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How to Make the World Add Up, By Tim Harford

Characteristic lucidity, concealed intellectual depths, wry humour - and a big unifying idea - from one of our finest economic and statistical communicators

Ben Chu
Economics Editor
Tuesday 17 November 2020 09:52

In 2007 Andrew Dilnot and Michael Blastland, the co-creators of BBC Radio 4’s More or Less produced a book, aimed at the general public, on how to make sense of the numbers in the news called The Tiger That Isn’t. Dilnot and Blastland’s book was a wonderfully accessible and mind-broadening read, drawing heavily on More or Less case studies, showing how the numbers and statistics bandied around in the public realm can mislead.

Now, in 2020, Tim Harford, the current presenter of the show (which has reached new heights of fame and distinction by guiding the British public through the blinding blizzard of numbers and statistical claims in the coronavirus pandemic) has done something similar with How To Make The World Add Up.  The question is whether Harford’s take, 13 years on, also mining his public service broadcasting experience and many years writing about these same issues in the Financial Times, adds anything.

Happily, the answer is yes.  Some of the same ground is certainly covered – warnings about the cherry-picked figure, the misrepresented study, the strong claim built on weak statistical foundations and so on. And there’s nothing wrong with that – these are lessons that should be absorbed by any citizen in today’s number-saturated public realm. Like the demagogue’s simplistic slogan, they bear repeating!

And Harford’s book, of course, has more than a decade of fresh cautionary tales from our troubled era of social media, big data, algorithmic mayhem, and “alternative facts” on which to draw. But where Harford’s book, for me, adds most value is through its thoughtful inquiry into how we can overcome our well-established tendency, even willingness, to be sucked in by dubious and erroneous claims.

The current vogue in publishing is for “rule” books – x rules to do y etc. And Harford grabs the coattails of the trend, giving us 10 rules for thinking differently about numbers in the news, ranging from “check your feelings”, to “ponder your personal experience”, to “keep an open mind”.  

Described like that, of course, they sound banal but Harford explains with his characteristic lucidity, concealed intellectual depths and wry humour why they’re decent rules of thumb for the typical consumer of news and information who is prone to politically-motivated reasoning, confirmation bias and all the rest of the gamut of psychological pitfalls.

Though, as Harford admits, no one remembers 10 rules, which is why he comes up with a “golden rule” to rule them all. Which is: be curious.

Harford posits that the antidote to the poison of our politically polarised world, where numbers and statistics are often used as culture war cudgels rather than tools with which to mutually build a better understanding of our lives, is curiosity.

He cites work by Dan Kahan, a psychology researcher at Yale University, which suggests people with different political views who are more scientifically curious about how the world actually works – preferring to find something out rather than have their prejudices reinforced – seem to be better able to engage civilly with each other and agree about basic standards of evidence for claims.

So, for Harford, the way out of the rancorous political and social mess we’re in is not to tell people they’re wrong, but to engage their curiosity.

Put away the fact check, the denunciation, and break out the stories, the history, the science. Do, you might say, what Harford does.

I’m attracted to the idea. But how well founded are Kahan’s claims? Curiosity isn’t a clear-cut individual trait, like whether someone smokes, or whether they’re obese? Does he measure it in a reasonable way? Is this a finding that transfers across different cultures? Have any other studies found something similar?

Is there any evidence to support the contention that stimulating peoples’ curiosity can, ultimately, reduce political animosity? And how powerful would it be relative to other proferred solutions such as policing social media for misinformation, re-imposing impartiality requirements on US TV networks, or merely waiting for an angry and often willfully-misinformed older generation to fade away over time?

I’m inspired but also sceptical about the big claim in Harford’s book. And I’m pretty sure, having read it carefully, that he’ll be pleased about that.

How to Make the World Add Up by Tim Harford is published by the Bridge Street Press, £20 

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