Monday , May 17 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

Scouts, Framers, Long Life and Personal Change

7 days ago

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

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

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Cautionary Tales – The Fan Who Infected a Movie Star

10 days ago

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

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

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

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

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What does Covid teach us about climate change?

11 days ago

Like the uninspired sermon-writer who finds a way to link everything to Jesus, some commentators find a way to link everything to climate change. In December, an editorial in The Lancet medical journal on Covid-19 and climate change announced that “the causes of both crises share commonalities, and their effects are converging . . . both born of human activity that has led to environmental degradation”.

I suppose so. But as with the vicar whose odd socks remind him of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, just because the analogy can be made does not make it insightful. It is clearly true that climate change and Covid-19 are both big problems that have met with a stumbling response, but the differences between the two may be as instructive as the similarities.


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How to Change, unnoticed Noise, and paperback launch week!

13 days ago

Publication week! How To Make The World Add Up is out in paperback this week everywhere except North America. I understand that we’re on the cusp of the bestseller list in the UK, which would be a Big Deal in terms of winning attention for the book – so if you have been thinking about buying a copy or two some sometime then RIGHT NOW would be incredibly helpful. Thank you so much in advance. A wide range of online buying options are here – or of course you can stroll to your friendly local bookshop. (Incidentally, the book has been named Book of the Month by the much-bruised WHSmith Travel so if you happen to be in a railway station, or even an airport, take a look.)

Lunch with Danny Kahneman: It’s been a fun week; a few days ago I had the pleasure of a zoom “Lunch with

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What conspiracy theorists don’t believe is more important than what they do

14 days ago

Some people believe the most extraordinary things. Earth is flat, and airplane GPS is rigged to fool pilots into thinking otherwise. COVID-19 vaccines are a pretext to inject thought-controlling microchips into us all. The true president of the United States is Donald Trump; his inauguration will happen on January 20, make that March 4, make that a date to be arranged very soon.

The question “How could anybody believe this stuff?” comes naturally enough. That may not be the most helpful question, however. Conspiracy theorists believe strange ideas, yes. But these outlandish beliefs rest on a solid foundation of disbelief.

To think that Trump is actually still the president, as some in the QAnon movement do, you first have to doubt. You have to doubt the journalism

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Cautionary Tales – Whistleblower on the 28th Floor

17 days ago

(Self promotion: the paperback of How To Make the World Add Up is out next week worldwide (except North America). Please consider pre-ordering: early orders are disproportionately helpful in winning interest and support for the book. Thank you!)

Blowing the whistle on wrongdoing risks your job, your friends and even your life. So why do it?

Financial expert Ray Dirks (played by Jeffrey Wright) exposed one of the biggest corporate crimes of all time – and yet he was the one who ended up in front of the Supreme Court.

Whistleblowers often face intimidation from those they bring to justice, but also face hostility from their co-workers, new employers, the authorities and even the public. Why are we suspicious of “tattletales” and what can we do to make vital

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Covid has been a catastrophe. Might it also be an opportunity?

18 days ago

“What does not kill me makes me stronger.” Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s aphorism is inspiring — although as anyone suffering from long Covid can tell you, it is not always true. Sometimes what does not kill you just makes you weaker.

Does Nietzsche’s maxim apply to the economy? Will the catastrophic impact of the pandemic produce a great flourishing in response? Or is a disaster simply a disaster?

I’m afraid that the starting point must be to assume that the post-Covid economy will be weaker than the pre-Covid one. Recessions tend to do harm that lasts long after the recession itself has faded. Consider the job market.

Several economists have found that people who enter the job market in a recession suffer lasting damage to their incomes: they miss the

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Dungeons, Dragons, and Scouts

21 days ago

The Scout Mindset. I eagerly awaited The Scout Mindset by Julia Galef, a superb interviewer and a throughgoing disciple of the path of rationality. Galef is interested in being right, finding the truth, and all the ways in which we mislead ourselves. I was expecting, then, a discussion of concepts such as motivated reasoning, polarisation and various other ideas so prominent in How To Make The World Add Up. But Galef actually plays things differently, and the book is refreshing for that. She devotes at least as much attention to arguing the case for rationality as she does for explaining the obstacles to it. After all, if wishful thinking, blind optimism or backing your own tribe are so tempting (and apparently rewarding), someone must make the case for the lonely “scout”,

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Cautionary Tales – Masterly Inactivity versus Micromanaging

24 days ago

Why parents, politicians and doctors would be wiser to sometimes do nothing.

Lady Sale (played by Helena Bonham Carter) was part of a bloody and ignominious British retreat from Afghanistan in 1842. The arrogant colonial invaders had thought intervening in Afghan affairs and dominating the country would be easy – they were wrong. Lady Sale was among the lucky few to escape with her life.

Wiser heads later recommended “masterly inactivity” as a better course of action. In politics, parenting and even medicine – avoiding the temptation to act is a sadly neglected art form.

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

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Why we fear blood clots

25 days ago

Wrinkles and grey hairs notwithstanding, I must be younger than I had assumed. Sixty per cent of the adult population of the UK have been vaccinated with at least one dose, but your columnist is not old enough to be one of them. Who knew?

This means I still have the joys of a jab ahead of me, and I can’t wait for the sweet superpower of immunity. All the available vaccines in the UK are hugely effective at preventing severe illness, and they increasingly look as though they greatly reduce transmission too.

And yet, when the needle finally slides into my arm, I’ll have to suppress a nervous gulp. The AstraZeneca vaccine I am likely to receive, developed in my home city of Oxford, has rarely been out of the headlines — most recently because of the suspicion that it

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The best books and tweeps about data, long Kahneman interview, and other thoughts

28 days ago

Next up is Julia Galef’s The Scout Mindset which looks terrific but which I have not yet read. Meanwhile I have curated a list of the best books for thinking about data, and – seperately – some recommendations of twitter people to follow on the subject of maths and in particular maths communication and education.

In other adventures, I gave a talk – with plenty of conversation and interaction – at the World Bank & IMF, kindly hosted by the IMF library.

If you don’t have two hours to spare I suggest you change that, because Scott Barry Kaufman’s long interview with Danny Kahneman is well worth your attention. Kahneman’s interesting new book Noise gets a look-in but the podcast ranges much more widely, is fascinating and often quite moving.

Finally, Peter Sims

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Cautionary Tales – Demonising Dungeons & Dragons

April 16, 2021

How the hunt for a missing teen saw a role-playing game denounced as a demonic and deadly pursuit.

When James Dallas Egbert III was reported missing from his college dorm – one of America’s most flamboyant private detectives was summoned to solve the case. “Dallas” had many of the same problems that most teenagers face – but P.I. William Dear feared that he had fallen under the evil spell of a mysterious and sinister game…. Dungeons & Dragons.

The global panic about the dangers the role-playing game posed to impressionable young minds may seem quaint 40 years on – but again and again we show how fearful we are of creative endeavours we don’t quite understand.

Cautionary Tales is written by me, Tim Harford, with Andrew Wright. It is produced by Ryan Dilley and

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What have we learnt from a year of Covid?

April 15, 2021

We are now about a year into the ohmygosh-this-is-for-real stage of the pandemic. A time, perhaps, for taking stock of the big decisions — and whether they were wise.

To my mind, there were two big calls to be made. The first: was this virus a deadly enough threat to merit extraordinary changes to life as we know it? The second: should those changes be voluntary or a matter for politicians, the courts and the police?

The UK wavered over the first decision — long enough to ensure that the country suffered one of the deadliest first-wave outbreaks in the world. But in the end, the decision was made: this wasn’t just like a bad flu, which we should take on the chin. It was simply too dangerous to keep calm and carry on.

I have always suspected that this realisation

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Thumbs up from the US Air Force, and other news

April 13, 2021

Cautionary Tales – why organisations squander good ideas… I’ve been so pleased at all the kind comments from around the world about the new season of Cautionary Tales. If you haven’t sampled it, please do so. I love working on the scripts and the narration, but I’m always stunned by the final mix, with spectacularly gifted actors (Helena Bonham Carter, Jeffrey Wright, Alan Cumming, Archie Panjabi, Russell Tovey and a cast of thousands…)

How splendid, then, to get an endorsement from General Charles Q. Brown, chief of staff of the US Air Force. You never know who is listening…

How To Make The World Add Up – In Paperback If you are anywhere outside the US / Canada / Guam, the paperback edition of “How To Make The World Add Up” is imminent and I would be pathetically

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Announcing the paperback publication of “How To Make The World Add Up”

April 12, 2021

I’m delighted to announce that the paperback edition of “How To Make The World Add Up” is imminent – it will be published on 6th May in the UK as well as Australia, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa , and indeed anywhere else outside the US and Canada.

(Your daily reminder, with my apologies, that in the US & Canada the same book has a different title: The Data Detective.)

The book tries to distill everything I’ve learned in fifteen years of writing columns and nearly that long in presenting More or Less. I argue that numbers are an essential tool for making sense of the world – and every one of us has the ability to make sense of the statistical claims all around us. By asking a few simple questions of the numbers, and of ourselves, we can make the

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Cautionary Tales – Number Fever; How Pepsi Nearly Went Pop

April 9, 2021

Pepsi twice ended up in court after promotions went disastrously wrong. Other big companies have fallen into the same trap – promising customers rewards so generous that to fulfil the promise might mean corporate bankruptcy.

Businesses and customers alike are sometimes blinded by the big numbers in such PR stunts – but it’s usually the customers, not the businesses, who end up losing out.

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, Mia Lobel, Jacob Weisberg, Heather Fain, Jon Schnaars, Carly Migliori, Eric Sandler, Emily Rostek, Maggie Taylor, Daniella

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Technology has turned back the clock on productivity

April 8, 2021

Has the economic clock started to run backwards? The defining fact of economic history is that, over time, humans have been able to produce vastly more of whatever goods and services they value.

In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith had no doubts that the foundation of this dizzying economic growth was specialisation — the division of labour. Yet much modern knowledge work is not specialised at all. Might that explain why we all seem to be working so hard while fretting about getting so little done?

As Philip Coggan writes in his epic history, More: The 10,000 Year Rise of the World Economy, Smith’s 1776 book was not the first to note the productivity gains that resulted from specialisation. Xenophon was making similar remarks in 370 BCE.

But why does the

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In conversation with David Spiegelhalter, and the power of checklists

April 5, 2021

A few weeks ago Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter and I sat down to talk about “what do the numbers mean?”, courtesy of the Cambridge Festival. The conversation is now online – enjoy!

I am popping with delight at the news that I have been shortlisted for Journalist of the Year by the Wincott Foundation. Some of the most wonderful business and economics journalists in the world have won this award, and I’ve never been close before. I’m honoured.

The book grabbing my attention this week is Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto. It’s been on my bookshelf for years and I’ve taken delayed gratification a little too far. It is, as expected, a superlative read, full of good stories and fascinating examples, and Gawande makes a powerful case for the effectiveness of using

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Cautionary Tales – The Curse of Knowledge meets the Valley of Death

April 2, 2021

How assuming others understand exactly what we are thinking gets people killed.

Why were soldiers on horseback told to ride straight into a valley full of enemy cannon? The disastrous “Charge of the Light Brigade” is usually blamed on blundering generals. But the confusing orders issued on that awful day in 1854 reveal a common human trait – we often wrongly assume that everyone knows what we know and can easily comprehend our meaning.

Starring Helena Bonham Carter as Florence Nightingale.

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 are the work of Pascal Wyse. Julia Barton edited the scripts.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Mia Lobel,

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Late greats: why some brilliant ideas get overlooked

April 1, 2021

In 1928, Karl Jansky, a young radio engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories, began researching static interference that might obscure voice transmissions. Five years later, after building a large rotating antenna and investigating every possibility he could think of, he published his remarkable conclusion: some of the static was coming from the Milky Way.

Jansky’s theory was eye-catching enough to be published in The New York Times but scientists were unimpressed. Radio signals from outer space? Surely they were too weak to detect. Jansky’s ideas were largely ignored for about a decade. He died at the age of 44. Thankfully, he lived long enough to see his ideas blossom into the field of radio astronomy.

Jansky’s story resonates with us: we all like the idea of the

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What data can’t do, and maths without numbers

March 29, 2021

The New Yorker reviews “The Data Detective” – a wonderful essay from Hannah Fry titled What Data Can’t Do. Go for the anecdote about Tony Blair, stay for the phrase “insidious Kahnemanian swap”.

Book of the week: Math without Numbers by Milo Beckman. I picked this up to skim read because I was interviewing Beckman for More or Less. I was hooked. Of course anyone with a passing familiarity with subjects such as topology and set theory will know that there’s a lot of fascinating maths without numbers, but what is delightful about the book is less the cute concept and more the vivid clarity. I knew most of the mathematics here, but it is delightfully presented.

(I also skimmed and enjoyed the new Think Big by Grace Lordan. An old-school self-help book about living your

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Cautionary Tales – The Dunning Kruger Hijack, and Other Criminally Stupid Acts

March 26, 2021

The height of stupidity is being too stupid to know you are stupid… and it’s more common than you think.

The hijackers of flight 961 wanted its pilot to fly them to Australia – and wouldn’t listen to his pleas that there simply wasn’t enough fuel for the mammoth trip. What would cause them to totally disregard the advice of an expert when the stakes were so very high? The Dunning Kruger effect.

But being too stupid to recognise the limits of your knowledge isn’t confined to such prize idiots – it’s something we are all guilty of at times and has huge implications for society.

Starring Jeffrey Wright (Hunger Games, Westworld, and the Bond films) as Ethiopian Airlines captain Leul Abate.

Cautionary Tales is written by me, Tim Harford, with Andrew Wright. It is

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The painful politics of vaccination

March 25, 2021

It isn’t often I receive an email that makes me smoulder with rage. This one did, which was strange since it was perfectly polite. My correspondent wanted to know why he wasn’t allowed to meet his friends indoors for coffee. They were in their early seventies and vaccinated. Was there really a risk?

Inoffensive enough, you might think. But the question sat in my stomach and burned. If you want to think clearly about the world, you need to notice your emotional responses to new information. I have become so convinced of this, I made it the central point of the first chapter of my book. So it was time to take my own advice. Why was I so angry?

It may have been a quick bit of mental arithmetic. The vaccines seem to be very good at preventing serious illness — just how

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Invisible gorillas and indiscriminate doubt

March 22, 2021

What Conspiracy Theorists Don’t Believe. I was delighted to be commissioned by The Atlantic to write about why indiscriminate doubt is at least as damaging as indiscriminate belief – and in particular, that a fruitful way to think about conspiracy theorists is not by pondering the strange things they believe, but by noticing all the things they have to doubt.

Ten Rules For Thinking Differently About Numbers. I put together a mammoth thread of threads on Twitter. Not sure if this is really the way to communicate but the cool kids are doing it. If you want to saunter over and have a look (and perhaps a retweet) then please be my guest.

Book of the Week: The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris and Dan Simons. I’d read snatches of this before and had been meaning to

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Cautionary Tales – Catching a Killer Doctor

March 19, 2021

A doctor who killed hundreds of patients left us clues… but why couldn’t we see them?

Family doctor Harold Shipman got away with murdering his patients for decades. He was one of the most prolific serial killers in history – but his hundreds of crimes went largely unnoticed despite a vast paper trail of death certificates he himself signed.

Why do we sometimes fail to see awful things happening right under our noses? And how can the systems that maintain quality control in cookie factories be employed to prevent another doctor like Shipman killing with impunity?

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

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From forgeries to Covid-denial, how we fool ourselves

March 18, 2021

They called Abraham Bredius “The Pope”, a nickname that poked fun at his self-importance while acknowledging his authority. Bredius was the world’s leading scholar of Dutch painters and, particularly, of the mysterious Dutch master Johannes Vermeer.

When Bredius was younger, he’d made his name by spotting works wrongly attributed to Vermeer. Now, at the age of 82, he had just published a highly respected book and was enjoying a retirement swan song in Monaco.

It was at this moment in Bredius’s life, in 1937, that Gerard Boon paid a visit to his villa. Boon, a former Dutch MP, was an outspoken anti-fascist. He came to Bredius on behalf of dissidents in Mussolini’s Italy. They needed to raise money to fund their escape to the US, said Boon. And they had something

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Cautionary Tales – The Art Forger, the Nazi, and “The Pope”

March 12, 2021

Being clever doesn’t protect us from scams… sometimes knowledge helps us fall for an intricate deception.

“The Pope” was a revered Dutch art expert – and yet he fell for a not very convincing forgery of a “lost” Vermeer masterpiece. The forger had duped other art connoisseurs too – including the high ranking Nazi Hermann Göring. But perhaps Han van Meegeren’s biggest con was to convince the Dutch public that he was a cheeky resistance hero.

We assume knowledge and intelligence can protect us from being duped – but often they are not enough to save us from the fraudster’s greatest ally – our own wishful thinking.

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

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Why investing in data is money well spent

March 11, 2021

In 1935, officials in the British Air Ministry were trying to figure out whether it was possible to shoot down enemy aircraft with a death ray. Reader, they did not succeed. Fortunately, the effort spawned something much more useful. Robert Watson-Watt and Arnold “Skip” Wilkins of the Radio Research Station suggested a better use for radio beams: spotting incoming bombers when the beams reflected off them. The resulting radar system was indispensable in fending off the Luftwaffe five years later. When a threat approaches, it helps to be able to see exactly where it is.

The pandemic has taught us the same lesson, the hard way. Weaknesses in our information systems have been telling. The tragic failure to produce enough accurate Covid-19 tests swiftly — particularly

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The hard lessons of home schooling

March 4, 2021

This week’s meltdown involved a French test. The teacher was displaying questions on screen as a PDF document. As she scrolled down, my son started to panic: he hadn’t finished the early questions yet — and now they had disappeared from view. He raised his hand to tell the teacher but she didn’t notice. When we found him, he was trying to explain the problem to her, through sobs, while ducking out of sight of the camera from embarrassment.

Just another day of remote learning, and my children are lucky: they each have their own desk, their own room and their own computer. Their schools are well resourced. Not many can count all these blessings. Still, the cracks are starting to show.

Months ago, I worried about the grave costs of keeping schools closed. Those costs

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Cautionary Tales – Florence Nightingale and her Geeks Declare War on Death

March 3, 2021

Victorian nurse Florence Nightingale (played by her distant cousin Helena Bonham Carter) is a hero of modern medicine – but her greatest contribution to combating disease and death resulted from the vivid graphs she made to back her public health campaigns.

Her charts convinced the great and the good that deaths due to filth and poor sanitation could be averted – saving countless lives. But did Nightingale open Pandora’s Box, showing that graphs persuade, whether or not they depict reality?

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, Mia Lobel, Jacob

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