Wednesday , October 28 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

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

3 days ago

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?

6 days ago

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

11 days ago

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?

13 days ago

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

15 days ago

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

19 days ago

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”

19 days ago

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

20 days ago

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!)

26 days ago

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

27 days ago

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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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.

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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;

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