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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

“Lies, Damned Lies and …”: Is There Such a Thing as Reliable Evidence - Panel Discussion

26th May 2016, 19:30 to 22:00, Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, Chartered Accountants’ Hall, One Moorgate Place, London, EC2R 6EA , Ruth Alexander, Lord Anthony Hughes, Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter and Professor Sally Shuttleworth

Information becomes evidence when presented in relation to specific questions so that a decision – usually an important collective decision – can be made. But how do we know what to believe about climate change, the outcome of new drug trials, the state of the economy, the causes of terrorism? Statistics are a popular form of evidence, but are not statistics really just damned lies, the basis of dodgy dossiers and bogus battalions? What is the role of evidence in policy and everyday life? Is ‘evidence-based policy’ as objective as politicians suggest? Is there such a thing as unbiased evidence?

Evidence takes many forms: words, numbers, images, feelings – spoken, printed, digitised. All can challenge or support each other. How does the way evidence is represented affect our acceptance of it? Do we tend to trust numbers more than qualitative evidence? Does the printed word carry more authority than oral evidence? Is a picture really worth a thousand words of evidence? People engage with evidence cognitively, imaginatively and in terms of their own experience. How can – or should – we make sense of and evaluate evidence?

Evidence also comes from people. But whose evidence should we trust? Is it harder for a woman to make a case? How much does gender, ethnicity, class or personality matter in making evidence count? Why might that be so?

Evidence comes from the academy too. Contesting evidence is central to academic debates. How can we make judgements about evidence in disciplines or across them? Can academic authority ensure that societies have access to reliable evidence and criticise unreliable evidence?

Drawing on the Institute of Advanced Study’s 2016 research theme of Evidence, the panel will discuss the uses and abuses of evidence in contemporary debates: exploring lies, damned lies and other questions about the reliability of evidence in the major issues facing societies today:

  • What is evidence?
  • How and why do we accept or reject evidence, individually and collectively?
  • How does evidence gain authority across academic disciplines?
  • How can the academy ensure that good evidence guides social action?

Our panellists for this event are:

  • Ruth Alexander, BBC
  • Professor Sally Shuttleworth FBA, University of Oxford
  • Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter OBE FRS, University of Cambridge
  • Lord Justice Anthony Hughes, Supreme Court

This event will build on the success of our previous London events, including last year’s popular ‘On the Tipping Point' with Sir Tim Smit, Tony Juniper, Professor Alex Bentley and Professor Neil Ferguson.

Organised by the Institute of Advanced Study, this event offers the Friends of the IAS and the wider Durham alumni network, colleagues and members of the public an opportunity to come together for what should prove to be a stimulating and engaging occasion.

Date: Thursday 26th May 2016
Time: 7.30pm – 10.00pm
Venue: Chartered Accountants’ Hall, One Moorgate Place, London, EC2R 6EA
Format: The event starts at 7.30pm and seats can be taken from 7.10pm. The discussion will be followed by a drinks reception for guests to mingle and chat with speakers.

Cost: Free


Places must be booked in advance either via online registration or through the IAS directly at:

The Panel

Ruth Alexander has been a journalist with the BBC's statistics programme, More or Less, since 2006. She has been reporter and series producer for the BBC Radio 4 edition of More or Less, as well as presenter and series producer of the World Service edition. With an English degree from Oxford University, she claims her main qualification for statistical inquiry is that she's not afraid of numbers. Ruth also presents Money Box Live on BBC Radio 4, and is a reporter/producer for a range of other programmes in the BBC's Radio Current Affairs department, including Radio 4's In Business and The Inquiry on the BBC World Service.

Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter is Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk, Professor of Biostatistics and Fellow of Churchill College at Cambridge University. He leads a small team ( that attempts to improve the way in which risk and uncertainty are taught and discussed in society. He gives many presentations to schools and others, advises organisations on risk communication, and is a regular commentator on risk issues. He presented the BBC4 documentaries ‘Tails you Win: the Science of Chance’ and ‘Climate Change by Numbers’. He was elected FRS in 2005, awarded an OBE in 2006, and was knighted in 2014 for services to medical statistics. In 2011 he came 7th in an episode of Winter Wipeout.

Lord Anthony Hughes is a Durham University alumna. He graduated in 1969 with a law degree from Durham's Van Mildert College. He went on to lecture law at both Durham University and Queen Mary College, London. He was called to the Bar (Inner Temple) in 1970 and became QC in 1990. In 1997 Lord Hughes was appointed as a judge in the Family Division of the High Court (until 2003). In 2004, he was assigned to the Queen’s Bench Division before being promoted to the Court of Appeal in 2006. He served as Vice President of the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal between 2009 and 2013. In 2013 he was appointed to the Supreme Court.

Sally Shuttleworth is Professor of English Literature, and former Head of the Humanities Division, at the University of Oxford. She has published extensively on the inter-relations between literature, science, and culture. Her books include Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology and, most recently, The Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science and Medicine, 1840-1900. She is currently directing two large research projects, ‘Constructing Scientific Communities: Citizen Science in the 19th and 21st centuries’,, and ‘Diseases of Modern Life: Nineteenth-Century Perspectives’,

Nicholas Saul is Professor of Modern German Literature and Intellectual History in the School of Modern Language and Cultures. He took his PhD at Cambridge on the myth of poesy and the philosophy of history in Novalis, and has held posts at Cambridge, Trinity College Dublin, Liverpool and Durham. His research focus is interdisciplinary, in particular the interrelation of literature and science. He has written books on intertextuality and discursive power in literature and homiletics around 1800 and Gypsies in nineteenth-century German literature and anthropology, and is currently writing one on Interrogations of evolutionism in German literature 1859-2008. He is a sometime Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and Senior Research Fellow of the British Academy, and is a Fellow of the Internationales Kolleg Morphomata at Cologne during 2016.

Contact for more information about this event.