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Tag Archives: Cautionary Tales

Cautionary Tales – The Fan Who Infected a Movie Star

(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...

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Cautionary Tales – Whistleblower on the 28th Floor

(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...

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Cautionary Tales – Masterly Inactivity versus Micromanaging

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....

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Cautionary Tales – Demonising Dungeons & Dragons

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...

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

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...

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

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...

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