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.


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)

Avoiding Asteroids  

The proportion of asteroids we know about has grown rapidly in the past few decades, so what are the chances of us being taken by surprise? If we did spot an asteroid hurtling towards Earth, what could we do about it? And – perhaps most importantly of all – could the plot of the film Armageddon happen in real life? We get answers from NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies. DJ Khaled is kind of a big deal on Snapchat. His messages reach millions of young people who find him both hilarious and inspirational. Whitney Henry takes a trip to his hometown in Miami to try to find out the key to his success. Also, Mike Williams asks why so many people are obsessed with discovering their family origins and also learns new things about his own ancestors along the way. Image: Asteroid - photo credit: Shutterstock

Liberia’s Rape Statistic Debunked  

Sexual violence was widespread in Liberia’s brutal and bloody year civil war. But were three quarters of women in the country raped? We tell the story behind the number and reveal how well-meaning efforts to expose what happened have fuelled myths and misleading statistics. Following an attempted coup earlier this year, the Turkish government has closed more than 150 news outlets. We meet one of the journalists defying the closures, by creating a new Periscope channel to live stream news from the country. Also, why do some people feel driven to acquire and keep an excessive number of objects in their home to the point where moving around it is almost impossible, and how can hoarding disorders be cured? (Photo: Liberian women and children wait for rice rations in overcrowded Monrovia, June 2003. Credit: Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images)

Ice Cream Versus Aid  

‘The world spends three times as much on ice cream as it does on humanitarian aid.’ That’s the claim one listener spotted but is it true? We look at the stats behind the statement and ask whether it’s a useful comparison. We investigate the rise and rise of fake news online. Deliberately making up news stories to fool or entertain people is nothing new. But the arrival of social media has meant real and fictional stories are now presented in such a similar way, it can be increasingly difficult to tell the two apart. With 60% of US adults now getting some news from their Facebook feed, more and more of us are seeing and believing incorrect information. Are you sexist, racist or ageist? Even if you think you’re open-minded, the chances are, you’ll be judging people and situations without even realising. These hidden biases – which are different from conscious prejudice – lurk within our minds. And they can affect the way we behave, the decisions we make: whether it’s who we hire, who we promote or even – in the case of jurors – who we believe is guilty or not guilty. Image: The great British seaside Weston-Super-Mare. Photo Credit: Matt Cardy/Getty

Child Marriage and Dangerous Algorithms  

Is a girl under the age of 15 married every seven seconds somewhere in the world? That is what the charity Save the Children claim in their attempts to raise awareness of child marriage. But how is this figure calculated? Data scientist and activist Cathy O’Neil wants to protect you from dangerous, and often hidden, algorithms. In Nairobi one woman's online post about harassment on the city's private-hire minibuses or Matatus, has triggered dozens of similar accounts and complaints on social media of robbery, harassment and dangerous driving. We hear from the woman behind the #StopMatatuMenace hashtag campaign. And can you believe your own eyes? Can you trust your own memory? Why is it that so many social scientists and so many in the police and the judiciary are so very concerned about eye-witness testimony. Mike Williams finds out why we often fail to accurately recall a face or an event.

Dying for Cocaine  

The world of Pablo Escobar, one of the world’s most infamous drug traffickers, is dramatised in the Netflix TV drama series Narcos. We find out the truth behind the series’ claim about the number of deaths involved in Colombia’s drug trade. A taxi driver’s political rant has gone viral in Egypt, prompting a debate about the state of the nation. And last year an estimated 119,000 people worldwide received organ transplants but many more are still waiting. Mike Williams talks to a surgeon in the United States, a doctor in Israel whose direct action led to an improvement in donation rates, and a daughter who gave a kidney to her father.

Algorithms, Crime and Punishment  

A drive-by shooting in the US midwest has raised questions about how algorithms are being used in the country's criminal justice system. A defendant in the case was jailed after an algorithm used by the court calculated that he was at high risk of reoffending. The risk assessment algorithm is supposed to make decisions less subjective, but one recent analysis found that the algorithm was biased against black people. In Iran, social media users found novel ways to support the national football team when a match fell on a day of public mourning and the country’s religious leaders banned cheering and said only religious chanting would be tolerated. Also, how US prison inmates are arranging a nationwide prison strike from their cells, using banned social media. And why do we write farewell letters? Whether it's messages from the living to the dying or from the dying to the living, how can we find the words to say goodbye? (Photo: A guard walking down a cell block. Credit: Getty Images)

Sustainable Development Goals – Are there Just too Many?  

It is now a year since the UN set its new Sustainable Development Goals to try to make the world a better place. They include 17 goals and no fewer than 169 targets on subjects like disease, education and governance. But some people, such as Bjorn Lomborg, say that they are too broad and too numerous to achieve anything, if left as they are. There is another chance to hear a special report on the trade in viral video clips. Plus, why do we feel so many different and intense emotions when someone close to us dies? Whether it is yearning, sadness, anger or even shame, Mike Williams explores why each person’s grief is unique when they lose a loved one. (Photo: A teacher writes on a blackboard during a class in Kenya. Credit: Getty Images)

Who Won the US Presidential Debate?  

Polling on the first TV debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump appears to be divided over who won it. But not all polls are equal: when internet polls can be hijacked by online activists, they can throw up some strange results. Controversy has erupted in the US over a hip hop song that offers a step-by-step guide to committing burglary and contains lyrics suggesting criminals target Chinese homes. We talk to one of the protesters who is trying to get the track banned. In a few countries, terminally-ill people — suffering pain and distress — are allowed to get help from friends, family and physicians to bring their lives to an end. In many countries, it’s a crime. Mike Williams explores the sensitive issues at stake on both sides of the argument. (Photo: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton first presidential debate. Credit: Getty Images)

Trump’s Crime Claims  

Donald Trump has claimed that there are some inner city areas in the US which are suffering from the worst crime rates ever. They are so dangerous, he says, that Afghanistan is safer. But could this be true and can you compare the two? A viral Justin Bieber parody is highlighting problems with prescription painkiller addiction in the United States. Z Dogg MD is a real doctor who uses a rap alter ego to discuss medical issues, and his new song has received over a million hits at a time when congress is debating whether to invest in new treatment programmes. And why are we so fascinated with the superheroes which emerged from 20th century comic books and populate our cinema screens in multi-million dollar blockbusters? Mike Williams investigates. (Image: Chicago - Neighbourhood residents watch as police investigate a homicide scene. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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