Tim Harford The Undercover Economist
    “Every Tim Harford book is cause for celebration. He makes the ‘dismal science’ seem like an awful lot of fun.”
    – Malcolm Gladwell, author of “The Tipping Point”
  • Adapt – Why Success Always Starts with Failure

    “A highly readable argument... Very impressive”
    – Nassim N Taleb, author of “The Black Swan”
  • Dear Undercover Economist
    “Harford has a knack for explaining economic principles and problems in plain language and, even better, for making them fun”
    – The New York Times
  • The Logic of Life
    “Highly readable, funny and daringly contentious... a whopping good time.”
    – The San Francisco Chronicle
  • The Undercover Economist
    “Required reading”
    – Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of “Freakonomics”
Undercover Economist

Young pessimists, old optimists, and the strange ways we think about risk

Have we blown the risk of catching Covid-19 out of all perspective? Or are we not nearly frightened enough? The fashionable view is that people have become reckless. Photographs of crowded bars and beaches provide some evidence for that. So too, more worryingly, does the apparently endless swell of the first wave of infections in the US, where young people are making up a larger proportion of new infections. In hotspots such as Houston, the young make up a growing proportion of the people being admitted to hospital, too.

Peer more closely, though, and the picture is mixed. Across the world, people are fearful of schools fully reopening, despite the fact that children and parents alike badly need them. There is very little risk to children and not much evidence that schools are major vectors for infecting teachers or parents.

Yet we worry. Ola Rosling of Gapminder, an educational foundation, tells me that his international polling finds almost 85 per cent of people think it is unsafe to reopen schools. Nearly half of them think it is unsafe for the children themselves, which thankfully is untrue.

Our sense of peril will continue to evolve as we hear more stories from families who have suffered. Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist and Nobel laureate, has argued that vivid stories tend to swamp probability when we evaluate risk. A two per cent chance of dying from Covid is clearly twice as bad as a one per cent chance.

But if instead of the thin description “dying from Covid”, we tell a story about infection, family concern, fever, apparent recovery, a sharp turn for the worse, being rushed to hospital, sedated and then dying, separated from family — well, by this point nobody cares about the percentages. The risk becomes terribly real, for a while at least.

Another perspective comes from an NBER working paper with the self-explanatory title: “Older People are Less Pessimistic about the Health Risks of Covid-19”.

This study screened out people who could not answer some reasonably demanding questions about statistics, and then asked them to estimate the quantitative risks of coronavirus to themselves and to others. For example: consider 1,000 people “very similar to you” who contract Covid-19. How many will die?

A plausible estimate of the true answer is that 5-10 people will die, but also that the details depend dramatically on the age of the respondent. Objectively, the risk for people in their seventies who contract the virus is about 10 to 20 times that of the risk for infected people in their forties. The risk for people in their twenties or early thirties is so low as to be hard to estimate.

Respondents to the survey saw things rather differently. Those aged 18-34 thought 20 people “like them” would die out of every 1,000 infected. That guess is far too high. In contrast, those over 70 thought that 10 people like them would die out of every 1,000 infected. That guess is too low, although probably closer to the truth than the youthful pessimists.

Andrei Shleifer, one of the authors of the NBER paper, is confident that the finding is real, partly because other surveys have reached similar conclusions. But how to square it with pictures of young people on beaches is not clear.

Prof Shleifer speculates that the explanation is that young people do not usually think about dying at all, while elderly people have spent a little too much time at funerals to ignore the fact that we are all mortal. Covid-19 has forced everyone to think about death, but for the over-seventies that thought is not novel.

Perhaps Prof Shleifer is right. If so it underlines how strangely our minds process risks. Covid has not appreciably increased the already tiny risk of dying for those under the age of twenty five. For those over 45, already facing a variety of ways to drop dead, Covid has been a large additional risk factor. During April and May, the risk of death increased by about 50 per cent for everyone over 45 in the UK, according to calculations by Professor David Spiegelhalter.

None of this explains the insouciance in evidence among young partygoers. But that may not be so difficult to understand either. Dr Claudia Schneider, a risk-perception expert at Cambridge university, puts it simply: maybe the kind of person who likes to go out and party in a pandemic is a very different kind of character from the person answering online surveys about Covid risks.

This simple explanation points to a messy truth: we are now at the stage of the pandemic when there is a vast disparity of different attitudes and actions. Some of us are nervous and cautious; some are unafraid and reckless. I am grateful for the over-cautious: the last thing we need is a resurgence of the virus in Europe.

But our disparate perceptions of risk are creating a social minefield. To answer my original question: some of us are blowing the risk out of all proportion, some of us are not frightened enough. But all of us are going to have find a way to forge ahead together.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 10 July 2020.

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is NOW OUT. Details, and to order on Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Watersones. Bill Bryson comments, “Endlessly insightful and full of surprises — exactly what you would expect from Tim Harford.”

Receive these posts by email

(You can unsubscribe at any time)

Undercover Economist

Will the mental scars of Covid fade or endure?

My local cheesemonger, having reinvented itself as a general produce store, has been open throughout lockdown. The proprietor tells me something strange and new has started to happen. Customers he hasn’t seen since March as they diligently shielded themselves from human contact, have finally re-emerged, blinking in the daylight. What’s more, he says, they have no concept of physical distance. While the rest of us have been honing our skills for 15 weeks, these poor souls haven’t got a clue how to behave when in public.

But then, do any of us, really? We’re all still working it out. Some people wonder around maskless, sneezing, snogging, shaking hands. Others are paranoid: “Keep two metres away from me! Get out into the road!”, I saw one masked gentleman scream as a perplexed woman jogged in his direction.

It’s a reminder that there is more to this pandemic than what governments tell us to do. Each of us has our own feelings about what is safe. Those emotions have shaped the arc of the pandemic. They will also define the path of the recovery.

Consider the impact of lockdowns. Common sense suggests they have been decisive in driving the disease into retreat, but they have not been the only factor. Hand-washing, handshake-aversion and working from home began long before legal enforcement.

A working paper from the economists Austan Goolsbee and Chad Syverson tries to separate out the effect of mandatory measures from voluntary ones in the US. For example, Illinois imposed restrictions before Wisconsin did. The researchers looked at activity on either side of such borders, using cell-phone data to track journeys to shops and other businesses. They were able to gain insight into how much of shutdown was effectively voluntary. The answer: a surprisingly large proportion. “Total foot traffic fell by more than 60 percentage points,” they write. “Legal restrictions explain only around 7 percentage points of that.” The shutdown, then, was roughly 10 per cent mandatory; it was 90 per cent voluntary.

A similar message comes from a comparison of Denmark, which had a firm lockdown, with Sweden, with its notoriously light-touch approach. Aggregate spending dropped 29 per cent in Denmark and 25 per cent in Sweden. That means voluntary measures did much of the damage to the economy — and, one hopes, have delivered much of the public-health benefit too.

I wouldn’t put too much weight on the precise numbers, but the basic message is important. People didn’t lock down merely because governments told them to. Now the converse applies: just because shopping is legal again does not mean people will rush out to the shops.

In Germany, they did: Germans spent more in May 2020 than they did in May 2019, suggesting that not only were they willing to visit the shops, they wanted to make up for lost time.

That is encouraging, but only up to a point. Germany had a good crisis by western standards, with fewer than 10,000 excess deaths, compared with 25,000 in France, nearly 50,000 in Italy and Spain, and more than 65,000 in the UK. The US is currently averaging about a hundred times as many daily new cases as Germany. Perhaps Germans feel safe because they are safe. Not everyone can say that.

Once the virus is suppressed, then a sharp recovery is possible. But might this experience leave a lasting mark on our thinking? Perhaps so. The economist Ulrike Malmendier has published several studies suggesting that our early economic experiences can be formative of enduring attitudes. If the stock market is weak when we are young adults, we tend to shy away from investing, permanently. Similarly, the hawkishness or dovishness of Federal Open Market Committee members is shaped by their personal experience of inflation.

A new working paper by Prof Malmendier and Leslie Sheng Shen suggests recessions reshape consumer behaviour long after they have passed. The after-effects are wonderfully described as “experience-induced frugality” — that is, people who’ve seen periods of high unemployment save more and accumulate wealth, just in case.

Such thrift could lead to more investment, of course, but another recent paper by Julian Kozlowski, Laura Veldkamp, and Venky Venkateswaran argues otherwise. They assert that the psychological scarring is destructive, since a vivid appreciation of catastrophic scenarios will leave people fearful of making bold investments. Why risk anything in a capricious universe?

I wonder. We do learn from bitter experience, of course. But we also have a great talent for forgetting. In particular, we forget how bad things feel. The pandemic will long be remembered, but the pain will fade. After Hurricane Katrina, the US National Flood Insurance Program saw a spike in demand. Three years on, demand for flood insurance had fallen back to pre-Katrina levels.

My guess is that clever statisticians will be able to detect the psychological aftershocks of the pandemic for decades to come — but that, to a casual gaze, everyday life in 2022 will look a lot like it did in 2018. Scars do not always heal, but they fade.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 03 July 2020. My new book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is NOW OUT. Details, and to order on Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Watersones. Bill Bryson comments, “Endlessly insightful and full of surprises — exactly what you would expect from Tim Harford.”

Receive these posts by email

(You can unsubscribe at any time)


Book of the Week 28 – The Monopolists by Mary Pilon

I wanted to like this book, found the early pages a chore…. then suddenly, I found myself hooked.

Mary Pilon’s book revolves around Ralph Anspach’s legal case against Parker Brothers. Parker Brothers own the “Monopoly” boardgame; Anspach, an idealistic economics lecturer, disliked monopolies and created a superficially similar game, “Anti-Monopoly”, in which you win by breaking up corporate power. As you can imagine, Parker Brothers didn’t take kindly to the existence of a similar (?) game with a similar (?) name.

In the course of fighting the case, Anspach researched the history of Monopoly. He made the explosive discovery that the creation myth of the game – that it was sketched out by a desperately poor Charles Darrow in the depths of the Depression – is exactly that: a myth. Darrow was patiently taught the game by a friend; the friend learned it from Atlantic City Quakers, and the Quakers adapted a game in general circulation – which traces its lineage back to Lizzy Magie’s “Landlord’s Game” (1903). But would any of that help Anspach defeat Parker Brothers in court?

Pilon is a bit clunky with her economics, but there isn’t much of that – fortunately. The rest of the book is carefully researched, fascinating in the details of the history – and a total page-turner when it comes to the Anspach court case. Definitely recommended – even if you correctly think Monopoly that is a pretty creaky old game.

UK: Amazon Blackwell’s

US: Amazon Powell’s

My NEW book How To Make The World Add Up is COMING SOON. Details, and to order on Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Watersones. Stephen Fry comments, “Fabulously readable, lucid, witty and authoritative.”

Receive these posts by email

(You can unsubscribe at any time)

29th of July, 2020MarginaliaResourcesComments off
Undercover Economist

Why experiments matter and why we hate them

While the world celebrated the discovery that the steroid dexamethasone was an effective treatment for Covid-19 patients on ventilators, my physician friend was unimpressed. It was obvious that dexamethasone would work, she opined; intensive care units should have been using it as a matter of course.

Perhaps. But that is what doctors thought about the use of similar steroids to treat patients with head injuries. Logically, steroids would be so effective that a clinical trial seemed unethical. Overcoming these objections, the Corticosteroid Randomization After Significant Head Injury trial (CRASH) put the steroids to the test — only to discover that, far from being lifesavers, they raised the risk of death.

From steroids to social policy, what works and what doesn’t is often surprising. That is why rigorous experiments in real-world settings are invaluable.

This was the true contribution of the much-vaunted “behavioural insight” teams that became fashionable about a decade ago in the UK, US and elsewhere. Behavioural scientists have some useful ideas, but like doctors they are often wrong. More useful than any “insight” was the increased use of randomised trials in policymaking.

It is surprising how far one can push the idea, as Ben Goldacre describes in the International Journal of Epidemiology. Should we have had a randomised trial, in the 1960s, of whether beating boys with canes discouraged them from smoking? The idea of caning children is repugnant today, and rightly so. But then it was commonplace — so it might have been worth checking if it worked as advertised. A non-randomised study was even conducted in 1962. But as Archie Cochrane, a pioneer of evidence-based medicine, wrote, “when one thinks about it, the results do not tell us anything at all”.

There are, of course, examples of randomised trials that clearly risked harm to the participants. One 1958 experiment lured 200 children into simulated refrigerators rigged with internal video cameras; the idea was to watch what the children tried to do to escape. It is an unnerving study that distressed some children and for which no meaningful consent could have been obtained. On the other hand, it informed improvements in fridge safety that have plausibly saved several hundred lives.

A modern parallel would be a trial that deliberately infected healthy volunteers with coronavirus to see whether there was a way to trigger an immune response with a low-risk dose. Exactly this idea was proposed to me in March by a senior adviser to the UK government, who grumbled that doctors refused to approve the scheme. Unlike the toddler-in-a-fridge study, informed consent would have been easy to obtain. But otherwise the ethics are similar: a clear risk of harm to the study group, with the greater good in mind.

The idea is an old one; before we had a true vaccine for smallpox, people were “variolated” with a controlled exposure to the deadly virus. Variolation was truly dangerous, but broadly effective.

Trials of caning, fridge-escapes and variolation worry us not because of the trial but because of what is being tested. But often experiments make us uneasy for no good reason. A recent study by Michelle Meyer and others described hypothetical cases to survey respondents and asked them if the behaviour was appropriate.

Imagine, for example, a clinical director who tried to reduce hospital infections by putting up posters with a safety checklist for medical staff. No problem, right? Or imagine he or she instead puts the checklist on the back of the badges worn by doctors and nurses. Also, surely, no problem. Now imagine instead that they decide to run an experiment by randomly assigning people to be treated in a room with the poster, or by a doctor wearing the badge.

When Ms Meyer and her colleagues described one of these scenarios, few people were concerned about either the poster or the badge, but a substantial minority who were told about the randomised experiment raised objections.

It is unclear why we have this aversion to randomising between two unobjectionable alternatives. The most straightforward explanation is that people either object to the idea of being arbitrarily manipulated, or they are unnerved by the realisation that the clinical director doesn’t know what he or she is doing.

But while understandable, these are not good arguments against experimentation. If decision makers are fallible — which they are — then randomised trials are a solution to, not a symptom of, that problem. So researchers should work hard to demonstrate the trustworthiness of their experiments. Securing real consent is ethically invaluable, but it is also good public relations.

And policymakers should embrace randomisation. Steroids were surprisingly effective in treating ventilated Covid-19 patients, and surprisingly harmful in the head injuries trial. There are plenty of policy interventions with a similar capacity to surprise. The equivalent of dexamethasone for crime, or early-years education, or tax compliance, may be out there. Randomised trials, however queasy they may make some of us feel, are a good way to find out.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 26 June 2020.

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is NOW OUT. Details, and to order on Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Waterstones. Bill Bryson comments, “Endlessly insightful and full of surprises — exactly what you would expect from Tim Harford.”

Receive these posts by email

(You can unsubscribe at any time)


Book of the Week 27 – The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton

I re-read this fascinating book today to help me with a column. It’s terrific stuff: packed with memorable facts yet easy to read, counter-intuitive yet persuasive.

Books about technology tend to focus on the inventions, the cutting edge – a timeline of ‘firsts’. Edgerton argues that we should look things rather than ideas – technology as it is actually used rather than life on the technological frontier.

Technologies often stick around. Tanks and trenches robbed horses of their glorious role in the cavalry charge – and yet the Wehrmacht used well over a million horses in the second world war, where they were essential for transporation. The contraceptive pill was revolutionary, yes – but condoms existed before and they still exist now, partly because they do things that the pill does not.

William Gibson told us that the future was already here – just not very evenly distributed. But Edgerton goes further: sometimes the future arrives in a particular place and time, and stubbornly fails to be distributed; sometimes, indeed, the future disappears, leaving the past to overtake us. (The most obvious example: Concorde. But there are more subtle instances, such as the emergence of a low-tech shipbreaking industry in Gujurat.)

Strongly recommended.

UK: BlackwellsAmazon

US: PowellsAmazon

Pre-order my new book, How To Make The World Add Up, out 17 September in the UK.

Receive these posts by email

(You can unsubscribe at any time)

21st of July, 2020MarginaliaResourcesComments off

Announcing “How To Make The World Add Up”

I’m excited to announce that on 17 September, my new book will be published in the UK and around the world by Bridge Street Press. How To Make The World Add Up is my effort to help you think clearly about the numbers that swirl all around us. 

Over the past 13 years of presenting More or Less I’ve come to realise that this clear thinking is only rarely a matter of technical expertise. Instead, it requires an effort to overcome our biases, set aside our preconceptions, and see beyond our emotional reactions. We need to be open-minded without being gullible, maintaining a healthy scepticism without lapsing into corrosive cynicism. Above all, we need to keeep being curious.

I loved writing the book, trying to understand the heroes and villains of statistics, from Florence Nightingale to John Maynard Keynes. There are some strange cameos from an art forger, an erotic dancer, several alchemists and a whole phalanx of storks. I hope you’ll like it too.

(If you’re reading this in North America… sorry. The book won’t be out until February 2021, albeit with the quicker-to-say title of “The Data Detective.”)

Now comes the request for a favour… If you pre-order a copy of the book from your favourite bookseller, other people are more likely to discover it: bookshops will order more copies and place them more prominently.

So please consider doing that, for example from:


And one more treat… the brilliant folks at MathsGear will be selling signed first editions of the book, so if you want to find out more about that, sign up below for updates. (Easy to unsubscribe, and I don’t give or sell your email to anyone else.) There should be more details in a few weeks.

Receive these posts by email

(You can unsubscribe at any time)

17th of July, 2020MarginaliaResourcesComments off

Cautionary Tales – How To End A Pandemic

The eradication of smallpox is one of humanity’s great achievements – but the battle against the virus was fought by the most unlikely of alliances. How did the breakthrough happen – and can we guarantee that the world is still safe from smallpox?

Written by Tim Harford with Andrew Wright. Producers: Ryan Dilley with Peter Naughton. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Editor: Julia Barton. Publicity: Christine Ragasa.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Heather Fain, Maya Koenig, Mia Lobel, Carly Migliori, Jacob Weisberg, and of course, the mighty Malcolm Gladwell.

[Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]

Further reading and listening

The smallpox wargame is described in ‘Shining Light on “Dark Winter”.’ Tara O’Toole, Mair Michael, Thomas V. Inglesby. Clinical Infectious Diseases, Volume 34, Issue 7, 1 April 2002, Pages 972–983, https://doi.org/10.1086/339909 and more recent reflections on smallpox are at PittMed, in Wired and on CNN.

The history of variolation in Boston is from The Life and Times of Cotton Mather by Kenneth Silverman, Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi, and in particular The Fever of 1721 by Stephen Coss.

Edward Jenner’s contribution is discussed in the Lancet, and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s in Time magazine.

Ellen Laipson’s comments on Covid-19 and bioterrorism were reported by Euractiv.

Receive these posts by email

(You can unsubscribe at any time)

17th of July, 2020Cautionary TalesComments off
Undercover Economist

What will bounce back after the pandemic, and what will never be the same?

In the middle of a crisis, it is not always easy to work out what has changed forever, and what will soon fade into history. Has the coronavirus pandemic ushered in the end of the office, the end of the city, the end of air travel, the end of retail and the end of theatre? Or has it merely ruined a lovely spring?

Stretch a rubber band, and you can expect it to snap back when released. Stretch a sheet of plastic wrapping and it will stay stretched. In economics, we borrow the term “hysteresis” to refer to systems that, like the plastic wrap, do not automatically return to the status quo.

The effects can be grim. A recession can leave scars that last, even once growth resumes. Good businesses disappear; people who lose jobs can then lose skills, contacts and confidence. But it is surprising how often, for better or worse, things snap back to normal, like the rubber band. The murderous destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001, for example, had a lasting impact on airport security screening, but Manhattan is widely regarded to have bounced back quickly. There was a fear, at the time, that people would shun dense cities and tall buildings, but little evidence that they really did.

What, then, will the virus change permanently? Start with the most obvious impact: the people who have died will not be coming back. Most were elderly but not necessarily at death’s door, and some were young. More than one study has estimated that, on average, victims of Covid-19 could have expected to live for more than a decade.

But some of the economic damage will also be irreversible. The safest prediction is that activities which were already marginal will struggle to return. After the devastating Kobe earthquake in Japan in 1995, economic recovery was impressive but partial. For a cluster of businesses making plastic shoes, already under pressure from Chinese competition, the earthquake turned a slow decline into an abrupt one.

Ask, “If we were starting from scratch, would we do it like this again?” If the answer is No, do not expect a post-coronavirus rebound. Drab high streets are in trouble.

But there is not necessarily a correlation between the hardest blow and the most lingering bruise. Consider live music: it is devastated right now — it is hard to conceive of a packed concert hall or dance floor any time soon. Yet live music is much loved and hard to replace. When Covid-19 has been tamed — whether by a vaccine, better treatments or familiarity breeding indifference — the demand will be back. Musicians and music businesses will have suffered hardship, but many of the venues will be untouched. The live experience has survived decades of competition from vinyl to Spotify. It will return.

Air travel is another example. We’ve had phone calls for a very long time, and they have always been much easier than getting on an aeroplane. They can replace face-to-face meetings, but they can also spark demand for further meetings. Alas for the planet, much of the travel that felt indispensable before the pandemic will feel indispensable again. And for all the costs and indignities of a modern aeroplane, tourism depends on travel. It is hard to imagine people submitting to a swab test in order to go to the cinema, but if that becomes part of the rigmarole of flying, many people will comply.

No, the lingering changes may be more subtle. Richard Baldwin, author of The Globotics Upheaval, argues that the world has just run a massive set of experiments in telecommuting. Some have been failures, but the landscape of possibilities has changed. If people can successfully work from home in the suburbs, how long before companies decide they can work from low-wage economies in another timezone?

The crisis will also spur automation. Robots do not catch coronavirus and are unlikely to spread it; the pandemic will not conjure robot barbers from thin air, but it has pushed companies into automating where they can. Once automated, those jobs will not be coming back.

Some changes will be welcome — a shock can jolt us out of a rut. I hope that we will strive to retain the pleasures of quiet streets, clean air and communities looking out for each other.

But there will be scars that last, especially for the young. People who graduate during a recession are at a measurable disadvantage relative to those who are slightly older or younger. The harm is larger for those in disadvantaged groups, such as racial minorities, and it persists for many years. And children can suffer long-term harm when they miss school. Those who lack computers, books, quiet space and parents with the time and confidence to help them study are most vulnerable. Good-quality schooling is supposed to last a lifetime; its absence may be felt for a lifetime, too.

This crisis will not last for decades, but some of its effects will.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 5 June 2020.

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is NOW OUT. Details, and to order on Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Waterstones. Bill Bryson comments, “Endlessly insightful and full of surprises — exactly what you would expect from Tim Harford.”

Receive these posts by email

(You can unsubscribe at any time)

Other Writing

Book of the Week 26 – How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell

This thoughtful – and thought-provoking – book takes on a different undertone when read in the light of lockdown. Odell takes her time describing her slow meanderings around the Rose Garden in Oakland, California, sitting and listening to birdsong. Last year that might have felt slightly quirky; this year, we’ve all been doing it.

I was expecting Odell’s book to be something like Cal Newport’s excellent Digital Minimalism, a book I absolutely loved for it’s practically-minded reframing of our troubled relationship with technology.

But Odell is trying to do something different – to reflect on the political and economic structures that surround us and try to monetise our attention. (I don’t think Newport ever used the word ‘neoliberalism’; it springs naturally to Odell’s pen.) I wasn’t won over by this, but perhaps I’m starting in too different a place. For example, when Odell quotes Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”, I really don’t grasp what she’s driving at. Evidently I need to read Audre Lorde’s words in their original context.

If you approach this book hoping for a self-help manual you may be disappointed. (Try Newport.) But you may well enjoy it if you approach it for what it is – an extended reflection on nature, humanity and the challenges of the society we have built, from a thoughtful and politically engaged artist and technology writer.

UK: AmazonBlackwell’s

US: AmazonPowell’s

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is NOW OUT. Details, and to order on Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Watersones. Bill Bryson comments, “Endlessly insightful and full of surprises — exactly what you would expect from Tim Harford.”

Receive these posts by email

(You can unsubscribe at any time)

14th of July, 2020Other WritingComments off

Cautionary Tales – That Turn to Pascagoula

For years, people had warned that New Orleans was vulnerable – but when a hurricane came close to destroying the city, the reaction was muted. Some people took the near miss as a warning – others, as confirmation that there was nothing to worry about.

So why do we struggle to prepare for disasters? And why don’t we draw the obvious lessons from clear warnings?

Written by Tim Harford with Andrew Wright. Producers: Ryan Dilley with Marilyn Rust. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Editor: Julia Barton. Publicity: Christine Ragasa.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Heather Fain, Maya Koenig, Mia Lobel, Carly Migliori, Jacob Weisberg, and of course, the mighty Malcolm Gladwell.

[Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]

Further reading and listening

I first read about Hurricane Ivan in The Ostrich Paradox by Howard Kunreuther and Robert Meyer, and other forebodings of disaster are recounted in Predictable Surprises by Max Bazerman and Michael Watkins.

The story of Meaher Patrick Turner is vividly told by Amanda Ripley in The Unthinkable. All three books are strongly recommended.

Here is Meaher Patrick Turner’s obituary.

Warnings of disaster in the Houston Chronicle, The New Orleans Times-Picayune, and USA Today.

California’s stockpile was covered in the Los Angeles Times, and the UK’s pandemic preparation by New Statesman and Tortoise Media.

Margaret Heffernan’s Willful Blindness discusses the problems with the post-Katrina pumps, as did The Guardian.

This podcast was based on ideas I first worked through for the Financial Times Magazine in a piece titled Why We Fail To Prepare For Disasters.

Receive these posts by email

(You can unsubscribe at any time)

10th of July, 2020Cautionary TalesComments off