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Tim Harford: Undercover Economist

The strange temptations of phoney medicine

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...

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The Tyranny of Spreadsheets

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...

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

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...

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Why we lose track of spending in a cashless society

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...

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

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...

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

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....

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The power of curiosity, storytelling podcasts, and other matters

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...

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How not to Groupthink

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...

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Newsletter: Mathematical objects from spreadsheets to auctions

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...

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

“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...

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