Wednesday , October 27 2021
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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

The Truth About Hansel and Gretel

6 days ago

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, including Mia Lobel, Jacob Weisberg, Heather Fain, Jon Schnaars, Carly Migliori, Eric Sandler, Emily Rostek, Maggie Taylor, Daniella Lakhan and Maya Koenig.

[Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]

Further reading and listening

Hans Traxler’s book is, of course, The Truth About Hansel and Gretel – unfortunately it is available only in German. An excellent starting point to understand the hoax is Jordan Todorov’s article for Atlas Obscura. Paul Berczeller’s documentary about Takako Konishi is This Is a True Story.

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A Nobel memorial prize for turning statistics into insight

6 days ago

Correlation is not causation. Behind that cliché lies an important truth. In January this year, for example, the UK had one of the most stringent lockdowns and one of the highest death rates from Covid. New Zealand had no deaths and few restrictions. Yet, no matter what your favourite YouTube conspiracist might say, lockdowns don’t cause waves of Covid. Waves of Covid cause lockdowns.

But while “correlation is not causation” is an important warning, when policymakers come asking questions, it is not much of a response.

For example: why do more educated people tend to have higher incomes? Is it because education causes higher incomes, or because smart, energetic people thrive in both school and the workplace?

Why do richer places tend to have lots of foreign-born

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Cogs and Monsters and Dungeons and Dragons, oh my!

9 days ago

Lots of intriguing books on deck this week!

Jon Peterson’s “Game Wizards” is an in-depth history – and I really do mean in-depth – of the creation of Dungeons and Dragons and in particular the ugly struggle for control of TSR. It’s vivid and incredibly well-researched, although this particular niche is… well, it’s very niche.

Robin Wigglesworth’s excellent “Trillions” is at the other end of the scale: Robin describes the invention of the index fund, a hugely consequential development in financial markets that has made almost no impact whatsoever on popular culture. One estimate reckons that the Vanguard index funds alone have saved investors about a trillion dollars in fees. Not sure I can quite endorse that number but it’s in the right ball-park. Great storytelling;

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How to tackle vaccine hesitancy

13 days ago

In rich countries there are plenty of vaccines, but we seem to be running out of people who want them. This is frustrating. The vaccines are a medical miracle — safe, more effective than we dared to hope and produced with unprecedented speed. They are the way out of this global crisis. No wonder vaccinated people often look at holdouts with contempt, pity or fury.

I chuckled at the recent McSweeney’s article “Oh My Fucking God, Get the Fucking Vaccine Already, You Fucking Fucks”. Then I wondered who was really the butt of the joke. Was it the anti-vaxxers? Or was it the anti-anti-vaxxers? Either way, it was unlikely to catalyse many decisions to get vaccinated.

I realise that a humorous rant is not a public health policy, but there was something about the

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Comics, games, and a genius

16 days ago

I was delighted to see The Economist give a glowing review to Ananyo Bhattacharya’s brilliant new book The Man From The Future, noting that it fills “a yawning gap in the history of science”. You heard about that book here first.

A different book in almost every way is Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, which I’ve caught up with about a quarter of a century late. Although like other graphic novels of that vintage it can occasionally be shlocky and in questionable taste, overall it’s an excellent read. (Imagine a fantastical and X-rated version of The Matrix – and indeed the Matrix was surely inspired by The Invisibles.) HT to Ralph Lovegrove’s wonderful fiction-and-gaming podcast, Fictoplasm.

Christmas is coming – at least, if you know what’s good for you you’re

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How to spot scientists who peddle bad data

21 days ago

I never planned to fake my data. My project involved interviewing the customers visiting a games shop in central London, then analysing the distance they had travelled. Arriving at the location with a clipboard, I realised that I didn’t have the nerve. I slunk home and began to dream up some realistic-seeming numbers. I am ashamed but, in mitigation, I was about 14 years old. I am confident that the scientific record has not been corrupted by my sins.

I wish I could say that only schoolchildren fake their data, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Stuart Ritchie’s book Science Fictions argues that “fraud in science is not the vanishingly rare scenario that we desperately hope it to be”.

Some frauds seem comical. In the 1970s, a researcher named William Summerlin

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ZOMG it is a very exciting week for new nerd books

23 days ago

Some nerd-tastic books coming out this week from friends and colleagues:Ananyo Bhattacharya’s stunning and deep intellectual biography of John von Neumann, “The Man From The Future”. Looks beautiful, full of telling detail and packed with ideas about group theory, game theory, computer science and more. Adam Rutherford and Hannah Fry offer us their “Complete Guide to Absolutely Everything” – joyful stuff. I sense this will be the pop-science book of choice this Christmas. David Spiegelhalter and Anthony Masters weigh in with “Covid by Numbers”, which is a laudable effort to provide structure, balance, context and insight to what is still a fast-moving subject. They’ve done a remarkable job:

We nerds are spoiled for choice! Meanwhile I have been reading a rather older

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The power of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes

27 days ago

I recently had the doubtful pleasure of self-administering a mail-order Covid test. It was a process that required simultaneously mastering the test itself, packing up the sample, and registering the procedure online. This administrative, logistical and medical triathlon would have been challenging at any time, much like applying for a driving licence while assembling an Ikea chair, parts of which I had to insert into various orifices.

Still, the bewildering instructions did not help. They were supplied in two not-quite-identical versions for an anxiety-inducing game of spot the difference. Mysterious components went unexplained. On a third instruction sheet was a stern admonition to write down the parcel-tracking number, which could have referred to any of a dozen

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In conversation with Richard Thaler and other news

September 27, 2021

I’m interviewing Richard Thaler at How To Academy (online) at 6.30pm UK time today. Tune in! We will, of course, be discussing “Nudge: The Final Edition“.Tom Chatfield’s book “How To Think” is a masterclass in clear critical thinking.

I’ve been tickled by Rich Knight’s instructive yet suitably silly book “If I Ran the Country“. Yes, it’s aimed at ten year olds but I’m there for it.

In other news, I’ve just recorded two Halloween episodes of Cautionary Tales, and have agreed to produce two seasons for 2022. Can’t wait.

The paperback of “The Next 50 Things That Made The Modern Economy” is now out in the UK.

“Endlessly insightful and full of surprises — exactly what you would expect from Tim Harford.”- Bill Bryson

“Witty, informative and endlessly

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Does economics have a problem with women?

September 23, 2021

When Elinor Ostrom became the first woman to receive the Nobel memorial prize in economics, in 2009, she quipped: “I won’t be the last.” Although she has since been proved right, it was nonetheless astonishingly late in the day for such a landmark. Adding to the awkwardness, Ostrom, who died in 2012, won despite being outside the mainstream of economics.

So does economics have a problem with women? And do women have a problem with economics?

Earlier in the summer, the Royal Economic Society published a report surveying the gender imbalance in economics in the UK. (I used to serve on the RES Council, the group which oversees the Society’s activities.) The picture is not encouraging. Academic economics remains a largely male activity, and the more senior the job

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Pinker, Von Neumann, and how to be decent

September 20, 2021

Various exciting books are now out, or imminent. Steven Pinker’s “Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce” is just around the corner, and as you might expect it is erudite, entertaining, and packed full of ideas (some new to me and some not). I’m doing an event with Steven Pinker, hosted by 5×15, in a couple of months – but you may not wish to wait for that. The book is well worth a look.

Ananyo Bhattacharya’s “The Man From The Future: The Visionary Life of John von Neumann” is out in early October. I’m very excited about this book: a really weighty intellectual biography, full of telling details and determined to make the connection between von Neumann’s ideas and what came afterwards. (Since he had ideas about everything from game theory to computing, and much

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Why Covid regulations may be around longer than you think

September 16, 2021

Travel these days requires an awful lot of paperwork. On a recent trip to Italy, I needed to produce proof of vaccination, proof of three different negative lateral flow tests, proof of the booking of a PCR test, a passenger locator form for the EU and a passenger locator form for the UK. Some of the forms were badly designed. Websites had a habit of crashing. And certain rules called to mind sledgehammers and nuts.

I could not begrudge the bureaucracy. I was trying to jet around the world in the teeth of a pandemic. But as I tried to fill in yet another form, a gloomy thought arose: what if all this paperwork never goes away? Sars-Cov-2 is in no imminent danger of being eradicated, after all, and red tape can be sticky.

For context I picked up Martin Lloyd’s lively

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Back to school

September 13, 2021

I hope you’ve had a wonderful summer – or winter, if you’re reading this in the southern hemisphere, or in early 2022. I’ve held off posting lots of August updates but now I’m back, and with a lovely little review of The Next Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy (Amazon, Bookshop) from the Daily Mail.

“Tim Harford is an economist and broadcaster with a gift for making his subject fascinating and comprehensible to non-economists. His previous book, Fifty Things, was a series of quirky essays on the radical social change brought about by such inventions as the wheel and the internet. This sequel takes a close look at everyday inventions that we take for granted, but which, nevertheless, have a huge impact on our lives. Harford considers culture-changers from bricks

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From the clinical trial to role-playing games, why do some ideas arrive so late?

September 9, 2021

I confess, as a boy, to wearing a Leonardo da Vinci T-shirt. Da Vinci was my idea of cool, and the attraction lay not in the Mona Lisa’s smile or his sketches of natural phenomena. It was the helicopter. Nothing could be more awesome than a 15th-century thinker who could design a helicopter. It could never have flown, but who cares?

These days I am more interested in the reverse case: ideas that could have worked many centuries before they actually appeared. The economist Alex Tabarrok calls these “ideas behind their time”. Consider the bicycle. It was not produced in even the most primitive form until the early 1800s, and a practical version with chain drive was not widespread until the 1880s — just in time to compete with the motor car.

Anton Howes, author of Arts

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The secret to preventing killer heatwaves isn’t what you think

September 2, 2021

In July 1995, a hot, humid, slow-moving mass of air rolled over Chicago and stayed there for a week. Roads and railway tracks buckled. Lifting bridges were hosed down to prevent thermal expansion from locking them in place. Shops sold out of air conditioners. Demand for electricity led to blackouts. Then people started to die, simply unable to cope with the humidity and the heat day after day.

There is no official estimate for the death toll, but it is often reckoned to be more than 700 people. As with Covid-19, most were elderly, but epidemiologists later estimated that the majority of those older people were not otherwise in imminent danger of death.

The disaster received far less attention than, for example, the 1989 earthquake, which killed less than a tenth as

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Espionage, assassination, and the modern factory

August 27, 2021

Piedmont, in North West Italy, is celebrated for its fine wine. But when a young Englishman, John Lombe, travelled there in the early eighteenth century, he wasn’t going to savour a glass of Barolo. His purpose was industrial espionage. Lombe wished to figure out how the Piedmontese spun strong yarn from silkworm silk. Divulging such secrets was illegal, so Lombe sneaked into a workshop after dark, sketching the spinning machines by candlelight. In 1717, he took those sketches to Derby in the heart of England.Local legend has it that the Italians took a terrible revenge on Lombe, sending a woman to assassinate him. Whatever the truth of that, he died suddenly at the age of 29, just a few years after his Italian adventure.While Lombe may have copied Italian secrets, the way

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Resist the temptation to overachieve on holiday

August 26, 2021

As the northern hemisphere limps to whatever summer tourism it can muster, I am starting to dream of the epic holiday I will enjoy when I am finally able. What will yours be? And will you truly live your holiday — and indeed your life — to the max? Will you see dawn break over Florence from the Piazzale Michelangelo? Will you savour the freshest tamales in the market at Oaxaca? Will you sing karaoke into the early hours in Roppongi? (If so, I hope you capture it all on Instagram.) And if you do see dawn break over Florence, won’t some part of you wonder if it shouldn’t have been Oaxaca or Roppongi instead?

The world is wide and full of wonders. On this point, a recent New Yorker cartoon is worth a thousand words. It depicts a man sitting in bed, sheets tucked under his

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The stamp at the bottom of the pyramid

August 23, 2021

‘It should be remembered, that in few departments have important reforms been effected by those trained up in practical familiarity with their details. The men to detect blemishes and defects are among those who have not, by long familiarity, been made insensible to them.’Those words are from 1837. An early pitch from an aspiring management consultant? No: that profession was still nearly a century off. But it was, in effect, the service Rowland Hill had taken it upon himself to perform for Great Britain’s postal service.Hill was a former schoolmaster, whose only experience of the Post Office was as a disgruntled user. Nobody had asked him to come up with a detailed proposal for completely revamping it. He did the research in his spare time, wrote up his analysis, and sent

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The joy of the humble brick

August 21, 2021

‘I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.’ That is supposed to have been the boast of Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor, just over two thousand years ago. If it was, he was exaggerating: ancient Rome is a city of brick, and no less glorious for that.Augustus was also joining a long tradition of denigrating or overlooking one of the most ancient and versatile of building materials. The great Roman architectural writer Vitruvius mentions them only in passing. Denis Diderot’s great French Encyclopaedia ‘of the Sciences, Arts and Crafts’, published in 1751 and an inspiration for Adam Smith’s famous description of the pin factory – well, Diderot doesn’t trouble himself to include any images of brickmaking at all.That’s because a brick is such an

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Five truths about covid that defy our intuitions

August 19, 2021

It’s striking how much Covid confusion still reigns. Some of the informational miasma is deliberate — there’s profit for some in the bewilderment of others — but much of it stems from the fact that epidemics defy our intuition. So, here are five counterintuitive Covid truths that easily slip beyond our understanding:

1. If a large share of hospitalised people are vaccinated, that’s a sign of success. It has been common to see headlines noting that a substantial minority of people who have been hospitalised or even killed by Covid have been fully vaccinated. These numbers suggest vaccine failure is alarmingly common. The fallacy only becomes clear at the logical extremes: before vaccines existed, everyone in hospital was unvaccinated; if vaccines were universal, then

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A live speech at last, and other news

August 17, 2021

I’m speaking at the FT Weekend Festival (in a well-ventilated tent in Hampstead) – do come along!

If you prefer your speeches online, you might enjoy this discussion with UCL economics students, in which we cover carbon taxes, thinking like a statistician, and the importance (or otherwise) of patents for vaccines.

More or Less is returning to Radio 4 on Wednesday 1st September – please send your questions and comments to [email protected]

I’ve been enjoying some holiday reading – too many books to summarise – but I would direct your attention to:

Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style, a useful and highly enjoyable book about clear writing.

Roland Huntford’s The Last Place on Earth, a really gripping book about the rivalry between Scott and Amundsen. (I am

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Book Review – Thinking Better: The Art of the Shortcut, by Marcus du Sautoy

August 16, 2021

In 1786, in a classroom in Braunschweig, near Hanover, a bored schoolmaster in need of a nap set his pupils the tedious task of adding up every number between 1 and 100. Before the master could even lean back in his chair, one boy strode forward and placed his slate on the front desk.Ligget se, he casually declared. There it is. And there it was: 5050. Carl Friedrich Gauss, at the age of nine, had announced his mathematical genius to the world.Marcus du Sautoy begins his book about shortcuts not with the story, but with the story of the story. Du Sautoy explains that he, like Gauss, was a schoolboy sitting in a maths class when his teacher told the tale (which has been heavily embellished over the years) and explained that mathematics was “the art of the shortcut”.1 + 100

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How to vaccinate the world more quickly

August 12, 2021

With more than half the UK population fully vaccinated and the UK government just a little too eager to declare victory, spare a thought for Cameroon. With a population about half the size of England, Cameroon has — according to Our World in Data — administered just 160,000 doses of vaccine. On a good day, the UK manages that many before lunch.

I have a certain romantic attachment to Cameroon, but the west African nation is not alone in lacking vaccines. More than six months into the global vaccination campaign, fewer than a quarter of people around the world have received even a single dose of a vaccine. It is no wonder that more people have already died of Covid in 2021 than died from the disease in 2020.

So what can be done? There has been much talk about vaccine

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We must face facts, even the ones we don’t like

August 5, 2021

The recent unsettling footage of England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty being grabbed and harassed in a central London park brought to mind many things. There were the similar scenes of BBC journalist Nicholas Watt being pursued, surrounded and abused at a protest in Westminster. Darker still, there was the murder of the MP Jo Cox during the Brexit campaign five years ago.

But I was also reminded of the square root of two.

Two and a half thousand years ago, followers of Pythagoras believed that the constants of the universe were constructed of whole numbers. The Pythagoreans were wrong. One such constant is a simple diagonal across a square — the square root of two. But there are no two whole numbers which, as a fraction, give us the square root of two. 3⁄2

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4000 weeks and the clock is ticking

August 2, 2021

Oliver Burkeman’s wonderful (and alarming) new book is “4000 Weeks”. I wholeheartedly recommend it, despite the stress-inducing reminder that the human lifespan is 4000 weeks and I’m well past half way.

Burkeman’s book is part Getting Things Done, part Being and Time, and part The Tao of Pooh. He takes seriously the self-help literature on time management (he’s read pretty much every self-help book going so that you don’t have to), but also takes seriously the fact that there will never be a moment when you’ve cleared the decks and ticked off everything on the To Do list. Borrowing from Borges, Burkeman points out that while we experience time flowing past us, we are the passing of time. The river is always flowing and there will never be a moment when we are able to

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Statue wars, pandemic reopening, and the art of less

July 29, 2021

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!

July 26, 2021

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

July 22, 2021

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

July 21, 2021

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

July 19, 2021

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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