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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

Statue wars, pandemic reopening, and the art of less

3 days ago

Weniger, aber besser. These three words — less, but better — summarise the philosophy of the great German designer Dieter Rams. His striking designs, from Braun electronics to Vitsoe furniture, have been influential to the point of ubiquity. Apple’s original iPod clearly resembles a Rams-designed radio.

But while “less, but better” is revered by designers, it’s not the way most of us live our lives. Our homes are full of junk, our diaries are full of meetings and our attention is fragmented by dozens — hundreds? — of electronic interruptions a day. Countercultural counter-clutter manifestos have been popular: Greg McKeown’s Essentialism (get rid of unnecessary tasks and meetings), Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism (get rid of unnecessary apps and devices) and of course

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Summer maths books!

6 days ago

New questions have gone live on the Data Detective challenge on the Good Judgement Open website – check them out and test your skills!

I’ve found myself reading four very interesting maths books this summer.

Shape by Jordan Ellenberg – I’m speaking on a panel with Jordan at the San Diego Union-Tribune festival of books and so I thought I should catch up on his book. (He is the author of the excellent How Not To Be Wrong.) Shape argues that geometry is everywhere, and awesome. Ellenberg writes about maths with admirable clarity but he’s also genuinely funny, which is a real plus.

The Maths of Life and Death by Kit Yates. Less pandemic maths than you might fear, don’t worry! A lively tour of all sorts of mathematical ideas from catch-and-release in snails to the

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The strange temptations of phoney medicine

10 days ago

We puny humans just can’t seem to deal with the idea of a disease for which there is no treatment. We’ll always find something to believe in, no matter how tenuous. Since the Sars-Cov-2 virus was discovered, people have been circulating “cures”, from avoiding iced drinks (nope) to using special red soap (soap is good, its colour irrelevant).

Some speculative treatments have been pushed by politicians. The UK’s former Brexit supremo David Davis has urged the use of high-dose vitamin D supplements, while Donald Trump advocated hydroxychloroquine. Alas, a high-quality randomised trial has shown that hydroxychloroquine is not an effective treatment. Low-dose vitamin D is a useful supplement to take in winter, but there is no good evidence that high doses can treat Covid-19.

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The Tyranny of Spreadsheets

11 days ago

Early last October my phone rang. On the line was a researcher calling from Today, the BBC’s agenda-setting morning radio programme. She told me that something strange had happened, and she hoped I might be able to explain it. Nearly 16,000 positive Covid cases had disappeared completely from the UK’s contact tracing system. These were 16,000 people who should have been warned they were infected and a danger to others, 16,000 cases contact tracers should have been running down to figure out where the infected went, who they met and who else might be at risk. None of which was happening.

Why had the cases disappeared? Apparently, Microsoft Excel had run out of numbers.

It was an astonishing story that would, in time, lead me to delve into the history of accountancy,

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Aiming for the moon, Hard Times, and Marlon and Jake read dead people

13 days ago

I was delighted that the More or Less team was awarded the Royal Statistical Society’s excellence in journalism award for coronavirus reporting, and also very pleased to have been highly commended in the category of specialist journalist in the UK Press Awards. Congratulations to all the worthy winners, many of whom I am lucky to be able to count as colleagues.

My latest podcast recommendation is Marlon and Jake Read Dead People – the almost unbelievably erudite Marlon James and Jake Morrissey argue in suitably opinionated fashion about their favourite books by dead authors.

If you think there’s anything more disheartening as an author than hearing an editor rip into (of all people) Ernest Hemmingway for time-wasting, try this: the editor in question is YOUR EDITOR. I

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Why we lose track of spending in a cashless society

17 days ago

What looks like fraud, feels like fraud but isn’t fraud? What about a company website that pops up when you search for the government agency that issues driving licences, and charges a handsome fee for forwarding your details to the real website? Personal finance campaigners have been complaining about such sites for years, but I think there is a broader lesson to be drawn about the way we spend our money these days.

Between outright fraud and honest commerce there may be a sharp legal line — but economically and psychologically the distinction is a gradual blur. I worry that we now live in that blur, spending cash without clearly perceiving what happened.

The pandemic, with its shift to contactless or online spending, has served to catalyse the process further.

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Why do we work so hard?, and other intriguing questions

20 days ago

The Possiblity Club podcast – I had a good chat to Richard Freeman at the Possibility Club podcast – listen in if you wish! Brief Q&A also with the Histocrats.

Why do we work so hard? I was fascinated by James Suzman’s interview with Ezra Klein recently. He said a couple of very odd things (apparently labour income is no longer relevant, it’s all capital income?) but was enormously thought-provoking about low-work civilisations, high-work civilisations, the importance of culture, the city as the engine of desire and social comparison. All in all it made me eager to seek out his book, “Work”.

I’m speaking at the Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival in mid September – hopefully plenty of time for everyone to get fully vaccinated. Come along!

On my pile: Rationality

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Mr Spock is not as logical as he’d like to think

24 days ago

Mr Spock, Star Trek’s pointy-eared, nimble-eyebrowed Vulcan, is a beloved figure, especially as portrayed by the late Leonard Nimoy. He is a cultural touchstone for superior rationality. There’s just one problem: Spock is actually terrible at logic.

As Julia Galef explains in her new book on how to make better decisions, The Scout Mindset, Spock turns out to be highly illogical in more than one way. The most obvious is that Spock’s model of other minds is badly flawed.

For example, in an early episode, “The Galileo Seven”, Spock and his subordinates have crashed a small ship and face hostile aliens who kill one crew member. Spock decides to deter any further attacks by firing warning shots. The aliens respond not by retreating in fear, but by attacking in anger,

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The power of curiosity, storytelling podcasts, and other matters

27 days ago

I was interviewed by the EdSurge podcast on the subject of curiosity and misinformation. “It’s never been easier to fool yourself,” I said (apparently). “It’s never been easier to put yourself into a bubble, into an echo chamber. But at the same time, it’s never been easier to get really high-quality help—to ask smart questions and to go deep.”

Meanwhile I have been reading some very fine books that are not out yet, including Rutherford & Fry’s Complete Guide to Absolutely Everything and Michael Brooks’s The Art of More. Both worth a pre-order, proper reviews to follow in due course.

I also read Alan Garner’s Boneland, the sequel-that-is-not-a-sequel to brilliant children’s fantasy stories The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. I liked it, but it’s

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How not to Groupthink

July 1, 2021

In his acid parliamentary testimony recently, Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s former chief adviser, blamed a lot of different people and things for the UK’s failure to fight Covid-19 — including “groupthink”. Groupthink is unlikely to fight back. It already has a terrible reputation, not helped by its Orwellian ring, and the term is used so often that I begin to fear that we have groupthink about groupthink.

So let’s step back. Groupthink was made famous in a 1972 book by psychologist Irving Janis. He was fascinated by the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, in which a group of perfectly intelligent people in John F Kennedy’s administration made a series of perfectly ridiculous decisions to support a botched coup in Cuba. How had that happened? How can groups of smart

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Newsletter: Mathematical objects from spreadsheets to auctions

June 28, 2021

The Financial Times Magazine published my cover essay on the joys and sorrows of spreadsheets. It was great fun to write, and occasionally sobering, as I delved into the origins of Excel, the struggles of 14th century Italian merchants, the eradication of smallpox, and even quizzed Bill Gates about the 64K limit in the xls file format. (The piece will emerge on this website eventually.)

Katie Steckles and Peter Rowlett talked to me about my secret obsession, auctions and auction theory, on the Mathematical Objects podcast. Meanwhile Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast is back, and the new episode on Waymo is an absolute delight.

No book review this week, as I spent most of my reading time either on books that haven’t yet been published or that are now out

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Don’t blame GDP for a slow post-covid reopening

June 24, 2021

“As more of everyday life returns, we must not forget about the things that quietly, efficiently (perhaps almost without us noticing) offer some of the greatest benefits of all.”

Those were the words recently of Lord Sebastian Coe, twice an Olympic gold medallist and current president of World Athletics. Coe was focused on Parkruns, free weekly running events around the UK and indeed the world put on by the Parkrun charity. Although organised outdoor sports have been legal in England for many weeks now, Parkrun has been slower to be able to reopen for adults – the plan is to open on 26 June.

But Coe’s point holds more broadly: as the widely vaccinated UK continues to open up, there have been some curious discrepancies in what is possible and what is not. In recent

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How to make the world add up with Robin Ince, How to re-enter normality, and graphs of life and death

June 21, 2021

In Conversation with Robin Ince – I’ll be talking with the amazing comedian, book gourmand and evangelist for science and reason online at the How To Academy on Monday 5th July – do come along!

If you’ve devoured the amazing story of how Florence Nightingale launched a public health revolution with a pie chart (it’s in How To Make The World Add Up / The Data Detective) then you might well enjoy Hannah Fry’s bravura essay in The New Yorker on how data visualisation saves – or costs – lives.

I was so pleased to hear the brilliant economist Betsey Stevenson (a senior economic official in various roles in the Obama administration) recommend The Undercover Economist Strikes Back on the Ezra Klein show. She said, “I just recommend that book to everyone because he explains

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Intellectual property: Murderous? Sacrosanct? Or simply in need of an overhaul?

June 17, 2021

Everyone knows that intellectual property is sacrosanct, a reward for good deeds and an essential way of supporting creative endeavours. That, at least, was the response to journalist Matthew Yglesias when he suggested in March that copyright protection should be limited to 30 years, rather than 70 years after the death of the author. (I made a similar case myself in this column a few years ago.) The writer Neil Gaiman described that concept, with characteristic bite, as “enthusiasm . . . for removing income from elderly and disadvantaged authors”, and the twitterati agreed.

How strange, then, that the reaction was so different when the Biden administration surprised most of us with an expression of support for (maybe, someday) waiving Covid-19 vaccine patents. Thank

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Fear, Scouting, and when can you trust a statistic?

June 14, 2021

The Data Detective meets The Scout Mindset – I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Julia Galef, author of The Scout Mindset and one of my very favourite interviewers, on the Rationally Speaking podcast. We go deep – enjoy!

Last minute notice, but in a couple of hours I’m talking to Gillian Tett about her excellent and thought-provoking new book Anthro-Vision.

Intriguing books on my pile, which I hope to read soon: The Musical Human (Michael Spitzer, a recent Radio 4 book of the week), Journey Beyond Fear (John Hagel, amazing endorsements), The Social Instinct (Nicola Rouhani, an evolutionary psychologist explains the origins and limits of cooperation), How To Think (Tom Chatfield, and thus guaranteed to be excellent).

When can you trust statistics? I made a

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Three talks (come along!), the psychology of magic, and more prediction challenges

June 7, 2021

Three talks I’m busy in the coming days! Do consider buying a ticket to my event at the Rotman school this Wednesday (10pm UK time, 5pm EST) – a copy of The Data Detective is included in the ticket price and with the excellent Heski Bar-Isaac steering the conversation I expect we’ll go deep. Come along!

Alternatively, on Saturday 12 June I’m giving a talk to conclude the IEA’s “Think” conference. Registration details here.

Or if you prefer to hear me interviewing someone else , next week (Monday 14th) I’m talking to Gillian Tett about her excellent and thought-provoking new book Anthro-Vision.

When will the UK have fully vaccinated 80% of its adult population? A new superforecasting question is live – sign up and have a try!

Experiencing the Impossible – not

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Can you really change who you are?

June 3, 2021

Femi was 21 years old when he was pulled over for speeding in Colindale, London; the police charged him with a cannabis offence. It was one of several brushes with the law. But Femi changed. As Christian Jarrett writes in Be Who You Want, “Femi, or to use his full name, Anthony Oluwafemi Olaseni Joshua OBE, became an Olympic gold medallist and the two-time heavyweight boxing champion of the world, heralded as an impeccable role model of clean living and good manners.”

Katy Milkman begins her book, How To Change, with another sporting icon: tennis player Andre Agassi. Agassi’s crimes were to wear an earring and tie-dyed shirts to tournaments, swear on court and — a Wimbledon crown notwithstanding — seem to be more interested in sponsorship than living up to his

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What magic teaches us about misinformation

June 1, 2021

“The things right in front of us are often the hardest to see,” declares Apollo Robbins, the world’s most famous theatrical pickpocket. “The things you look at every day, that you’re blinded to.”

As he says these words, he’s standing on stage at a TED conference in 2013. He invites the audience to close their eyes, then to try to recall what he’s wearing. It’s not easy. We imagine that we would have filed all those details away, after a couple of minutes of looking at him speaking. And indeed we could have done. But we didn’t. When we open our eyes we see he’s wearing a dark waistcoat and jacket, a striped tie and a dark-purple shirt.

Robbins ambles into the audience, finding a volunteer — Joe — and leading him on stage. For the next three minutes, Robbins proceeds

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AnthroVision, more bestselleration, and blockchain scenarios

May 31, 2021

AnthroVision I’m interviewing Gillian Tett about her excellent new book AnthroVision – details of the event here. Self-recommending for anyone who know’s Gillian’s work – she sets out a persuasive case for the value of anthropology in solving modern-day problems of business and beyond.

Chain Reaction My super-smart friend and former colleague Paul Domjan is one of the authors of a new book, Chain Reaction, exploring different scenarios for blockchain technologies in the developing world. You couldn’t ask for a better guide, and the scenario method is perfect for exploring this sort of field, where the range of possibilities is very wide.

Bestsellery I was chuffed a couple of weeks ago to see How To Make The World Add Up on the Sunday Times bestseller list; it turns

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Cautionary Tales – Do NOT pass GO!

May 28, 2021

(Self promotion: the paperback of How To Make the World Add Up is now out worldwide (except North America). Please consider an early order, which is disproportionately helpful in winning interest and support for the book. Thank you!)

The woman who was key to the creation of Monopoly was denied of her share of the credit and the profits. 

Lizzie J. Magie (played by Helena Bonham Carter) should be celebrated as the inventor of what would become Monopoly – but her role in creating the smash hit board game was cynically ignored, even though she had a patent.

Discrimination has marred the careers of many inventors and shut others out from the innovation economy entirely. Could crediting forgotten figures such as Lizzie Magie help address continuing disparities in the

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Point of order! The use and abuse of debating

May 27, 2021

Back in 1992, my school friend Daniel Saxby and I stood in London in front of an audience of worthies and a panel of celebrity judges including health minister Virginia Bottomley and Tory grandee Quintin Hogg, Lord Hailsham. We battled an opposing team, debating the motion, “This house would make Scotland independent”.

By the end of the evening, we had emerged triumphant — we were the best young debating pair in the UK, proud winners of the Observer Schools’ Mace. Why have I never boasted of this before? The truth is that I fell out of love with debating.

That is despite the fact that there is much to admire about competitive debating, once it is separated from the culture of upper-class schoolboys and distinguished from the mud-wrestling of presidential “debates”.

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Daniel Kahneman has lunch with the FT

May 25, 2021

As I wave my plate of paella in front of the webcam, Daniel Kahneman drops the bombshell.

“I have had my lunch.”

Awkward.

A lunch over Zoom was never an especially appetising prospect, and perhaps it was too much to expect Kahneman to play along. He is, after all, 87 years old, a winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics — despite being a psychologist — and, thanks to the success of his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow, vastly more famous than most of his fellow laureates. For the sake of form I ask him to describe the lunch.

“Well, I had sashimi salad and shumai from a restaurant, and to be absolutely complete and precise, I had a baked apple which I baked myself.”

He raises his chin in defiance, then smiles impishly. “And that was my lunch. It

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More or Less returns, dataviz, more prizes, economic growth and a talk

May 24, 2021

More or Less returns on Radio 4 on Wednesday at 9am BST – do tune in, or subscribe to the podcast. If you have questions or comments drop us an email at [email protected]

Still time to buy the Sunday Times bestseller How To Make The World Add Up – and a reminder that in the US and Canada, the same book is called The Data Detective.

The Big Picture. If you’re looking to understand how to create effective data visualisations, I recommend Steve Wexler’s The Big Picture.

More Prizes! After last week’s award from the Voice of the Listener and Viewer, I was doubly honoured to be nominated for best data journalist of the year by the Wincott Foundation (deservedly won by Ed Conway with the wonderful FT dataviz team also commended). I was floored when the Wincott

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Cautionary Tales – Wrong Tools Cost Lives

May 21, 2021

(Self promotion: the paperback of How To Make the World Add Up is now out worldwide (except North America). Please consider an early order, which is disproportionately helpful in winning interest and support for the book. Thank you!)

Microsoft Excel is great for business accounts… but maybe don’t use it to track a deadly disease.

The British Government promised to create a “world-beating” system to track deadly Covid 19 infections – but it included an outdated version of the off-the-shelf spreadsheet software Microsoft Excel. The result was disastrous.

When under pressure or lacking in expertise we can all be tempted to use a tool unsuitable for the job in hand. But whether fitting shelves or trying to halt a pandemic, we need to accept that cutting corners

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Why bad times call for good data

May 20, 2021

Watching the Ever Given wedge itself across the Suez Canal, it would have taken a heart of stone not to laugh. But it was yet another unpleasant reminder that the unseen gears in our global economy can all too easily grind or stick. From the shutdown of Texas’s plastic polymer manufacturing to a threat to vaccine production from a shortage of giant plastic bags, we keep finding out the hard way that modern life relies on weak links in surprising places.

So where else is infrastructure fragile and taken for granted? I worry about statistical infrastructure — the standards and systems we rely on to collect, store and analyse our data. Statistical infrastructure sounds less important than a bridge or a power line, but it can mean the difference between life and death for

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Prizes, mindfulness and some very strange dice

May 17, 2021

Bestsellers. If you bought a copy of How To Make The World Add Up in paperback publication week – thank you, especially since the book was announced as a Sunday Times bestseller yesterday. I am so delighted and so grateful for the support; the Sunday Times bestseller list is often packed with self-help books and celebrity biographies: for a serious book about ideas, it is harder to reach than you might imagine. Thank you again.

Another shout out for Extra Life: I’m interviewing Steven Johnson later today about his new book “Extra Life”. The book is excellent; do drop in (5pm ET Monday 17 May at Politics & Prose, online).

The Data Detective Challenge: The “superforecasting” folks at the Good Judgement Project have launched The Data Detective Challenge, inspired by the

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Cautionary Tales – Fritterin’ Away Genius

May 14, 2021

(Self promotion: the paperback of How To Make the World Add Up is now out worldwide (except North America). Please consider an early order, which is disproportionately helpful in winning interest and support for the book. Thank you!)

Claude Shannon was brilliant. He was the Einstein of computer science… only he loved “fritterin’ away” his time building machines to play chess, solve Rubik’s cubes and beat the house at roulette.

If Shannon had worked more diligently – instead of juggling, riding a unicycle and abandoning project after project – would he have made an even greater contribution to human knowledge? Maybe… and maybe not. Are restlessness and “fritterin’” important parts of a rich and creative life?

Cautionary Tales is written by me, Tim Harford, with

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An economist’s tips on making email work for you

May 13, 2021

What fresh torture is this? “Just resending this email to get it to the top of your inbox!” Let me stop you right there. There is no top of my inbox. My inbox is empty. At least it was before you decided to do the digital equivalent of emptying the contents of my waste paper basket all over the floor of my study. Back slowly away, if you value your typing fingers.

Not a month goes by without some monstrous email habit catching on. Isn’t it about time we figured this all out? Email celebrates its 50th birthday this year and has been ubiquitous in the office for a couple of decades. Yet it is hard to think of a workplace practice that causes more aggravation. (Well — there’s the open-plan office. But let’s not go there, metaphorically or otherwise.)

When I asked

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Scouts, Framers, Long Life and Personal Change

May 10, 2021

A brief history of Extra Life: I’m interviewing Steven Johnson about his new book “Extra Life” – all about how life expectancy has grown so dramatically over the last century or so. As you’d expect from Steven the book is fascinating – do drop in (5pm ET Monday 17 May at Politics & Prose, online).

How to be a different person – for some reason I’ve been reading books about changing the way you think (Julia Galef’s very original and thought-provoking The Scout Mindset), changing your habits and temptations (How to Change by Katy Milkman, which is practical and evidence-based although did not contain anything that surprised me) and even changing your personality (Christian Jarrett’s Be Who You Want, whose very premise was surprising, and made me reflect that I do not

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Cautionary Tales – The Fan Who Infected a Movie Star

May 7, 2021

(Self promotion: the paperback of How To Make the World Add Up is now out worldwide (except North America). Please consider an early order, which is disproportionately helpful in winning interest and support for the book. Thank you!)

A moment of selfishness by a sick fan wrecked the lives of a Hollywood star and her family.

German measles is a minor illness for most people – but for unborn children it can be devastating. In 1943 – when the link was only just becoming clear – a young US marine decided to break rubella quarantine to meet the movie star Gene Tierney. The marine was sick… and Gene was pregnant.

The appalling consequences of that meeting tell us much about how our thoughtlessness can harm those around us – but the kind of tragedy that befell Tierney

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