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Tim Harford

Tim Harford

Tim is an economist, journalist and broadcaster. He is author of “Messy” and the million-selling “The Undercover Economist”, a senior columnist at the Financial Times, and the presenter of Radio 4’s “More or Less” and the iTunes-topping series “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy”. Tim has spoken at TED, PopTech and the Sydney Opera House and is a visiting fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford.

Articles by Tim Harford

Cautionary Tales – Martin Luther King Jr; the Jewelry Genius; and the Art of Public Speaking

5 days ago

One speechmaker inspired millions with his words, the other utterly destroyed his own multi-million-dollar business with just a few phrases.

Civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr (played by Jeffrey Wright of Westworld, The Hunger Games, and the James Bond films) and jewelry store owner Gerald Ratner offer starkly contrasting stories on when you should stick to the script and when you should take a risk.

Cautionary Tales is written by me, Tim Harford, with Andrew Wright. It is produced by Ryan Dilley and Marilyn Rust.

The sound design and original music is the work of Pascal Wyse. Julia Barton edited the scripts.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Mia Lobel, Jacob Weisberg, Heather Fain, Jon Schnaars, Carly Migliori, Eric Sandler, Emily Rostek, Maggie

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We’re living in a golden age of ignorance

13 days ago

Has there been a moment in modern history where so many people in free societies have believed such damaging lies? It’s easy to point to the US, where nearly 90 per cent of people who voted for Donald Trump believe Joe Biden’s election victory was not legitimate. No surprise, then, that there is considerable support for the recent violent attempt to prevent the democratic transfer of power. But it’s not just the US. In France, a minority of adults are confident that vaccines are safe, which explains why only 40 per cent say they plan to get a Covid-19 shot. This hesitancy also goes some way to explaining why France’s vaccine rollout has started so slowly.

Meanwhile, across the world, substantial minorities believe that the Covid-19 fatality rate has been “deliberately

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Miracle tech that is anything but: a taxonomy of bionic duckweed

13 days ago

Is bionic duckweed a dire threat to our health and prosperity? It just might be. But lest you fear that it is a fresh torment to test us alongside Covid-19, wildfires and murder hornets, I should reassure you that it is not a Triffid-like killer plant. Bionic duckweed is, instead, a metaphor for a glorious future technology, which might sound good — but isn’t because it keeps us from acting.

The term was coined by a journalist and railway expert named Roger Ford. In evidence to a UK parliamentary committee in 2008, he lamented that electrified railways had been delayed because of the suggestion that “we might have fuel-cell-power trains using hydrogen developed from bionic duckweed in 15 years’ time” and so it would be a waste to have electrified the lines now. No

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From vaccines to homework, why we humans can’t stop overpromising

20 days ago

Is there a more reliable source of disappointment anywhere in the world than my own daily to-do list? Each night I write down everything I plan to do in the morning, and I transfer all the uncompleted tasks from the previous day. I’ve done this for more than a quarter of a century. In 10,000 days, have I ever looked at yesterday’s list and nodded with satisfaction that every item had been ticked off? Not once.

I can take consolation in knowing that I am not alone. Whether the task is as trivial as processing the past hour’s emails or as colossal as building a high-speed rail link or staging the Olympic games, we underestimate the time and effort involved on almost every occasion. One might think that we are in the middle of a wonderful exception: the record-shattering

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Covid-19: How close is the light at the end of the tunnel?

20 days ago

Will it ever end? In November, we were celebrating the announcement that the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine seemed to be highly effective against Covid-19, followed with bewildering speed by similar claims for the Sputnik V, Moderna and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines. Nearly three months later, hospitals are overwhelmed and the global death toll is climbing twice as fast as in the worst days of the first wave. At a time like this, I reach for my calculator.

Without minimising the suffering so many people are enduring, I think there is potential for rapid progress very soon. (I am writing these words at the end of January 2021.) There are two reasons why these vaccines, some highly effective, have not yet done anything obvious to save lives or protect hospitals. The first is

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What are the best books ever published in the history of the universe?

23 days ago

Well, I don’t know. But The Week kindly asked me to send a list of my ‘best books’ and I wasn’t sure how to interpret the question. So here goes!

Getting Things Done by Edwin Bliss. I stumbled upon this book a boy and it opened my mind to the then-radical idea that you could use time badly, or wisely. Bliss’s book is written for a world of filing cabinets and secretaries, so these days I’d recommend instead David Allen’s book with the same title – although Bliss’s version is available on cassette!

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin. I’m always willing to be whisked away to a fantasy world, and Le Guin’s is among the wisest, most original, and most beautifully portrayed. It is hard to think of a grand theme that isn’t explored somewhere in the Earthsea trilogy,

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What I’ve been reading: Bravey by Alexi Pappas

24 days ago

When Alexi Pappas and I realised we were releasing books at around the same time, she suggested that we do a book swap and send each other our books. What a good idea, especially since I probably read too much social science – and I’m a firm believer in a little randomisation in life. I didn’t know what to expect from Bravey.

Well, what I received was an elegant and very moving debut from a seriously gifted writer. I knew Pappas was an athlete – she set a 10k national record at the 2016 Olympics – but I did not know anything about her life story.

I assumed there would be tales of hardship and sacrifice – surely nobody becomes an Olympian without them, especially not a distance runner – but I did not expect, on page on, “My first five years of life coincided with my

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Dates announced for The Data Detective book tour!

26 days ago

The Center for Global Development does amazing, evidence-based work on one of the most important challenges in the world. I’m so flattered that they are hosting my first event, with Amanda Glassman in the chair. Noon, DC time, on 10 February.

Wednesday 10th Feb I’m also speaking with the incredible Randall Munroe, creator of xkcd, ‘How To‘ and ‘What If?’ The event is hosted by Point Reyes Books – noon California time.

On Thursday 18th February I’m being hosted by Ryan Bourne, the voice of reason, at the Cato Institute, at noon DC time.

And on Friday 26th February – the perfect Friday evening – Maria Konnikova, author of the knockout hit of 2020, “The Biggest Bluff“, is joining me at The Harvard Bookstore at 7pm Boston time.

More to follow!

My new book, “The

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Florence Nightingale: the pandemic hero we need

27 days ago

The Florence Nightingale Museum in London, devoted to the pioneering 19th-century nurse, is closing its doors, indefinitely. The museum director, David Green, describes the plan as “hibernation”; the collection will remain on site at St Thomas’s Hospital.

The timing could hardly be more ironic. Last year was Nightingale’s bicentennial. The museum had invested heavily in a new exhibition; it opened in early March, less than a month before the UK’s long first lockdown. Celebratory events across the country had been planned — I was to attend one organised by the Royal Statistical Society — but instead Nightingale was commemorated by the decision to name new emergency hospitals after her.

As the British healthcare system strains to stay upright under the force of the

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Misinformation can be beautiful

28 days ago

Chapter nine of “The Data Detective” / “How To Make The World Add Up” is all about data visualisation – its power, and its pitfalls. The overarching story is about how one woman launched a public health revolution, armed with a fancy pie chart.

I’m fond of the chapter – but how does it look to audiobook listeners? Ah. Obviously the pictures in the audiobook are… well, nonexistent.

So here are links to the graphics in question.

First, Nigel Holmes’s famous – infamous? – graphic, ‘Diamonds were a girl’s best friend‘, produced for Time magazine in 1982 and still debated among dataviz geeks today.

The New Yorker’s ‘subway inequality’ project is interactive and much better viewed on their site.

Andy Cotgreave’s compare-and-contrast exercise with Simon Scarr’s

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A free chapter of The Data Detective audiobook

29 days ago

My book The Data Detective is out today in the US and Canada. (The same book is called How To Make The World Add Up elsewhere in the world.)

To celebrate publication, Riverhead Books have teamed up with Pushkin Industries to release the final chapter of the audiobook on the Cautionary Tales feed.

I’m very proud of the audiobook – please look out for the full version of The Data Detective in audio, print or ebook.

And if you’re here for Cautionary Tales, never fear – the next season starts on February 26th.

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Announcing the publication of The Data Detective

February 1, 2021

Do you want to be able to think more clearly about the world?

Do you want to be able to evaluate the claims that swirl around you in the media and on social media?

Do you wish you knew what questions to ask to sift out the truth from the misinformation?

Are you a curious person, more interested in finding out about the world than in winning some argument on Twitter?

Would you like to come away from reading the news feeling calmer and better informed, rather than stressed and confused?

If the answer to some of those questions is yes, I have good news: it’s publication week for my new book The Data Detective.

This book is the culmination of everything I’ve learned trying to make sense of the numbers in the news and in life – presenting the BBC Radio program

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What can we learn from the great working-from-home experiment?

January 28, 2021

In February 2014, London’s Underground was partially shut down by a strike that forced many commuters to find new ways to get to work. The disruption lasted just 48 hours, but when three economists (Shaun Larcom, Ferdinand Rauch and Tim Willems) studied data from the city’s transport network, they discovered something interesting.

Tens of thousands of commuters did not return to their original routes, presumably having found faster or more pleasant ways to reach their destination. A few hours of disruption were enough to make them realise that they had been doing commuting wrong their entire adult lives.

I mention this because we are at a turning point in the pandemic. Many people, myself included, have largely been working from home. For months it has been hard to

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Adam Grant on Thinking Again

January 27, 2021

I’m delighted to be sharing a publication day, 2 February, with Adam Grant and his new book, Think Again.

Well, mostly delighted: that’s one fewer slot on the bestseller lists for me to aim for. Think Again is a stone cold classic and destined to do extremely well.

The book explores three key areas: individual rethinking (the challenges and benefits of being willing to reconsider your views); interpersonal rethinking (how do you get other people to think again?); and collective rethinking (can we shape a culture of respectful and engaged debate?).

It’s full of vignettes – I loved the descriptions of ‘the Difficult Conversations lab’, the robot debater, and the Icelandic presidential election – and it also performs the difficult task of describing complex research

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Is ‘first dose first’ the right vaccination strategy?

January 21, 2021

What a difference a couple of weeks makes. In mid-December, I asked a collection of wise guests on my BBC radio programme How to Vaccinate the World about the importance of second doses. At that stage, Scott Gottlieb, former head of the US Food and Drug Administration, had warned against stockpiling doses just to be sure that second doses were certain to be available, Economists such as Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University had gone further: what if we gave people single doses of a vaccine instead of the recommended pair of doses, and thus reached twice as many people in the short term? This radical concept was roundly rejected by my panel

The concept was roundly rejected. “This is an easy one, Tim, because we’ve got to go with the scientific evidence,” said

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The best podcasts about Covid vaccines

January 18, 2021

While working on How To Vaccinate The World, a weekly podcast devoted to Covid vaccination, I’ve been a voracious consumer of other podcasts about vaccination and the vaccination race. Here are a few recommendations – feel free to email me if you have other suggestions.

Vaccines, Money and Politics – a formidably intelligent BBC two-parter written and presented by the formidably intelligent producer of How to Vaccinate the World, Sandra Kanthal. A terrific introduction to all the issues.

Moncef Slaoui was interviewed by Steve ‘Freakonomics’ Levitt on the People I Mostly Admire podcast. It’s an excellent interview, full of insights. (Although I thought Slaoui didn’t properly engage with the question about challenge trials.)

Freakonomics also asked, early on in the

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What puzzles and poker teach us about misinformation

January 14, 2021

Here’s a holiday quiz question for you: what do puzzles, poker, and misinformation have in common? The answer is at the bottom of this column.

Let’s try an easier question first. In Santa’s workshop, if it takes five elves five minutes to wrap five presents, how long does it take 50 elves to wrap 50 presents? You probably know the answer to that one; it follows a classic formula for a trick question. But as you groped towards the correct answer you may have had to fight off your instinct to blurt out a tempting wrong answer: 50 minutes.

The arithmetic is no challenge for an astute FT reader; the difficulty with this problem is pausing for the brief moment necessary to carry that arithmetic out, while fending off the obvious but incorrect answer that pops into your

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In praise of the humble products all around us

January 7, 2021

Tom Kelley is a sensitive soul. Shortly after sending the manuscript of his first book, The Art of Innovation, to his publisher, he visited Kepler’s, his local bookshop in Menlo Park in Silicon Valley. “I literally started to cry,” he confessed to a group of authors to which I belong, “thinking about all the effort and all the sacrifices authors had made to get those thousands of books on to the stage.”

I see you, Tom. I vividly remember my excitement the first time I saw one of my books in the wild, in Kramerbooks, in Washington DC. Eight books later, I can attest that writing and publishing one is still as exciting — and still as exhausting. Thinking of all my fellow authors going through the same thing is rather moving; that bookshops keep being shut down by the

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Gaming inspiration

January 5, 2021

I think we could all use some help in escaping to other worlds with our friends. I’ve taken the Christmas holiday as an opportunity to read some good gaming books, some of which were kindly placed in my stocking by Father Christmas…

Without further ado,

Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master by Michael Shea (aka Sly Flourish) was the first book I cracked open. I wholeheartedly recommend it as a guide to improvising more, preparing less, and let at the same time running better games. Shea’s basic thesis is that role-playing referees prepare in ways that are often counter-productive, tying their games up in tedious back-story, limiting their ability to pick up on good ideas from around the table, and tempting them into the sin of railroading. I’m sold on that, but what makes

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My New Year’s resolution

December 31, 2020

I occasionally listen to the oddly-named but excellent “Art of Manliness” podcast, and a recent episode brought me up short.

It was an interview with Gregg Krech, author of “Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese art of self-reflection“.

Krech suggested a practice of self-reflection through three questions.

First: what have I received from others?

Second: what did I give to others?

Third: what trouble or inconvenience did I cause others?

There are obvious similarities here with the practice of gratitude journals, but there is no action required: you don’t have to write a thank-you note or scribble in the gratitude journal. But you might well feel impelled to.

Instead, it’s a kind of spiritual accountancy: reflecting on the credits and the debits as

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Things (I think) I was wrong about this year

December 31, 2020

A few weeks ago, Toby Young, the editor of the Lockdown Sceptics website, tweeted: “New study suggests more than five million Britons have had the coronavirus. Given that ~50,000 people have died from it, that means an IFR [infection fatality rate] of

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Christmas in an alternate 2020

December 30, 2020

Perhaps there is no wrong way to exchange Christmas gifts, but in a hurried rendezvous just off junction six of the M40 must come close. My sister was furious; we had planned to go for a walk in the woods together the day before Christmas Eve, one of the safest activities imaginable. No longer: true to form, the prime minister had promised far more than seemed possible, realised it wasn’t possible after all, and then snatched it all away in a tumble of confusion. If the present-swap was to be legal, we had just hours to get it done.

As I drove to the rendezvous, I couldn’t help but laugh at myself. For 15 years I’ve been writing columns discussing the problem with Christmas gifts, and now we were testing the idea to destruction. If nothing remained of Christmas except

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A brief history of commercialising Christmas

December 20, 2020

There are those who will have you believe that Santa Claus wears red and white in honour of the colours of the Coca-Cola brand. This is nonsense. The great man was seen clad in red and white some years before Haddon Sundblom’s iconic 1930s advertisements. What’s more, he was endorsing another soft drink, White Rock, while he did it.
Santa was not dreamt up by the marketing men. Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, on the other hand, was. He was invented in 1939 so that Montgomery Ward stores could give away millions of copies of his heart-warming story.
Retailers have been using Christmas to prod us to spend money for a long time. Not that we need them, to have a party. Blowout winter feasting predates Christianity itself, and the puritans tried desperately to stop it. They made

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Working from home: when the cracks start to show

December 18, 2020

One consequence of working from home is that mistakes are made. People miss messages; spinning plates fall to the ground; the falcon cannot hear the falconer; a New Yorker journalist broadcasts his genitals to everyone else on a Zoom call.

Much has rightly been written about the emotional challenges of remote working, the difficulty of spotting colleagues in distress and the inadequacy of email as a way of providing support and kindness.

What gets less attention is the simple communication error. It is remarkable that activities for which face-to-face co-ordination seemed essential can be conducted from kitchen tables across the world. Yet eventually the cracks start to show: everything from missed emails causing missed meetings to yawning chasms of understanding

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Would you send a Christmas card to a complete stranger?

December 11, 2020

People used to send more seasonal greetings cards in times gone by, but in December 1974, Phil and Joyce Kunz received a particularly bountiful crop. Some were simple offerings of “Happy Christmas” but others contained long letters. There was also a complaint from the police.
Phillip Kunz, a sociologist at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, was not entirely surprised. A few weeks earlier, he and his colleague Michael Woolcott had posted nearly 600 cards to strangers they had picked out of the phone book, adding a return address for “Phil and Joyce Kunz” or “Dr and Mrs Phillip Kunz”.
The bumper crop of cards reflected more than 100 recipients who felt an obligation to reply. A few wrote to ask who the heck the Kunz family were and someone called the cops. But some

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What I’ve been reading: a passionate statistican, and a deep worker

December 6, 2020

Florence Nightingale, by Mark Bostridge. I don’t read many biographies and perhaps I should read more, if this is anything to go by. I have been particularly focused on the 1850s (nursing and statistics) and 1860s (public health campaigning and statistics) but of course the book ranges over her entire long life. This is an impressive book: lots of detail, authoritative, but also fun to read. There are many, many shallow biographical treatments of Nightingale in short essays and blog posts. She was a complicated person with many facets to her character and many chapters to her life – so it is great to find a book that goes deep while remaining readable. There is an interesting error on page 314, but it’s not important and other biographers have made the same mistake. (If you

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The race to vaccinate the world is an obstacle course

December 4, 2020

The race to find an effective vaccine appears to be on the home straight. The same cannot be said of the race to roll it out everywhere. Preparing to present a BBC radio series titled How to Vaccinate the World, I’ve been looking at the route ahead. It is less of a marathon, more of an assault course. So, in no particular order, here is a brief guide to some of the obstacles that remain.

• Efficacy (1). Do these vaccines — of which there are more than a hundred in prospect and about a dozen in last-stage development — actually work? The recent announcements that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine appears to be 95 per cent effective and the Moderna one almost the same are very encouraging and bode well for other vaccines. The good news from Pfizer may be even better than it

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My fantasy dinner party: Florence Nightingale and juggling unicyclists

December 1, 2020

I don’t believe in keeping my guests waiting to eat, so it all starts with a first course to more than take the edge off the appetite: chips from Frituur No 1 in the centre of Antwerp, fried twice in beef tallow, scalding hot but cooled with mayonnaise. The fries are accompanied by a glass of Westmalle Tripel, indisputably the finest beer in the world, and brewed just a few miles from where we are enjoying it.

We eat standing, gathered around a couple of chest-high tables in a half-outside, half-inside space near the counter. The Westmalle beer is nearly as strong as champagne, so I anticipate a convivial spirit will emerge, even without the help of Claude Shannon.

Shannon was the father of the information age: in two revolutionary pieces, published either side of

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Self-help books that actually help

November 29, 2020

Self-help is a much-mocked section of the bookstore, and in truth there is much to mock. However I have a soft spot for certain self-help books that I have found useful over the years. These ones get my vote.

The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. A nostalgic pick, perhaps, but I found this wise, witty little book served as a touchstone throughout my years as a student. “You’d be surprised how many people violate this simple principle every day of their lives and try to fit square pegs into round holes, ignoring the clear reality that Things Are As They Are.”

Getting Things Done by David Allen. The book has a cult following for a reason; David Allen understood early why the demands of modern life can be so stressful and bewildering. The full system is too much for most

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Why are we so obsessed with saving Christmas?

November 26, 2020

We said our goodbyes to my mother on Christmas Eve 1996. She had died earlier in December after a long and painful illness, but when the end came it was sudden. It can’t have been straightforward to arrange a funeral service on Christmas Eve, the churches being put to other uses, but somehow my father managed it; the children’s stockings were filled as well.

I think I speak with some knowledge of what does or does not ruin Christmas.

It has been baffling, then, to watch the speculation in the British press about whether Boris Johnson will “save Christmas”, as though he were some over-promoted elf in a seasonal movie. (It is, admittedly, a role he is better qualified to play than that of prime minister.) Apparently, the thinking is that if the country is still in

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