Go Figure: Watching out for Wimbledon-washing machine links

Andy Murray at Wimbledon and a washing machine

What's the link between tennis on TV and washing machines? If you suspect a weird connection, ask a statistician, says Michael Blastland in his regular column.

"Do you repair washing machines?"

"Indeed we do. Wimbledon is it?

"Sorry?"

"The tennis. Been watching?"

"Er, a little. Don't tell me… you're a tennis-lovers-only washing-machine repair shop."

"No. Just that we were quiet for Wimbledon, booked-up now."

"Really? Wimbledon affects demand for washing-machine repairs?"

"Not half."

"What is it, two weeks' desire for whiter-than-white whites that wears them out?"

"Could be. Or that people don't wash anything because they're glued to the telly."

"Or that…"

Let's stop there. I love weird links and explanations. They remind us of the difficulty of knowing for sure what causes what.

Tom Wilder, 17, from Kent, dives in the mud at the Glastonbury Festival on 23 June 2011 Muddying the waters...

Of course, it could be just the usual story of people spending less when they're preoccupied, much like "Olympics/World Cup-watching costs UK economy billions", as headlines like to say.

But the fact the washing machine shop seems to be having a post-Wimbledon bounce shows what's often wrong with "the cost of…" stories. They fail to take account of catching up later. Cause and effect can be more tangled than portrayed.

So maybe washing machines have nothing to do with tennis. It is a bit surprising that people apparently go without one for up to two weeks, watching with enough devotion to make the difference between no business at all and booked solid.

Well, it is to me anyway. So maybe it's not Wimbledon what done it, maybe it's Glastonbury mud. Maybe both. Maybe it's the weather.

Kebab vans

Someone somewhere in Britain's statistical machinery will be counting the business done by washing machine repair shops. They will, really. Business surveys even count turnover in kebab vans.

Start Quote

Who knows if it's generally true that there's a repair slump during Wimbledon fortnight or if this is one shop where whoever should be on the phone dreams instead of Andy Murray”

End Quote

And when there's talk of a return to recession, the explanation for a fall in business will matter. One such explanation earlier this year was snow. Some economists now begin to wonder if that was the whole truth.

Part of the problem here is our ability to tell stories to fit any fact. Let's say we hypothesise that it's not Wimbledon, it's the weather, all that rain. And then we remember that this year's Wimbledon was mostly sunny.

Oops. But never mind, because now can we say that hot weather makes people sweaty, just as rainy weather makes them soggy. Either way, more washing and more breakdowns.

There's danger as well as genius in the ease with which people construct graceful narrative arcs from any two things that grab their attention, like tennis on telly and the business bottom line.

So who knows the real explanation? Who knows if it's generally true that there's a repair slump during Wimbledon fortnight or if this is one shop where whoever should be on the phone dreams instead of Andy Murray.

Ok, it is only a washing machine. Apart from me running low on socks, should you care?

Fans wear rain gear before the cover goes on centre court as rain delays play on day eight of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships Blame it on the weatherman

Kind of - if you care about how we claim to know stuff. The point of all this is to argue that it helps to have a restless imagination.

The book Freakonomics became a hit partly with a controversial argument that falling crime was due not to law enforcement but because abortion became easier in the 1970s, meaning fewer potential criminals were born. Whatever you think of that, it's good to ask ourselves what we might previously have missed.

Which is why I prefer stats to politics. Doing good stats means exercising a pathological interest in the story that might have been missed. Doing politics can seem to mean a near pathological interest in telling us why your story was right all along.

So back to tennis and washing machines, what do you reckon? Was there a repair slump? Is Wimbledon the explanation? If not, what is? And how would you find out?

Answers welcome in the usual way. The best, by which I mean the most ludicrous as well as the most plausible, will go in the readers' comments below.

Mind you, do I have any robust evidence for this difference between politics and stats? None whatsoever.

It's all anecdote and prejudice and not even the opinion of the bloke in the washing machine shop. So how would we find the evidence? Random controlled lab tests on ministers and professors of statistics, maybe? More answers please.

Send your answers using the form below.

If you are happy to be contacted by a BBC journalist please leave a telephone number that we can contact you on. In some cases a selection of your comments will be published, displaying your name as you provide it and location, unless you state otherwise. Your contact details will never be published. When sending us pictures, video or eyewitness accounts at no time should you endanger yourself or others, take any unnecessary risks or infringe any laws. Please ensure you have read the terms and conditions.

Terms and conditions

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Features

  • Atletico's Diego Godin celebrates his goal with teammate David VillaWeek in pictures

    Selection of the best news photographs from around the world


  • Susanne du ToitTop 10 Tips

    Portrait painter Susanne du Toit on being an artist


  • StampsPost Independence

    Will stamps get cheaper if Scots go it alone?


  • Rhea10 things

    Rhea birds can be extremely dangerous, plus other factlets


  • Plane at Shannon airportShannon's call

    The airport that hosted a roll-call of presidents


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.