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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

Pinker, Von Neumann, and how to be decent

5 days ago

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

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

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Why Covid regulations may be around longer than you think

8 days ago

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

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

For context I picked up Martin Lloyd’s lively

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Back to school

11 days ago

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

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

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

15 days ago

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

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

Anton Howes, author of Arts

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

23 days ago

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

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

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

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Espionage, assassination, and the modern factory

29 days ago

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

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Resist the temptation to overachieve on holiday

29 days ago

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

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

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The stamp at the bottom of the pyramid

August 23, 2021

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

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The joy of the humble brick

August 21, 2021

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

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Five truths about covid that defy our intuitions

August 19, 2021

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

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

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A live speech at last, and other news

August 17, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 16, 2021

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

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How to vaccinate the world more quickly

August 12, 2021

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

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

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

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

August 5, 2021

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

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

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

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4000 weeks and the clock is ticking

August 2, 2021

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

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

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Statue wars, pandemic reopening, and the art of less

July 29, 2021

Weniger, aber besser. These three words — less, but better — summarise the philosophy of the great German designer Dieter Rams. His striking designs, from Braun electronics to Vitsoe furniture, have been influential to the point of ubiquity. Apple’s original iPod clearly resembles a Rams-designed radio.

But while “less, but better” is revered by designers, it’s not the way most of us live our lives. Our homes are full of junk, our diaries are full of meetings and our attention is fragmented by dozens — hundreds? — of electronic interruptions a day. Countercultural counter-clutter manifestos have been popular: Greg McKeown’s Essentialism (get rid of unnecessary tasks and meetings), Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism (get rid of unnecessary apps and devices) and of course

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Summer maths books!

July 26, 2021

New questions have gone live on the Data Detective challenge on the Good Judgement Open website – check them out and test your skills!

I’ve found myself reading four very interesting maths books this summer.

Shape by Jordan Ellenberg – I’m speaking on a panel with Jordan at the San Diego Union-Tribune festival of books and so I thought I should catch up on his book. (He is the author of the excellent How Not To Be Wrong.) Shape argues that geometry is everywhere, and awesome. Ellenberg writes about maths with admirable clarity but he’s also genuinely funny, which is a real plus.

The Maths of Life and Death by Kit Yates. Less pandemic maths than you might fear, don’t worry! A lively tour of all sorts of mathematical ideas from catch-and-release in snails to the

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The strange temptations of phoney medicine

July 22, 2021

We puny humans just can’t seem to deal with the idea of a disease for which there is no treatment. We’ll always find something to believe in, no matter how tenuous. Since the Sars-Cov-2 virus was discovered, people have been circulating “cures”, from avoiding iced drinks (nope) to using special red soap (soap is good, its colour irrelevant).

Some speculative treatments have been pushed by politicians. The UK’s former Brexit supremo David Davis has urged the use of high-dose vitamin D supplements, while Donald Trump advocated hydroxychloroquine. Alas, a high-quality randomised trial has shown that hydroxychloroquine is not an effective treatment. Low-dose vitamin D is a useful supplement to take in winter, but there is no good evidence that high doses can treat Covid-19.

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The Tyranny of Spreadsheets

July 21, 2021

Early last October my phone rang. On the line was a researcher calling from Today, the BBC’s agenda-setting morning radio programme. She told me that something strange had happened, and she hoped I might be able to explain it. Nearly 16,000 positive Covid cases had disappeared completely from the UK’s contact tracing system. These were 16,000 people who should have been warned they were infected and a danger to others, 16,000 cases contact tracers should have been running down to figure out where the infected went, who they met and who else might be at risk. None of which was happening.

Why had the cases disappeared? Apparently, Microsoft Excel had run out of numbers.

It was an astonishing story that would, in time, lead me to delve into the history of accountancy,

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Aiming for the moon, Hard Times, and Marlon and Jake read dead people

July 19, 2021

I was delighted that the More or Less team was awarded the Royal Statistical Society’s excellence in journalism award for coronavirus reporting, and also very pleased to have been highly commended in the category of specialist journalist in the UK Press Awards. Congratulations to all the worthy winners, many of whom I am lucky to be able to count as colleagues.

My latest podcast recommendation is Marlon and Jake Read Dead People – the almost unbelievably erudite Marlon James and Jake Morrissey argue in suitably opinionated fashion about their favourite books by dead authors.

If you think there’s anything more disheartening as an author than hearing an editor rip into (of all people) Ernest Hemmingway for time-wasting, try this: the editor in question is YOUR EDITOR. I

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Why we lose track of spending in a cashless society

July 15, 2021

What looks like fraud, feels like fraud but isn’t fraud? What about a company website that pops up when you search for the government agency that issues driving licences, and charges a handsome fee for forwarding your details to the real website? Personal finance campaigners have been complaining about such sites for years, but I think there is a broader lesson to be drawn about the way we spend our money these days.

Between outright fraud and honest commerce there may be a sharp legal line — but economically and psychologically the distinction is a gradual blur. I worry that we now live in that blur, spending cash without clearly perceiving what happened.

The pandemic, with its shift to contactless or online spending, has served to catalyse the process further.

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Why do we work so hard?, and other intriguing questions

July 12, 2021

The Possiblity Club podcast – I had a good chat to Richard Freeman at the Possibility Club podcast – listen in if you wish! Brief Q&A also with the Histocrats.

Why do we work so hard? I was fascinated by James Suzman’s interview with Ezra Klein recently. He said a couple of very odd things (apparently labour income is no longer relevant, it’s all capital income?) but was enormously thought-provoking about low-work civilisations, high-work civilisations, the importance of culture, the city as the engine of desire and social comparison. All in all it made me eager to seek out his book, “Work”.

I’m speaking at the Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival in mid September – hopefully plenty of time for everyone to get fully vaccinated. Come along!

On my pile: Rationality

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Mr Spock is not as logical as he’d like to think

July 8, 2021

Mr Spock, Star Trek’s pointy-eared, nimble-eyebrowed Vulcan, is a beloved figure, especially as portrayed by the late Leonard Nimoy. He is a cultural touchstone for superior rationality. There’s just one problem: Spock is actually terrible at logic.

As Julia Galef explains in her new book on how to make better decisions, The Scout Mindset, Spock turns out to be highly illogical in more than one way. The most obvious is that Spock’s model of other minds is badly flawed.

For example, in an early episode, “The Galileo Seven”, Spock and his subordinates have crashed a small ship and face hostile aliens who kill one crew member. Spock decides to deter any further attacks by firing warning shots. The aliens respond not by retreating in fear, but by attacking in anger,

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The power of curiosity, storytelling podcasts, and other matters

July 5, 2021

I was interviewed by the EdSurge podcast on the subject of curiosity and misinformation. “It’s never been easier to fool yourself,” I said (apparently). “It’s never been easier to put yourself into a bubble, into an echo chamber. But at the same time, it’s never been easier to get really high-quality help—to ask smart questions and to go deep.”

Meanwhile I have been reading some very fine books that are not out yet, including Rutherford & Fry’s Complete Guide to Absolutely Everything and Michael Brooks’s The Art of More. Both worth a pre-order, proper reviews to follow in due course.

I also read Alan Garner’s Boneland, the sequel-that-is-not-a-sequel to brilliant children’s fantasy stories The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. I liked it, but it’s

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How not to Groupthink

July 1, 2021

In his acid parliamentary testimony recently, Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s former chief adviser, blamed a lot of different people and things for the UK’s failure to fight Covid-19 — including “groupthink”. Groupthink is unlikely to fight back. It already has a terrible reputation, not helped by its Orwellian ring, and the term is used so often that I begin to fear that we have groupthink about groupthink.

So let’s step back. Groupthink was made famous in a 1972 book by psychologist Irving Janis. He was fascinated by the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, in which a group of perfectly intelligent people in John F Kennedy’s administration made a series of perfectly ridiculous decisions to support a botched coup in Cuba. How had that happened? How can groups of smart

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Newsletter: Mathematical objects from spreadsheets to auctions

June 28, 2021

The Financial Times Magazine published my cover essay on the joys and sorrows of spreadsheets. It was great fun to write, and occasionally sobering, as I delved into the origins of Excel, the struggles of 14th century Italian merchants, the eradication of smallpox, and even quizzed Bill Gates about the 64K limit in the xls file format. (The piece will emerge on this website eventually.)

Katie Steckles and Peter Rowlett talked to me about my secret obsession, auctions and auction theory, on the Mathematical Objects podcast. Meanwhile Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast is back, and the new episode on Waymo is an absolute delight.

No book review this week, as I spent most of my reading time either on books that haven’t yet been published or that are now out

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Don’t blame GDP for a slow post-covid reopening

June 24, 2021

“As more of everyday life returns, we must not forget about the things that quietly, efficiently (perhaps almost without us noticing) offer some of the greatest benefits of all.”

Those were the words recently of Lord Sebastian Coe, twice an Olympic gold medallist and current president of World Athletics. Coe was focused on Parkruns, free weekly running events around the UK and indeed the world put on by the Parkrun charity. Although organised outdoor sports have been legal in England for many weeks now, Parkrun has been slower to be able to reopen for adults – the plan is to open on 26 June.

But Coe’s point holds more broadly: as the widely vaccinated UK continues to open up, there have been some curious discrepancies in what is possible and what is not. In recent

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How to make the world add up with Robin Ince, How to re-enter normality, and graphs of life and death

June 21, 2021

In Conversation with Robin Ince – I’ll be talking with the amazing comedian, book gourmand and evangelist for science and reason online at the How To Academy on Monday 5th July – do come along!

If you’ve devoured the amazing story of how Florence Nightingale launched a public health revolution with a pie chart (it’s in How To Make The World Add Up / The Data Detective) then you might well enjoy Hannah Fry’s bravura essay in The New Yorker on how data visualisation saves – or costs – lives.

I was so pleased to hear the brilliant economist Betsey Stevenson (a senior economic official in various roles in the Obama administration) recommend The Undercover Economist Strikes Back on the Ezra Klein show. She said, “I just recommend that book to everyone because he explains

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Intellectual property: Murderous? Sacrosanct? Or simply in need of an overhaul?

June 17, 2021

Everyone knows that intellectual property is sacrosanct, a reward for good deeds and an essential way of supporting creative endeavours. That, at least, was the response to journalist Matthew Yglesias when he suggested in March that copyright protection should be limited to 30 years, rather than 70 years after the death of the author. (I made a similar case myself in this column a few years ago.) The writer Neil Gaiman described that concept, with characteristic bite, as “enthusiasm . . . for removing income from elderly and disadvantaged authors”, and the twitterati agreed.

How strange, then, that the reaction was so different when the Biden administration surprised most of us with an expression of support for (maybe, someday) waiving Covid-19 vaccine patents. Thank

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Fear, Scouting, and when can you trust a statistic?

June 14, 2021

The Data Detective meets The Scout Mindset – I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Julia Galef, author of The Scout Mindset and one of my very favourite interviewers, on the Rationally Speaking podcast. We go deep – enjoy!

Last minute notice, but in a couple of hours I’m talking to Gillian Tett about her excellent and thought-provoking new book Anthro-Vision.

Intriguing books on my pile, which I hope to read soon: The Musical Human (Michael Spitzer, a recent Radio 4 book of the week), Journey Beyond Fear (John Hagel, amazing endorsements), The Social Instinct (Nicola Rouhani, an evolutionary psychologist explains the origins and limits of cooperation), How To Think (Tom Chatfield, and thus guaranteed to be excellent).

When can you trust statistics? I made a

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