Wednesday , November 25 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

We will not understand Covid until we give up debating it

2 days ago

Confused by the contradictory claims about the dangers posed by coronavirus? Cut through the fog with this one weird trick: stop trying to win an argument.

I realise that such advice does not sit easily with the way culture has been going in Britain in general of late, and the way things have been at Westminster for as long as anyone can remember. The Prime Minister, like too many top British politicians through history, is the former president of the world’s most famous student debating society. The leader of the opposition, meanwhile, was a prominent barrister. Both men are well-used to beginning with a conclusion, and hunting for the facts to fit.

The mindset of the debater is not that of the calm seeker-of-truth. Opposing arguments are to be caricatured,

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The power of negative thinking

6 days ago

For a road sign to be a road sign, it needs to be placed in proximity to traffic. Inevitably, it is only a matter of time before someone drives into the pole. If the pole is sturdy, the results may be fatal.

The 99% Invisible City, a delightful new book about the under-appreciated wonders of good design, explains a solution. The poles that support street furniture are often mounted on a “slip base”, which joins an upper pole to a mostly buried lower pole using easily breakable bolts.

A car does not wrap itself around a slip-based pole; instead, the base gives way quickly. Some slip bases are even set at an angle, launching the upper pole into the air over the vehicle. The sign is easily repaired, since the base itself is undamaged. Isn’t that clever?

There are

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What I’ve been reading: economic comedy and the power of decency

10 days ago

Two books this week that were written by friends of mine.

First, a shout out for How To Buy A Planet by D.A. Holdsworth – a comedy about what happens when the world’s leaders decide to sell Earth to some cute aliens in order to wipe the slate clean and press ahead, debt-free. Needless to say, all does not go according to plan. Echoes of Douglas Adams in this book, which is no bad thing. Lots of fun.

Second, David Bodanis’s book The Art of Fairness (Amazon / Bookshop) is published this week. David is a very old friend of mine – the man who originally persuaded me to become a writer – and he’s been talking about writing this book since 2001. I couldn’t be more thrilled that it’s finally seen the light of day. “I’ve always been fascinated by a simple question,” he asks.

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How auction theory took the Nobel memorial prize in economics

13 days ago

If you and I were to bid against each other in a charity auction for, say, dinner with Princess Marie of Denmark, little would have to be explained about how the details of the auction work. One of us values the prospect more, would pay more, and would win.

But if you and I were bidding against each other for the joint value of the cash in our wallets, the auction becomes far more intriguing. I know only what is in my wallet and you know only what is in yours. Each of us should take a keen interest in what the other is willing to pay, since it is a clear signal of the value of the prize.

The charity auction for an evening with Princess Marie would be described by an economist as a private value auction. I have my own idea of its value, you have yours and the only

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Why the polls got it wrong

16 days ago

Irving Fisher, who a century ago was one of the most famous economists on the planet, once declared: “The sagacious businessman is constantly forecasting.” Well, perhaps. But how sagacious is it to be constantly forecasting, when the forecasts seem so often to be wrong?

Significant amounts of money, not to mention incalculable reserves of intellectual and emotional energy, were invested in the problem of figuring out who was going to win this week’s US presidential election. The polls repeatedly and consistently suggested a huge win for the Democrats’ Joe Biden. That is not how things have panned out.

What did we know beforehand? That if the polls were wrong in the same way as in 2016, the election would end up with Donald Trump very close in Florida and

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What I’ve been reading: science and magic

17 days ago

I picked up a copy of Bad Advice by Paul Offit a few months ago but have only now started to give it a proper read. Offit is a paediatrician and vaccine specialist, but the focus of this book is to discuss the importance of science and science communication. Offit is funny, and I learned quite a lot about the science of vaccines too – but the real eye-openers are the war stories he shares about his experience trying to communicate scientific ideas on network television in the US – and in particular, dealing with militant anti-vaxxers. Recommended.

Blackwells (UK) – Powells (US) – Amazon

Because I believe in delayed gratification, I’ve put off reading The Other Wind by Ursula K. Le Guin, having caught up on the original Earthsea trilogy and the fifth (?) book Tales

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Lockdown sceptics vs zero-Covid: who’s got it right?

20 days ago

Covid in the UK hasn’t been quite as polarised as Brexit or the political landscape of the United States. But it is polarised enough. At one extreme are the zero-Covid advocates; at the other, the lockdown sceptics. Who is right?

Some lockdown sceptics have advanced a variety of dishonest or deluded views over the course of the pandemic. Months ago, one correspondent wrote to assure me that the infection fatality rate was just one in 2,000. This implies 33,500 deaths if the whole UK population was infected. We have suffered 67,500 excess deaths; am I to conclude that we have all had the virus twice? Then, in what now looks like a line from a Shakespearean tragedy, there is Donald Trump’s early declaration: “One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”

But there

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What I’ve been reading: linguistic puzzles and the alchemy of advertising

24 days ago

I am a sucker for Alex Bellos books – they’re just such fun, full of unexpected ideas and charmingly written. (My very favourite is Alex’s Adventures in Numberland (in the US, titled Here’s Looking at Euclid).) His latest offering is The Language Lover’s Puzzle Book, which offers a hundred puzzles based on a variety of languages (often obscure), codes, counting systems and writing systems. If you like puzzles this is a delightful and original approach and you’ll pick up a lot of quirky delights along the way.

Rory Sutherland’s Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense gives Rory’s idiosyncratic take on life, commerce and particularly marketing. It’s very funny and full of original ideas. My favourite page is page 43, which contains this: “The trouble

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About to turn 47.2? Peak misery awaits

27 days ago

A confession: I’ve been feeling rather down of late. I am well aware that I’m not the only one. It is 2020, after all. This is a year that is finally delivering on the dystopian promises of late-20th-century science fiction. And I should be clear that by “rather down” I mean exactly that. I am basically fine, and at a time when most people have it worse, I can — and do — count my blessings.

I note all this not to beg for your sympathy, although I have found FT readers to be very sympathetic people. It is context for what follows. A few days ago, up popped a reminder that I had written myself back in January: “Blanchflower: Misery peaks at age 47.2”.

For years David Blanchflower, an economist, has been investigating the determinants of “subjective wellbeing” — by

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What I’ve been reading: a history of D&D, and a serious guide to humour

October 25, 2020

Not for the first time, I picked up Of Dice & Men: The Story of Dungeons and Dragons and the People Who Play it by David Ewalt. I’ve been researching the history of role-playing games and found Ewalt’s book a useful complement to Jon Peterson’s 720 page brick, Playing at The World. Ewalt’s writing is fluid and engaging, and he can take a paragraph to cover events on which Peterson would lavish fifty pages. (For the avoidance of doubt: I rate both books highly. They’re doing different things.)

Peterson’s book is not for the faint-hearted. It’s perfectly well written but no detail is too small to be examined. Ewalt’s book is far easier to read, but he faces another problem: his desire to make the book accessible to non-roleplayers. Naturally I skipped the first chapter of

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Should we really scream at each other about lockdowns before figuring out what the word means?

October 22, 2020

The headlines tell the story. “Thousands in Madrid to lock down”, “New Covid-19 rules for more parts of North and Midlands”, “Can a ‘circuit break’ halt the second Covid wave?”, “‘Voluntary lockdown’ plea to university’s students” and “Further Covid-19 measures ‘likely’ in London”. That is just one website — the BBC — and all those headlines were displayed simultaneously.

But despite the numerous headlines, it is far from obvious what a “lockdown” is supposed to mean, and the lack of clarity risks making a bad situation worse. The most obvious risk is that people become too confused and irritated to follow the rules. The “rule of six”, for example, was announced on the UK government’s website, but down in paragraph 11 of the press release it says it only applies in

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What I’ve been reading: everyday design and the first draft of Covid history

October 17, 2020

The 99% Invisible City by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt. A beautifully-illustrated guide to the miscellanea of our everyday surroundings. Roman and Kurt have produced a cornucopia of miniature essays on topics ranging from the slip-base (an elegant piece of design that causes traffic signs to fail gracefully and safely when someone crashes into them) to the awkward implication of Thomas Jefferson’s plan to package and sell squares of land: namely, that squares of land do not actually fit on the curved surface of the earth.

This is a delightful book to dip into. If I might be permitted a self-serving recommendation, if you like the bite-sized appreciations of easily-overlooked technologies, you might also like my own books Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy and The

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Can you put a number on it?

October 15, 2020

How far can common sense take us in the field of statistics? At first glance, not very. The discipline may be vital but it is also highly technical, and full of pitfalls and counterintuitions. Statistics can feel like numerical alchemy, incomprehensible to muggles — black magic, even. No wonder that the most popular book on the topic, How to Lie with Statistics, is a warning about disinformation from start to finish.

This won’t do. If we are willing to go with our brains rather than with our guts, any of us can think clearly about the world by using statistics. And since much of the world — from US electoral polling data to the spread of Sars-Cov-2 to the hope of economic recovery — can most reliably be perceived through a statistical lens, that is just as well.

A

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What I’ve been reading

October 13, 2020

Annie Duke, How To Decide. A workbook that talks through all the essentials of decision theory & behavioural science – the outside view vs the inside view; analysis paralysis, pre-mortems, “resulting” – while offering exercises & and self-tests. This is a book that you’re supposed to be scribbling in. It’s well-executed and Duke is a fascinating thinker, but my personal preference – since I love stories – is for her earlier book Thinking in Bets. It might well be that if you have a difficult decision or three ahead of you, you’ll get more out of How to Decide.

US: Powells UK: Blackwell’s Amazon

Jon Peterson Playing at the World. This is a seriously detailed history of Dungeons and Dragons – more than 700 pages, I think, although I’m reading on Kindle.

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My talk at Oxford’s Mathematical Institute

October 9, 2020

I spoke this week “at” Oxford’s Mathematical Institute; a great honour in the same week that one of Oxford’s finest, Roger Penrose, won a Nobel prize. Enjoy!

[embedded content]
My NEW book How To Make The World Add Up is OUT NOW!

Details, and to order signed copies from MathsGear, or from Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Waterstones.

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The Financial Times reviews “How To Make The World Add Up”

October 9, 2020

The full review, by Stian Westlake, Chief Executive of the Royal Statistical Society, is available on FT.com and was published on 6 October 2020. Some excepts below:

…Covid-19 has also cranked up our latent data-phobia. Can we trust the statistics our governments are publishing about the virus? Might track-and-trace apps unacceptably compromise our privacy? Covid even gave the UK its first algorithmic political scandal, as the grades of school leavers unable to sit exams due to lockdown were downgraded by what the prime minister described as a “mutant algorithm”.

In How to Make the World Add Up, Tim Harford, the FT’s Undercover Economist, offers us 10 rules for how to think effectively about numbers and data in a world where statistics matter more than ever. His tips

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How quick and dirty Covid tests could end the weariness

October 8, 2020

Screwtape, CS Lewis’s unforgettable devil, has this advice for crushing people who are facing a test of endurance. “Feed him with false hopes . . . Exaggerate the weariness by making him think it will soon be over.”

Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, we are starting to learn all about weariness and false hopes. It seems endless. And since a highly effective vaccine remains an uncertain prospect, is there any way we might get back to normality without one?

I think there is. The image I can’t shake off is that of the Ready Brek advertisements that have run since I was a child in the 1970s. They show children walking to school in wet and gloomy British winters shielded by a warm orange glow because they ate their porridge-adjacent breakfast.

So indulge me for a

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How to get a personalised copy of How To Make The World Add Up (time limited!)

October 2, 2020

A confession. I love Blackwell’s, the vast and labyrinthine bookshop in the heart of Oxford. I’ve read stories to my children in the nooks and crannies there, given talks, watched some unforgettable plays, bought second-hand textbooks, and many other adventures over the years.

I love them even more now. When “How To Make The World Add Up” came out, Amazon and Waterstones ordered a few to see what happened. They immediately sold out. (It turns out people are ready for a book that helps them think clearly about the world and isn’t afraid of using numbers to do it.)

But you know who didn’t sell out? Blackwell’s. They had confidence in me and my book, ordered a great big stack and were able to keep supplying readers while others scrambled to resupply. Thanks,

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The challenges of performing, online or off, in the covid age

October 1, 2020

The FT Weekend Festival, for the past few years a tented spectacular held at Kenwood House in London, is now a three-day online affair. Such are the times in which we live. It’s not all bad, of course: this week’s event boasts even more A-listers than usual and one can enjoy them from the comfort of an armchair. But the altered circumstances got me thinking about the challenges of performing, online or offline, in a post-Covid-19 world.

Things were simple — if dramatic — for a while. Theatres, music venues, corporate conferences and book festivals all shut down abruptly. Everything then turned into a Zoom video call, which was fine — for a while. When I spoke at the Hay Festival in May, there was a certain excitement about the sheer number of people who could watch.

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A survival guide for the Covid age

September 24, 2020

August, 2020. The first wave of the coronavirus pandemic has passed in the UK, and we have all been trying to figure out what to do next. One friend cancelled a trip to see her family in Greece, too anxious to face the airports. Another was all for going out for pizza on a Friday night in a crowded pub, dismissing the “fuss” about the virus.

The risks from contracting Covid-19 vary enormously — by a factor of 10,000 between the age of nine and 90. But the perceived risk varies too — from those who are terrified to those who laugh the whole thing off as a hoax, occasionally with tragic consequences.

“What I want is a survival guide for life in the age of Covid,” says another friend. He’s in his early sixties. He’s barely left his London home since March, partly

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

September 17, 2020

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

September 16, 2020

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

September 16, 2020

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

September 10, 2020

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!

September 4, 2020

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

September 3, 2020

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

August 27, 2020

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?

August 25, 2020

[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?

August 25, 2020

[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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