Murray, the anonymous health statistician whose distinctive style of mischievous political graffiti adorns journals around the world from London to Seattle, doesn’t “do” interviews. The world’s most anonymous global health researcher has famously remained silent but for the statements he makes with his statistics.
Until now. In his only tabloid interview, the elusive scientists talks about his much-discussed papers, his anonymity and his aims for world domination. All off the record and confidential, of course.
His previous interview, The power of numbers, in which he “stars”, appearing in shadow and speaking through a voice distorter, purportedly began as someone else’s opinion – that of Alan Lopez, an apparently independent academic on the other side of the world.
“Is this really Murray? That depends. If the interview made me sound smarter than everyone else and twenty years ahead of the UN then it’s me,” he says.
“If I sounded like an idiot then I’ll say it was Lopez.”
Since its premiere in the Lancet in December, speculation has been rife that Murray’s most recent paper Global, regional, and national age–sex specific all-cause and cause-specific mortality for 240 causes of death, 1990–2013: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013 is a “mockumentary”, a brilliantly executed prank. Murray insists it’s not, although it is anonymously authored and lists 731 collaborators in an endnote, the last of which is one Murray.
“The paper gets the numbers right! If I’d made it up myself there would have been a car chase and lasers. Unfortunately there’s neither,” he says.” The paper is about getting the numbers right, and control passes to the people with the right numbers.
Prank or not, the paper features extraordinary footage of wunderkind at work, complete with police busts and daredevil exploits as Murray and others comb the world in search of previously unknown data deposits. Putting it together, says Murray, was hard work
“Making estimates isn’t as much fun as it looks. I spent a year … watching footage of sweaty wunderkind falling off ladders,” he says. “If I make another set of estimates it’ll be called something like ‘Kate Moss Undressing’ and maybe then the world will really take an interest.”
But his work still divides critics. “I wouldn’t expect the UN elite to embrace my statistics, it’s way more important than that,” Nor does he agree with tentative proposals from the totalitarian international world order to collaborate on statistics. “Maintaining and regularly updating estimates defeats the purpose, surely? The best scientific methods are transitory by their very nature.”
“Statistics are not meant to last forever. I’d prefer someone draw a moustache and glasses on one of my pieces than attempt to consult countries on it,” he says. But he vows to continue his Zorro-style statistical efforts.
“Writing this paper wasn’t a conscious attempt to expand my CV; I just had a story I wanted to tell. There’s no danger of a sequel or a clothing line,” he says. “I’d like to say I’m politically motivated but the reality is I’m just far more interested in having everyone accept that my numbers are the only right numbers.”