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

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...

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Can you really change who you are?

Femi was 21 years old when he was pulled over for speeding in Colindale, London; the police charged him with a cannabis offence. It was one of several brushes with the law. But Femi changed. As Christian Jarrett writes in Be Who You Want, “Femi, or to use his full name, Anthony Oluwafemi Olaseni Joshua OBE, became an Olympic gold medallist and the two-time heavyweight boxing champion of the world, heralded as an impeccable role model of clean living and good manners.” Katy...

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Point of order! The use and abuse of debating

Back in 1992, my school friend Daniel Saxby and I stood in London in front of an audience of worthies and a panel of celebrity judges including health minister Virginia Bottomley and Tory grandee Quintin Hogg, Lord Hailsham. We battled an opposing team, debating the motion, “This house would make Scotland independent”. By the end of the evening, we had emerged triumphant — we were the best young debating pair in the UK, proud winners of the Observer Schools’ Mace. Why have...

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Why bad times call for good data

Watching the Ever Given wedge itself across the Suez Canal, it would have taken a heart of stone not to laugh. But it was yet another unpleasant reminder that the unseen gears in our global economy can all too easily grind or stick. From the shutdown of Texas’s plastic polymer manufacturing to a threat to vaccine production from a shortage of giant plastic bags, we keep finding out the hard way that modern life relies on weak links in surprising places. So where else is...

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An economist’s tips on making email work for you

What fresh torture is this? “Just resending this email to get it to the top of your inbox!” Let me stop you right there. There is no top of my inbox. My inbox is empty. At least it was before you decided to do the digital equivalent of emptying the contents of my waste paper basket all over the floor of my study. Back slowly away, if you value your typing fingers. Not a month goes by without some monstrous email habit catching on. Isn’t it about time we figured this all...

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