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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 virus picks us off unevenly, and an efficient response must recognise that

2 days ago

The virus picks us off unevenly, and an efficient response must recognise that
It is the end of the beginning: lockdowns after the first wave of coronavirus are being tentatively lifted. It is not a step we are taking with any great confidence of success. Rather, we’re easing the lockdowns because we can’t bear to wait any longer. That will mean some difficult decisions ahead, in particular about how we look out for each other in a world where our experiences and the risks we face are dramatically diverging.
It is clear enough that the virus could easily rebound: a systematic study conducted by the Office for National Statistics suggested that 100,000 to 200,000 people in England alone were still infected with the virus in early May. The lockdown has merely bought us time.

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Book(s) of the Week 20: The Next Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy

2 days ago

Book(s) of the Week 20: The Next Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy
Okay, this week I’m plugging my own brand new book, The Next Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy. 
At least, a little bit. But I have some other books to tell you about too.
One of the joys of writing this book was to be able to pick up two or three wonderful books on each topic, learn all about the history and the characters involved, and then try to figure out how to use what I’d learned to tell a story with a particular lesson about how the economy works. In the case of the Langstroth Beehive, for example, I was able to talk about the Nobel laureate James Meade and his discussion of ‘positive externalities’, the long obsession of economists with bees, as well as the long-standing relationship

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The statistical detective work required to lift the lockdowns

8 days ago

The statistical detective work required to lift the lockdowns
Anyone prone to cynicism about “damned lies and statistics” should be prompted to think again by the pandemic. Admittedly, distorted or fictional statistics have been press-ganged into their familiar roles of spin and propaganda.
But the real thing — statistical information, carefully gathered — can save lives.
The UK Office for National Statistics has announced a new survey of 25,000 people, designed to test a demographically representative cross-section of the UK population for infection and antibody response. Given that the UK already tests many tens of thousands of people a day for infection, that news might provoke a shrug. But it is an example of the data detective work that we desperately need if we are to

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The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy – book and talk

9 days ago

The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy – book and talk
“Endlessly insightful and full of surprises — exactly what you would expect from Tim Harford.”
Bill Bryson
I’m delighted to announce the launch of my new book, The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy. It’s a sequel to the original in which I presented a selection of fifty radical inventions that changed the world – in the form of surprising, instructive and untold stories about the people and ideas behind these technologies.
Now, in this new book, I’m back with another array of remarkable, memorable, curious and often unexpected ‘things’ – inventions that teach us lessons by turns intimate and sweeping about the complex world economy we live in today.
They range from the brick, blockchain and the

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Book of the Week 19: Humankind, by Rutger Bregman

12 days ago

Book of the Week 19: Humankind, by Rutger Bregman
Rutger Bregman’s new book, Humankind: A Hopeful History, makes a simple argument: most people, most of the time, are decent. Whether this strikes you as absurd, or obvious, may depend on what side of bed you got out of. Bregman makes a strong case that we’ve been groomed to think the worst of each other by books such as The Lord of The Flies and The Selfish Gene, and a diet of grim stories in the daily news. The book is wide-ranging, and while it is most definitely a polemic – Bregman writes to persuade – it is also full of the most fabulous storytelling. I loved reading it.
Some of the material I knew – for example, the ever-growing question marks over Zimbardo’s prison simulation have become infamous, re-interprerations of

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To combat climate change, release the brake

16 days ago

To combat climate change, release the brake
A couple of years ago, the Nobel-Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman spoke to a distinguished group of social scientists, and shared with them what he regarded as “the best idea I ever heard in psychology”. The idea derived from Kurt Lewin — described by Prof Kahneman as “my intellectual grandfather”.
Lewin was a great German-born psychologist who — thankfully, given his Jewish origins — escaped to the US in 1933. Lewin described behaviour as a balance between driving forces and restraining forces: the accelerator and the brake, if you will. We often try to change behaviour, especially that of other people, by pushing harder on the accelerator. The proposition that so impressed Prof Kahneman was that it is better to try to

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Why we fail to prepare for disasters

21 days ago

Why we fail to prepare for disasters
You can’t say that nobody saw it coming. For years, people had warned that New Orleans was vulnerable. The Houston Chronicle reported that 250,000 people would be stranded if a major hurricane struck, with the low-lying city left 20ft underwater. New Orleans’s Times-Picayune noted the inadequacy of the levees. In 2004, National Geographic vividly described a scenario in which 50,000 people drowned. The Red Cross feared a similar death toll. Even Fema, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was alert: in 2001, it had stated that a major hurricane hitting New Orleans was one of the three likeliest catastrophes facing the United States.
Now the disaster scenario was becoming a reality. A 140mph hurricane was heading directly towards the

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How to stop our economies from falling like Humpty Dumpty

23 days ago

How to stop our economies from falling like Humpty Dumpty
The peak of the pandemic is passing in Europe, but at a grievous economic cost. If we reopen, there is every reason to expect coronavirus will come surging back. What then? Another lockdown?
The difficulty is that we are looking at two exponential processes pitted against each other. Before social distancing measures, cases were doubling every few days, meaning a week’s difference in the timing of lockdowns in March might well have represented the difference between a healthcare system idling below capacity, and one being utterly overwhelmed.
It is reasonable to guess that the economic cost of lockdowns also grows exponentially — if not addressed by policy. One day’s lockdown is little more than a public holiday. Two

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Book of the Week 18: The Unthinkable, by Amanda Ripley

24 days ago

Book of the Week 18: The Unthinkable, by Amanda Ripley
What is it like to be caught up in the middle of an unthinkable disaster? Why are our responses to these extreme and unexpected events themselves often extreme and unexpected? Amanda Ripley began writing this book after interviewing survivors of the 9/11 attacks. “These people had an agenda,” she writes, “They had thinking they wanted to tell other people before the next terrorist attack.”One of the strengths of the book – which covers not just 9/11 but Hurricane Katrina and various other catastrophes – is the storytelling, often based on interviews with survivors.But there are other elements, too. Ripley also relies on historical accounts; her opening tale, well-told, is the explosion of the Mont Blanc munitions ship

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Book of the Week 17: Rhialto the Marvelous by Jack Vance

28 days ago

Book of the Week 17: Rhialto the Marvelous by Jack Vance
Pure escapism this week – Jack Vance’s Rhialto the Marvelous (Kindle only, I am afraid). Rhialto contains three extended short stories, in each case describing the adventures of Rhialto and a small group of other wizards of the 21st aeon. Rhialto is the conceited, narcissistic and amoral anti-hero of these indescribably delightful tales in which a dozen or so powerful, selfish and conceited sorcerors battle strange foes and – chiefly – try to outwit each other in matters of society and petty politics. These are joyful, cruel and wholly original confections. Enjoy!

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is out in the UK in May and available to pre-order; please consider doing so online or at

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We’re actually decent people in a crisis – and stories claiming otherwise do harm

April 30, 2020

We’re actually decent people in a crisis – and stories claiming otherwise do harm
First there was the panic buying. Then came the selfish, reckless refusal to maintain physical distance: the beach parties in Florida and the house parties in Manchester; the 500-mile round trip to admire the Lake District and the mass sun-worshipping in London parks. And there’s worse: the scam artists; the people who use coughing as an assault; the thieves who loot medical supplies from hospitals.
These coronavirus stories perpetuate a grim view of human nature. That grim view is mistaken, a persistent and counterproductive myth. There are some terrible people in the world, and some ordinary people behaving in a terrible way, but they make headlines precisely because they are rare. Look more

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For peace of mind in the pandemic, let go of impossible To Do lists

April 23, 2020

For peace of mind in the pandemic, let go of impossible To Do lists
Nearly a century ago there was a grand café near the University of Berlin. Academic psychologists who took lunch there marvelled at the memory of one of the waiters: no matter how large the group and how complex the order, he could keep it all in his head. Then one day, or so the story goes, someone left a coat behind. He hurried back into the café, only to find that the waiter didn’t remember him. This feat of amnesia seemed almost as remarkable as the feat of recollection that had preceded it. But the waiter had no trouble explaining the discrepancy: “When the order has been completed, then I can forget it.”
Two of the psychologists in the group, Kurt Lewin and Bluma Zeigarnik, decided to investigate. In

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Book of the Week 16: The Ostrich Paradox

April 20, 2020

Book of the Week 16: The Ostrich Paradox
A brief shout-out this week for a brief-but-good book, The Ostrich Paradox: Why We Underprepare For Disasters by Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther. Meyer and Kunreuther combine a nice dose of behavioural science with some striking examples: Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean Tsunami, the 1935 Labor Day storm, the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, and many others. They explore the cognitive biases that lead us to underprepare, or to abandon protection after a while. Clear writing, good stories, lots of solid academic references.
UK: Amazon – Blackwells
US: Amazon – Powells

 My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is out in the UK in May and available to pre-order; please consider doing so online

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How do we value a statistical life?

April 16, 2020

How do we value a statistical life?
The coronavirus lockdown is saving lives but destroying livelihoods. Is it worth it? I’ve been accused of ignoring its costs. For an economist, this is fighting talk. Love us or hate us, thinking about uncomfortable trade-offs is what we economists do.
Three points should be obvious. First, we need an exit strategy from the lockdowns — a better strategy than President Donald Trump’s, “One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” Expanding emergency capacity, discovering better treatments, testing for infection and testing for antibodies could all be part of the solution, along with a vaccine in the longer term.
Second, the economic costs of any lockdown need to be compared with the costs of alternative policies, rather than the

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Book of the Week 15: The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin

April 14, 2020

Book of the Week 15: The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin

A change of pace this week for Easter: Ursula K. le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy. Last weekend I watched the Studio Ghibli Tales of Earthsea – which has its moments but is not up to the usual stratospheric Ghibli standards. (Le Guin agreed.)
It did, however, prompt me to turn to the trilogy once again. I read it as a teenager, and again on a  long holiday in China in 2003, alongside the fourth book, Tehanu. I picked it up with hazy memories about certain plot points, and was not disappointed by any part of it.
The writing is superbly poetic, the plots are fast-paced and unusual, and the world-building is deft and convincing. A Wizard of Earthsea was originally commissioned as a ‘young adult’ novel, and each of the

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Can we contain viral misinformation about coronavirus?

April 9, 2020

Can we contain viral misinformation about coronavirus?
Is there anything we can do to contain the spread? I’m not talking about coronavirus. I’m talking about the misinformation.
The UK’s Daily Express has suggested that the World Health Organization has long known about the disease known as Covid-19. (It hasn’t: it just talked about a hypothetical pandemic scenario involving an equally hypothetical Disease X.) Other newspapers asked if satellite images showed mass cremations of Covid-19 victims. (No.)
In Kenya, audio from a training exercise was widely shared on WhatsApp, leading people to confuse the simulation with reality. Everywhere, social media posts peddle snake oil and trade in conspiracy theories.
A popular Facebook image shows that Dettol’s label claims to kill

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Book of the week 14: The Weather Machine by Andrew Blum

April 6, 2020

Book of the week 14: The Weather Machine by Andrew Blum
I was intrigued by news reports that the Met Office was planning to drop more than a billion pounds on a new supercomputer, and wondered what it was that these clever weather forecasters did with all that silicon. So I picked up Andrew Blum’s recent book, The Weather Machine.Blum starts with the weather map – and John Ruskin’s metaphor of the “weather machine”, transcending the local observations of an individual forecaster and linking together what James Gleick calls “local surprises” into a larger map. After all, one part of the weather forecasting game is straightforward: if it’s raining to the west of you and the wind is blowing from the west, you can expect rain soon. Weather forecasts begin with weather

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Why it’s too tempting to believe good news about the coronavirus

April 2, 2020

Why it’s too tempting to believe good news about the coronavirus
Wishful thinking is a powerful thing. When I read about a new disease-modelling study from the University of Oxford, I desperately wanted to believe. It is the most prominent exploration of the “tip-of-the-iceberg hypothesis”, which suggests that the majority of coronavirus infections are so mild as to have passed unrecorded by the authorities and perhaps even un­noticed by the people infected.
If true, many of us — perhaps most of us in Europe — have already had the virus and probably developed some degree of immunity. If true, the lockdowns have served a valuable purpose in easing an overwhelming strain on intensive care units, but they will soon become unnecessary. If true.
But is it true? If it is, it stands

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Remembering Peter Sinclair

April 1, 2020

Remembering Peter Sinclair
Peter Sinclair died yesterday, after many days in hospital with covid-19. It’s a heavy blow. Peter was an inspirational economics teacher and a wonderfully kind man. Peter inspired a generation of great economists and economics journalists, including Dave Ramdsen (long time head of the Government Economic Service), Camilla Cavendish, Tim Leunig, Evan Davis, and Diane Coyle, who posts her own memories. He also taught David Cameron. I’m envious of all of them because Peter left for the University of Birmingham before I had the chance to have the full benefit of his teaching. My loss, Birmingham students’ gain.
But even in a few short months he had a profound influence on me. When I was floundering in my Oxford entrance interviews – I hadn’t got a clue

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How not to lose your mind in the Covid-19 age

March 29, 2020

How not to lose your mind in the Covid-19 age
here are as many responses to the Covid-19 pandemic as there are people to respond. Some have of us have children to home-school. Some of us have elderly relatives to worry about; some of us are the elderly relatives in question. Some of us have never been busier; others have already lost their jobs.
One experience is common, however: wherever the virus has started to spread, life is changing radically for almost everyone. It’s a strange and anxious time, and some of the anxiety is inevitable. For many people, however, much of the stress can be soothed with – if you will pardon the phrase – one weird trick.
First, a diagnosis. Most of us, consciously or not, have a long list of things to do. At the virus and the lockdowns have

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Why the crisis is a test of our capacity to adapt

March 26, 2020

Why the crisis is a test of our capacity to adapt
“It’s really quiet,” said the proprietor of Oxford’s best falafel stall when I popped over to buy lunch on Monday. It is even quieter now. Meanwhile, my wife emailed friends to ask if we could help: both of them are doctors and they have three children and a parent undergoing treatment for cancer. “Thanks We will be in touch,” came the reply. No time for more. It may be quiet for the falafel man, but not for them.
There, in miniature, is the economic problem that the coronavirus pandemic has caused, even in its early stages. For everyone who is overworked, someone else has little to do but wait. The supermarkets have struggled to meet a rush of demand for some goods, but that should pass. “We are not going to run out of food,

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Book of the Week 12: The Misinformation Age by Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall

March 23, 2020

Book of the Week 12: The Misinformation Age by Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall
The Misinformation Age is a good read, although not quite what I expected. Not much on the psychology of misinformation – the backfire effect and confirmation bias, for example, are mentioned only briefly. But that’s fine: such topics are covered very well elsewhere. Instead, the book has two stylistically quite different components: some strong storytelling (and often the stories were unfamiliar to me); and a network-based analysis of the spread of information or misinformation through a nodes-and-edges graph.
O’Connor and Weatherall are interested, then, in the structure of networks that propagate information and misinformation, and spend at least as much time on expert networks (for

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Will economists ever be as good at forecasting as meteorologists?

March 19, 2020

[unable to retrieve full-text content]The UK’s national weather service, the Met Office, is to get a £1.2bn computer to help with its forecasting activities. That is a lot of silicon. My instinctive response was: when do we economists get one? People may grumble about the weather forecast, but in many places we take its accuracy for granted. When we […]

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Book of the week 11: Uncharted by Margaret Heffernan

March 16, 2020

Book of the week 11: Uncharted by Margaret Heffernan
“The sagacious businessman is constantly forecasting,” said the great economist Irving Fisher, a man thoroughly convinced of the power of data to make the future legible. Fisher transformed economics and made millions as an entrepreneur, but died in penury. He is now best remembered as the tragic figure who, shortly before the cataclysmic Wall Street crash of 1929, informed the nation: “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.”
Poor Professor Fisher appears early on in Uncharted. Margaret Heffernan’s book is less a smackdown of failed forecasts than an engaging ramble across our attempts to predict, control, explore or embrace an uncertain future. Heffernan is admired for books that question the

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Why moonshots matter

March 12, 2020

Why moonshots matter
Tim Bradshaw, head of the Russell Group of leading UK universities, has a curious tale to tell about failure. A few years ago he visited the Cambridge office of an admired Japanese company to find them fretting about the success rate of their research and development. At 70 per cent, it was far too high: the research teams had been risk-averse, pursuing easy wins at the expense of more radical and risky long-shots.
The late Marty Sklar, a Disney veteran, once told me a similar tale — if his colleagues weren’t failing at half of their endeavours, they weren’t being brave or creative enough. My boss at the World Bank 15 years ago had the same worry that too many projects were succeeding.
When the same concern arises in such wildly different contexts, we may

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Book of the Week 10: The Rules of Contagion by Adam Kucharski

March 9, 2020

Book of the Week 10: The Rules of Contagion by Adam Kucharski
All authors need a little bit of luck, and Kucharski has it with his suddenly-topical book, The Rules of Contagion.
I enjoyed this one a lot (or, strictly, am enjoying it a lot, since I’ve not finished but I wanted my review to be as timely as the book). Kucharski is a young epidemiologist with first-hand experience of the Zika outbreak, as well as a summer working in finance in the middle of the financial crisis, so is well-placed to write a lively book about contagion both of biological illnesses and of other things such as ideas.
The book is well written, plenty of nerdy ideas (Erdos-Renyi networks, for example) leavened both with practical examples and with nice pen-portraits of the scientists involved, such as

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The statistics behind the spread of ideas

March 5, 2020

The statistics behind the spread of ideas
Everyone loves a good idea. It’s even better when the idea becomes a tangible innovation, a better mousetrap that anyone can use and every mouse should fear. The awkward truth, however, is that even in a polished form, good ideas can be slow to spread.
Anaesthetic and antiseptic offer an instructive contrast. Both were developed in the mid-1800s. Anaesthetic spread faster than a hula-hooping craze. Atul Gawande explained in the New Yorker, “within seven years, virtually every hospital in America and Britain had adopted the new discovery”. Antiseptic, in contrast, took a generation to catch on.
“The puzzle is why,” noted Dr Gawande, before conceding that it is not a puzzle at all. Anaesthetic solves an immediate problem: a patient

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Book of the Week 9: Loonshots by Safi Bahcall

March 2, 2020

Book of the Week 9: Loonshots by Safi Bahcall
Loonshots is a book about “how to nurture the crazy ideas that win wars, cure diseases and transform industries” – and I should admit right off the bat that I haven’t had a chance to finish it yet, despite wanting to.
The book has a lot of strengths – some really nice accounts of the development of radar during the war, the creation of Arpa, Pixar, etc. These are case studies that you might have encountered before but the stories feel crisp and lively. Well worth reading for the potted histories alone, in fact.
I wish Bahcall had been less keen to coin new labels: P-type loonshots,  S-type loonshots, the “invisible axe” and the “Moses trap”. A few are fine, but as I skimmed ahead to the chapter about Arpa (which was excellent) I

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Why we need to disagree

February 27, 2020

Why we need to disagree
A few days after Christmas in 1978, United Airlines Flight 173 ran into trouble on its descent into Portland, Oregon. The landing gear should have descended smoothly and an indicator light blinked on to indicate all was secure. Instead, there was a loud bang and no light.
While the crew tried to figure out whether the landing gear was in position or not, the plane circled and circled. The engineer mentioned that fuel was running low, but didn’t manage to muster enough forcefulness to convey the urgency to the captain, who was focused on the landing gear. Finally, when the first officer said “we’re going to lose an engine, buddy”, the captain asked, “why?”
The plane crashed shortly afterwards. Ten people died. The lesson: sometimes we can’t bring

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Book of the Week 8: Deep Thinking by Garry Kasparov

February 24, 2020

Book of the Week 8: Deep Thinking by Garry Kasparov
Garry Kasparov’s Deep Thinking (UK) (US) is subtitled “Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins”, although on that particular point it is not especially profound. Nevertheless I’ve found it well worth a second read.
The book has two particular strengths. First, the account of account of Kasparov’s battles with IBM’s Deep Blue, which reads like a thriller. Kasparov is clearly very sore about how IBM behaved, although he has rowed back from outright claims of cheating. What he does believe is that IBM made a big song and dance about how Deep Blue was going to advance the state of artificial intelligence – while all IBM really wanted was the PR coup of victory. Victory, it turns out, was a scientific dead

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