getty Images/Valerie Macno

What happened last night in Sweden?  

What happened last night in Sweden? Ruth Alexander tells the strange tale that connects Donald Trump, rape in Sweden, immigration and her reporting on More or Less. Why did a network of Twitter accounts, usually the source of pro-Russian messages, pump out tweets about a very specific British election? BBC Trending’s Mike Wendling investigates. And why do some people stammer? More than 70 million people globally – that’s about 1% of the world’s population - are affected by this neurological condition. Becky Milligan talks to people with a stammer to find out the effect on their lives. She also discovers what treatments are available and whether stammering can be cured. Image: Getty / Joe Raedle

Hidden Figures: The Real Story  

Hidden Figures, the film, tells the little-known story of a group of African American women and their contribution to the space race in the 50s and 60s. We explore the history of how these women were recruited by Nasa and put to work on complex mathematical tasks – at a time when African Americans and women were far less likely to be employed in such jobs. The Alt.Right in the US is locked in a fierce ideological battle with Antifa - a group of anti-fascists. We investigate online dirty tricks by both sides. It’s probably something we take for granted and do every day - but why do we smile and what effect does it have on other people? Scientists say it’s one of our most basic human expressions and it’s easier to smile than to frown. Aasmah Mir explores the power of the smile, how easy it is to fake and what happens when you lose the ability to smile. (Photo: Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson,in a scene from Hidden Figures. Credit: Hopper Stone/Twentieth Century Fox/AP)

Hans Rosling - the Extraordinary Life of a Statistical Guru  

The recent death of the inspirational Swedish statistician Han Rosling has left a hole in the world. Tim Harford and others who met him pay tribute to a master communicator whose captivating presentations on global development were watched by millions. His friend Bill Gates said Hans ‘brought data to life and helped the world see the human progress it often overlooked’. Is there any substance to NATO’s claims of misinformation against a Russian-funded online news agency with an office in Scotland? Is it just another perspective on news or is it an example of what some call ‘Russia’s state-run propaganda machine’? Hypochondria: the fear of having a serious, undiagnosed illness. We may mock the hypochondriac, but a constant fear of sickness and death can be a debilitating and distressing condition in itself, with some sufferers even ending up in wheelchairs. So why don’t we take this misunderstood malaise more seriously? Image: Hans Rosling, Credit: Associated Press

Is Democracy Failing in America?  

In the wake of Donald Trump’s claim that three million people may have voted illegally in last year’s presidential elections, we scrutinise the American electoral system and the work of the Electoral Integrity Project that suggests North Carolina is on a par with Cuba. A disturbing rumour’s been trending online recently - of a paedophile ring on YouTube. BBC Trending investigates and debunks another internet myth. In his first TV interview as US President, Donald Trump claimed that torture “absolutely” works and said the US should “fight fire with fire.” But what evidence is there that torture is an effective method of obtaining valuable intelligence? And can the use of torture ever be justified? Becky Milligan hears from a former interrogator who worked at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, a former political prisoner who was tortured in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran, and a neuroscientist who has studied the effects of torture on the brain. (Photo: Americans head to the polls in Charlotte, North Carolina. Credit: Davis Turner/Getty Images)

Counting Crowds  

How many people attended President Trump’s inauguration? How many people went to the Women’s March in Washington DC the next day? A fierce debate has been raging about the numbers of people at each event. We explore the difficulties of counting people in a crowd. Tens of thousands of automated videos have appeared online recently. All feature photos of news events accompanied by a robotic voice. BBC Trending’s very own digital supersleuth Mike Wendling investigates who’s making them and why. Can deep-frozen bodies ever return from the dead? Mike Williams explores the science, the motivation and the ethics behind cryonics and asks whether frozen human bodies will ever be fit for a new life. (image: Attendees line the Mall at Trump's Inauguration Day in Washington DC. Photo: Lucas Jackson/Getty Images)

Why January Makes us Want to Scream  

There are two things that you can be sure of in January and both of them make the More Or Less team want to scream. Firstly, Oxfam put out their ‘x number of billionaires hold the same wealth as the poorest half of the world’ statistic, a comparison which, as said in the past, does not make sense. The second head-banger is ‘Blue Monday’, the formula that supposedly tells us that the third Monday in January is when people are at their saddest. Each year it appears on different press releases promoting different products, but there is no science to it at all. Also, could sending a GIF be a crime? GIFs – online flashing animations – can induce seizures in those with photosensitive epilepsy. So is knowingly sending a GIF to a person with epilepsy a crime? We find out about a case testing exactly that question. And why do people believe conspiracy theories which cast doubt on the official narratives of some very serious events - from the Holocaust to 9/11, Diana to JFK, Lockerbie to Sandy Hook? What prompts people to think in this way and how should governments react to the people who doubt them? (Photo: Edvard Munch's The Scream, 1893. No copyright /in the Public Domain)

Does Sweden Really Have a Six Hour Day?  

Reports that Swedes are reducing the working day to just six hours may have been exaggerated but there have been trials in Sweden to test whether you can shorten people’s working hours without having an effect on output. Tim Harford investigates. What drives some people to take the law into their own hands? Mike Williams hears stories from Europe, Africa and the US about the men – and it is usually men – who take it upon themselves to patrol the streets or seek out paedophiles online. And, he explores what happens when vigilante groups mutate into monsters. Whether motivated by revenge, frustration or a desire to do good, does mob justice ever work? One of the most successful and long lasting memes of 2016 was Harambe the gorilla who was shot in a zoo in America. How did this particular animal gain such cultural relevance to the online world? (Photo: A business man carries a black briefcase)

Could you forgive someone that raped or tortured you?  

Could you forgive the person who killed your child or who raped or tortured you? Some crimes, some events are so awful, so cruel, it’s impossible to imagine ever being able to say to the wrongdoer, ‘I forgive you’. Mike Williams hears the stories of those who have experienced unimaginable pain and suffering at the hands of others. And discovers what it feels like to turn anger and desire for revenge against the perpetrators into compassion and understanding for them. What does the act of forgiveness mean to the offender? Contributors include Kemal Pervanic, a survivor from the Omarska concentration camp during the Bosnian war, a rape survivor and a woman whose ex-husband killed her two children. After two decades working in development, Claire Melamed is ready to reveal a secret about her work. Many of the numbers that lie behind life-and-death decisions in developing countries are, as she puts it, “a bit shaky”. If you don’t know how many people live somewhere and who’s dying when of what, you can’t make well-informed decisions to help them. Now she and others are working to change that by getting better data and using it smarter. We hear what that means in practice and the story of Justice Aheto, whose award-winning mathematical models could also be life-saving for malnourished children in his native Ghana. Four of the biggest stories on the internet this year divided opinion around the world. We discuss the most popular memes of US Elections, the highlights of the EU referendum in the UK, why people around the world were scared of clowns and how live streaming made its mark on the digital world. (Photo: Criminal man beg for forgiveness. Credit: Shutterstock)

Yellow cards for Christmas?  

Former football referee Howard Webb told a story recently that he had been approached by players in the English Premier League asking to be booked so they could be suspended for Christmas so they can get some time off. They have to play extra games over the festive period so work more than usual. One way to get a break is to rack up five yellow cards and be suspended. But would players really try something like that? Tim Harford asks journalist Rob Minto to delve into the data. When trolls started stealing a disabled American boy’s photos and turning them into cruel memes, his mother Jenny decided to start fighting back online. We put her in touch with another mother who fought a very similar battle against the trolls… and won. Everyday millions of us across the world get into our cars and drive but even the calmest person can become a raging demon while driving; screaming and swearing at the other drivers. What is it about driving that makes some people so angry? What can we do to stop it? We speak with professional racing driver Nathalie McGloin about keeping control and Glenn Scherer gives us a lesson in ‘car yoga’ to try and keep the rage away.

How risky is the contraceptive pill?  

Many of the potential side effects of the pill, such as blood clots, have been well documented since its release in the 1960s. And now, a study has claimed to have established a link between depression and the pill. But perhaps the main risk women face is poorly interpreted statistics. Gab is a new social network that pits itself as an alternative to Twitter because it puts ‘free speech’ first. Some claim it has become a ‘safe space for the alt-right’ because of some of the users it has attracted. We ask the network’s founder why he felt compelled to create it, and speak with one of its users. Also, what motivates someone to take revenge and why did this kind of aggressive behaviour evolve? Mike Williams talks to a perpetrator who found it sweet and hears the tragic story of a victim of impossibly cruel revenge.

How not to test public opinion.  

People took to the streets in India to protest about the government’s decision to withdraw R500 R1,000 notes. But despite the uproar the Prime Minister Narendra Modi has insisted he has the support of the people after a survey, carried out on his very own mobile app, found that the decision was supported by more than 90% of respondents. But he’s been criticised for leading and confusing questions designed to get a particular outcome. When Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte swept to power in May, many believed social media played a major role in his victory. But some allege his supporters used trolling and intimidation, in addition to clever campaigning, to bolster his position. Since winning, he has waged a war on drugs, leading to allegedly thousands of extra-judicial killings. And, why don’t we understand how the female orgasm works? After years of scientific research, the male body is understood but when it comes to how women work, we are a long way behind. It appears research has been hindered by the assumption that the female body works in the same way as the male body and that for women, arousal is all in the mind. Researchers are slowly correcting these assumptions and making surprising discoveries. Image: Protestors burn an effigy of the Prime at a rally in Kolkata. Credit Dibyanshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty

Good News on Renewables?  

With all the bad news related to the climate is there actually some good news? Worldwide renewable capacity has now passed coal capacity for the first time. The story was reported across the world but is it the good news it first appears? What does the term ‘capacity’ actually mean? This week, a concerned citizen said she had uncovered thousands of Twitter profiles that were publishing and sharing child abuse images . The network was swift to shut the accounts down, but questions remain about disturbing material proliferating on the platform. And why do cities make us rude? When we are surrounded by people why do we tend to shun them? Why do we refuse to make eye contact or say hello? And, why do tempers flare on busy city streets? We perform the Lost Tourist test to find out just how rude London is. (Image: Solar panels and wind turbines. Shutterstock)

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