Tuesday , September 22 2020
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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

Statistics, lies and the virus: five lessons from a pandemic

5 days ago

My new book, “How To Make The World Add Up“, is published today in the UK and around the world (except US/Canada).

Will this year be 1954 all over again? Forgive me, I have become obsessed with 1954, not because it offers another example of a pandemic (that was 1957) or an economic disaster (there was a mild US downturn in 1953), but for more parochial reasons. Nineteen fifty-four saw the appearance of two contrasting visions for the world of statistics — visions that have shaped our politics, our media and our health. This year confronts us with a similar choice.

The first of these visions was presented in How to Lie with Statistics, a book by a US journalist named Darrell Huff. Brisk, intelligent and witty, it is a little marvel of numerical communication. The book

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Don’t rely on algorithms to make life-changing decisions

6 days ago

NEWS! My new book, “How To Make The World Add Up“, is out tomorrow around the world (except US / Canada). Ordering a copy early, online or from your local bookshop is enormously helpful: it prods review interest, encourages physical bookshops to order and display the book, and so I am especially grateful forearly orders. More information here – including a chance to buy signed copies.

The governments of England and Scotland have fed the hopes and dreams of students into a paper shredder, yanked out the tatters and handed them to university administrators with instructions to tape everything back together. The fiasco of algorithmically assigned exam grades is a nightmare for pupils, a huge embarrassment for those in charge and should be a cautionary tale for the rest of

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Cautionary Tales – Storks, Smoking and the Power of Doubt

6 days ago

My new book, “How To Make The World Add Up“, is out tomorrow around the world (except US / Canada).

Ordering a copy early, online or from your local bookshop is enormously helpful: it prods review interest, encourages physical bookshops to order and display the book, and so I am especially grateful forearly orders. More information here – including a chance to buy signed copies.

Meanwhile – enjoy this mini-episode of Cautionary Tales, inspired by my book, produced by Ryan Dilley and with music and sound design by Pascal Wyse. We are all back in the studio working hard on a mammoth 14-episode second series; stay tuned.

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We won’t remember much of what we did in the pandemic

12 days ago

NEWS! My new book, “How To Make The World Add Up“, is out next week around the world (except US / Canada). Pre-ordering a copy online or from your local bookshop is enormously helpful: it prods review interest, encourages physical bookshops to order and display the book, and so I am especially grateful for pre-orders. More information here – including a chance to order signed copies.

When my mind wanders these days, I’ve noticed that it wanders to odd places — namely, far-off hotel rooms. Zurich, late last summer: the hotel was on the wrong side of the tracks but the room had big windows on two walls. Dallas, a few years back: the hotel had a huge atrium with a model railway; I ironed my shirt while listening to a podcast about the late-blooming composer Leoš

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I’m speaking (online, mostly) – tune in!

18 days ago

Upcoming events in support of the “How To Make The World Add Up” book tour.

Saturday 5th September, 7,10pm BST The Data Detectives – a session with FT data visualisation wizard, John Burn-Murdoch, at the FT Weekend Festival online.

Monday 7th September, 2.35pm BST – recording a special epsiode of Stats + Stories as a live session at the Royal Statistical Society annual conference, online. (You should be able to listen to the podcast in due course.)

Friday 11th September, 10am BST – giving a seminar to a live audience (what a pleasure that will be) at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism Summer School. The session is open to all and streamed online.

Monday 14th September, 6pm BST – with David Spiegelhalter and Hannah Fry, at Intelligence Squared

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We fall in love with the new, but not everything old is obsolete

19 days ago

The Boeing 747 took another step towards retirement recently. British Airways, the operator of the largest fleet of passenger 747s, announced that the distinctive aeroplane would not be returning to service after the pandemic. For all the rightful concern about the environmental cost of long-haul travel, the plane will be missed by passengers and pilots alike.

Mark Vanhoenacker, pilot and writer, describes the plane as “370 tonnes of aviation legend”. The first time I rode on the top deck of a 747, my own excitement was more childlike — but still surely justified. Modified 747s carried the Space Shuttle around on their backs, and have served as the official plane for US presidents since the time of George HW Bush. It is an iconic design.

But what is often overlooked

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Rats, mazes, and the power of self-fulfilling prophecies

26 days ago

It’s 1963. A young psychologist named Bob Rosenthal conducts an experiment in which his assistants place rats in mazes, and then time how long it takes the rats to find the exit. They are housed in two cages: one for the smartest rats and one for rodent mediocrities. The assistants are not surprised to find that the smart rats solve the mazes more quickly.

Their supervisor is — because he knows that in truth, both cages contain ordinary lab rats. Prof Rosenthal — he would go on to chair Harvard’s psychology department — eventually concluded that the secret ingredient was the expectations of his assistants: they treated the “special” rats with care and handled the “stupid” rats with disdain. When we expect the best, we get the best — even if we expect it of a rat.

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How many buses to the dinosaur?

28 days ago

[embedded content]
I had fun with Matt Parker – the world’s best Stand Up Mathematician – making this video about bad number analogies, and how to use “landmark numbers” to make the world add up.
To pre-order signed copies of “How To Make The World Add Up”, do please head over to MathsGear.

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Do storks deliver babies?

28 days ago

[unable to retrieve full-text content]I spoke to Brady Haran of Numberphile about one of the most famous stories in statistics – and there’s an unpleasant twist, I’m afraid. To pre-order signed copies of “How To Make The World Add Up”, do please head over to MathsGear.

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Young pessimists, old optimists, and the strange ways we think about risk

August 6, 2020

Young pessimists, old optimists, and the strange ways we think about risk

Have we blown the risk of catching Covid-19 out of all perspective? Or are we not nearly frightened enough? The fashionable view is that people have become reckless. Photographs of crowded bars and beaches provide some evidence for that. So too, more worryingly, does the apparently endless swell of the first wave of infections in the US, where young people are making up a larger proportion of new infections. In hotspots such as Houston, the young make up a growing proportion of the people being admitted to hospital, too.

Peer more closely, though, and the picture is mixed. Across the world, people are fearful of schools fully reopening, despite the fact that children and parents alike badly need

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Will the mental scars of Covid fade or endure?

July 30, 2020

Will the mental scars of Covid fade or endure?

My local cheesemonger, having reinvented itself as a general produce store, has been open throughout lockdown. The proprietor tells me something strange and new has started to happen. Customers he hasn’t seen since March as they diligently shielded themselves from human contact, have finally re-emerged, blinking in the daylight. What’s more, he says, they have no concept of physical distance. While the rest of us have been honing our skills for 15 weeks, these poor souls haven’t got a clue how to behave when in public.

But then, do any of us, really? We’re all still working it out. Some people wonder around maskless, sneezing, snogging, shaking hands. Others are paranoid: “Keep two metres away from me! Get out into the

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Book of the Week 28 – The Monopolists by Mary Pilon

July 29, 2020

Book of the Week 28 – The Monopolists by Mary Pilon

I wanted to like this book, found the early pages a chore…. then suddenly, I found myself hooked.

Mary Pilon’s book revolves around Ralph Anspach’s legal case against Parker Brothers. Parker Brothers own the “Monopoly” boardgame; Anspach, an idealistic economics lecturer, disliked monopolies and created a superficially similar game, “Anti-Monopoly”, in which you win by breaking up corporate power. As you can imagine, Parker Brothers didn’t take kindly to the existence of a similar (?) game with a similar (?) name.

In the course of fighting the case, Anspach researched the history of Monopoly. He made the explosive discovery that the creation myth of the game – that it was sketched out by a desperately poor Charles

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Why experiments matter and why we hate them

July 23, 2020

Why experiments matter and why we hate them
While the world celebrated the discovery that the steroid dexamethasone was an effective treatment for Covid-19 patients on ventilators, my physician friend was unimpressed. It was obvious that dexamethasone would work, she opined; intensive care units should have been using it as a matter of course.
Perhaps. But that is what doctors thought about the use of similar steroids to treat patients with head injuries. Logically, steroids would be so effective that a clinical trial seemed unethical. Overcoming these objections, the Corticosteroid Randomization After Significant Head Injury trial (CRASH) put the steroids to the test — only to discover that, far from being lifesavers, they raised the risk of death.
From steroids to social

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Book of the Week 27 – The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton

July 21, 2020

Book of the Week 27 – The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton

I re-read this fascinating book today to help me with a column. It’s terrific stuff: packed with memorable facts yet easy to read, counter-intuitive yet persuasive.

Books about technology tend to focus on the inventions, the cutting edge – a timeline of ‘firsts’. Edgerton argues that we should look things rather than ideas – technology as it is actually used rather than life on the technological frontier.

Technologies often stick around. Tanks and trenches robbed horses of their glorious role in the cavalry charge – and yet the Wehrmacht used well over a million horses in the second world war, where they were essential for transporation. The contraceptive pill was revolutionary, yes – but condoms existed

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Announcing “How To Make The World Add Up”

July 17, 2020

Announcing “How To Make The World Add Up”

I’m excited to announce that on 17 September, my new book will be published in the UK and around the world by Bridge Street Press. How To Make The World Add Up is my effort to help you think clearly about the numbers that swirl all around us. 

Over the past 13 years of presenting More or Less I’ve come to realise that this clear thinking is only rarely a matter of technical expertise. Instead, it requires an effort to overcome our biases, set aside our preconceptions, and see beyond our emotional reactions. We need to be open-minded without being gullible, maintaining a healthy scepticism without lapsing into corrosive cynicism. Above all, we need to keeep being curious.

I loved writing the book, trying to

Read More »

Announcing “How To Make The World Add Up”

July 17, 2020

Announcing “How To Make The World Add Up”

I’m excited to announce that on 17 September, my new book will be published in the UK and around the world by Bridge Street Press. How To Make The World Add Up is my effort to help you think clearly about the numbers that swirl all around us. 

Over the past 13 years of presenting More or Less I’ve come to realise that this clear thinking is only rarely a matter of technical expertise. Instead, it requires an effort to overcome our biases, set aside our preconceptions, and see beyond our emotional reactions. We need to be open-minded without being gullible, maintaining a healthy scepticism without lapsing into corrosive cynicism. Above all, we need to keeep being curious.

I loved writing the book, trying to

Read More »

Cautionary Tales – How To End A Pandemic

July 17, 2020

The eradication of smallpox is one of humanity’s great achievements – but the battle against the virus was fought by the most unlikely of alliances. How did the breakthrough happen – and can we guarantee that the world is still safe from smallpox?

Written by Tim Harford with Andrew Wright. Producers: Ryan Dilley with Peter Naughton. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Editor: Julia Barton. Publicity: Christine Ragasa.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Heather Fain, Maya Koenig, Mia Lobel, Carly Migliori, Jacob Weisberg, and of course, the mighty Malcolm Gladwell.

[Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]

Further reading and listening

The smallpox wargame is described in ‘Shining Light on “Dark Winter”.’ Tara O’Toole, Mair Michael, Thomas V.

Read More »

Cautionary Tales – How To End A Pandemic

July 17, 2020

The eradication of smallpox is one of humanity’s great achievements – but the battle against the virus was fought by the most unlikely of alliances. How did the breakthrough happen – and can we guarantee that the world is still safe from smallpox?

Written by Tim Harford with Andrew Wright. Producers: Ryan Dilley with Peter Naughton. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Editor: Julia Barton. Publicity: Christine Ragasa.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Heather Fain, Maya Koenig, Mia Lobel, Carly Migliori, Jacob Weisberg, and of course, the mighty Malcolm Gladwell.

[Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]

Further reading and listening

The smallpox wargame is described in ‘Shining Light on “Dark Winter”.’ Tara O’Toole, Mair Michael, Thomas V.

Read More »

What will bounce back after the pandemic, and what will never be the same?

July 16, 2020

What will bounce back after the pandemic, and what will never be the same?
In the middle of a crisis, it is not always easy to work out what has changed forever, and what will soon fade into history. Has the coronavirus pandemic ushered in the end of the office, the end of the city, the end of air travel, the end of retail and the end of theatre? Or has it merely ruined a lovely spring?
Stretch a rubber band, and you can expect it to snap back when released. Stretch a sheet of plastic wrapping and it will stay stretched. In economics, we borrow the term “hysteresis” to refer to systems that, like the plastic wrap, do not automatically return to the status quo.
The effects can be grim. A recession can leave scars that last, even once growth resumes. Good businesses disappear;

Read More »

What will bounce back after the pandemic, and what will never be the same?

July 16, 2020

What will bounce back after the pandemic, and what will never be the same?
In the middle of a crisis, it is not always easy to work out what has changed forever, and what will soon fade into history. Has the coronavirus pandemic ushered in the end of the office, the end of the city, the end of air travel, the end of retail and the end of theatre? Or has it merely ruined a lovely spring?
Stretch a rubber band, and you can expect it to snap back when released. Stretch a sheet of plastic wrapping and it will stay stretched. In economics, we borrow the term “hysteresis” to refer to systems that, like the plastic wrap, do not automatically return to the status quo.
The effects can be grim. A recession can leave scars that last, even once growth resumes. Good businesses disappear;

Read More »

Book of the Week 26 – How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell

July 14, 2020

Book of the Week 26 – How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell

This thoughtful – and thought-provoking – book takes on a different undertone when read in the light of lockdown. Odell takes her time describing her slow meanderings around the Rose Garden in Oakland, California, sitting and listening to birdsong. Last year that might have felt slightly quirky; this year, we’ve all been doing it.

I was expecting Odell’s book to be something like Cal Newport’s excellent Digital Minimalism, a book I absolutely loved for it’s practically-minded reframing of our troubled relationship with technology.

But Odell is trying to do something different – to reflect on the political and economic structures that surround us and try to monetise our attention. (I don’t think Newport ever used

Read More »

Book of the Week 26 – How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell

July 14, 2020

Book of the Week 26 – How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell

This thoughtful – and thought-provoking – book takes on a different undertone when read in the light of lockdown. Odell takes her time describing her slow meanderings around the Rose Garden in Oakland, California, sitting and listening to birdsong. Last year that might have felt slightly quirky; this year, we’ve all been doing it.

I was expecting Odell’s book to be something like Cal Newport’s excellent Digital Minimalism, a book I absolutely loved for it’s practically-minded reframing of our troubled relationship with technology.

But Odell is trying to do something different – to reflect on the political and economic structures that surround us and try to monetise our attention. (I don’t think Newport ever used

Read More »

Cautionary Tales – That Turn to Pascagoula

July 10, 2020

For years, people had warned that New Orleans was vulnerable – but when a hurricane came close to destroying the city, the reaction was muted. Some people took the near miss as a warning – others, as confirmation that there was nothing to worry about.

So why do we struggle to prepare for disasters? And why don’t we draw the obvious lessons from clear warnings?

Written by Tim Harford with Andrew Wright. Producers: Ryan Dilley with Marilyn Rust. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Editor: Julia Barton. Publicity: Christine Ragasa.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Heather Fain, Maya Koenig, Mia Lobel, Carly Migliori, Jacob Weisberg, and of course, the mighty Malcolm Gladwell.

[Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]

Further reading and

Read More »

Cautionary Tales – That Turn to Pascagoula

July 10, 2020

For years, people had warned that New Orleans was vulnerable – but when a hurricane came close to destroying the city, the reaction was muted. Some people took the near miss as a warning – others, as confirmation that there was nothing to worry about.

So why do we struggle to prepare for disasters? And why don’t we draw the obvious lessons from clear warnings?

Written by Tim Harford with Andrew Wright. Producers: Ryan Dilley with Marilyn Rust. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Editor: Julia Barton. Publicity: Christine Ragasa.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Heather Fain, Maya Koenig, Mia Lobel, Carly Migliori, Jacob Weisberg, and of course, the mighty Malcolm Gladwell.

[Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]

Further reading and

Read More »

What countries can – and can’t – learn from each other

July 9, 2020

What countries can – and can’t – learn from each other

Brazil has lost two health ministers; their replacement is a general. The country now probably has the highest prevalence of active coronavirus infections in the world.

South Korea was briefly the worst hit country outside China. It has suppressed the virus, albeit with myriad curtailments of everyday life. Just 280 people have died in total. In the UK in mid April, that death toll would have been reached each morning before breakfast.

Vietnam went in hard, early, rapidly restricting movement and introducing a vigorous contact-tracing programme. There have been a few hundred confirmed cases and no deaths.

Germany rolled out a massive, decentralised testing and contact-tracing programme to help slow the spread

Read More »

What countries can – and can’t – learn from each other

July 9, 2020

What countries can – and can’t – learn from each other

Brazil has lost two health ministers; their replacement is a general. The country now probably has the highest prevalence of active coronavirus infections in the world.

South Korea was briefly the worst hit country outside China. It has suppressed the virus, albeit with myriad curtailments of everyday life. Just 280 people have died in total. In the UK in mid April, that death toll would have been reached each morning before breakfast.

Vietnam went in hard, early, rapidly restricting movement and introducing a vigorous contact-tracing programme. There have been a few hundred confirmed cases and no deaths.

Germany rolled out a massive, decentralised testing and contact-tracing programme to help slow the spread

Read More »

Book of the Week 25 – A Man for All Markets by Edward Thorp

July 6, 2020

Book of the Week 25 – A Man for All Markets by Edward Thorp

Edward O. Thorp is a remarkable chap, and so this is a remarkable autobiography. A Depression-era child whose parents were smart but desperately poor, young Thorp took part-time jobs so that he could buy raw materials. As a boy, he made his own gunpowder, pipe-bombs, rockets, rocket-powered toy cars, and even nitro-glycerine. Discovering a powerful dye, aniline red, he used it to turn his local swimming pool a satisfying blood-red colour, earning the headline in the local newspaper, “Unknown Pranksters Dye Long Beach Plunge Red.”

By 1960 Thorp was a young maths professor at MIT and the headlines had migrated to the Washington Post: “You Can So Beat the Gambling House at Blackjack, Math Expert Insists.” Thorp was

Read More »

Book of the Week 25 – A Man for All Markets by Edward Thorp

July 6, 2020

Book of the Week 25 – A Man for All Markets by Edward Thorp

Edward O. Thorp is a remarkable chap, and so this is a remarkable autobiography. A Depression-era child whose parents were smart but desperately poor, young Thorp took part-time jobs so that he could buy raw materials. As a boy, he made his own gunpowder, pipe-bombs, rockets, rocket-powered toy cars, and even nitro-glycerine. Discovering a powerful dye, aniline red, he used it to turn his local swimming pool a satisfying blood-red colour, earning the headline in the local newspaper, “Unknown Pranksters Dye Long Beach Plunge Red.”

By 1960 Thorp was a young maths professor at MIT and the headlines had migrated to the Washington Post: “You Can So Beat the Gambling House at Blackjack, Math Expert Insists.” Thorp was

Read More »

Cautionary Tales – The Village of Heroes

July 3, 2020

Not far from where I grew up, there’s a village called Eyam with a story to tell – a story of a plague, and of tragedy, and of heroism.

That old tale sits easily with stories of our modern response to the pandemic: too many people seem unwilling to suffer the slightest inconvenience to help others.

Has human nature really changed so much? Or might it be that the old story, and the new ones, are leading us astray?

Written by Tim Harford with Andrew Wright. Producers: Ryan Dilley with Marilyn Rust. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Editor: Julia Barton. Publicity: Christine Ragasa.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Heather Fain, Maya Koenig, Mia Lobel, Carly Migliori, Jacob Weisberg, and of course, the mighty Malcolm Gladwell.

Read More »

Cautionary Tales – The Village of Heroes

July 3, 2020

Not far from where I grew up, there’s a village called Eyam with a story to tell – a story of a plague, and of tragedy, and of heroism.

That old tale sits easily with stories of our modern response to the pandemic: too many people seem unwilling to suffer the slightest inconvenience to help others.

Has human nature really changed so much? Or might it be that the old story, and the new ones, are leading us astray?

Written by Tim Harford with Andrew Wright. Producers: Ryan Dilley with Marilyn Rust. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Editor: Julia Barton. Publicity: Christine Ragasa.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Heather Fain, Maya Koenig, Mia Lobel, Carly Migliori, Jacob Weisberg, and of course, the mighty Malcolm Gladwell.

Read More »