Friday , April 16 2021
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Tim Harford: Undercover Economist

Cautionary Tales – Number Fever; How Pepsi Nearly Went Pop

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...

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Technology has turned back the clock on productivity

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...

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In conversation with David Spiegelhalter, and the power of checklists

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...

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

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...

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Late greats: why some brilliant ideas get overlooked

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...

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What data can’t do, and maths without numbers

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...

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

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...

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The painful politics of vaccination

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...

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Invisible gorillas and indiscriminate doubt

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...

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Cautionary Tales – Catching a Killer Doctor

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...

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