Adapt was published yesterday in the United States, and an unexpected side-effect was that for the first time, I got to be interviewed by a Pulitzer Prize winner, David Leonhardt of the New York Times:
Q. You briefly tell a story about the chef Jamie Oliver. He persuaded schools in one part of London to change their lunch menus to reduce fat, sugar and salt and to increase the number of fruits and vegetables. When two economists studied the children later, they found less illness and somewhat better school performance. That’s incredible. How much confidence should we have that the change in the menus caused the health and academic changes?
Mr. Harford: What really grabbed my attention about this incident was not, “Healthy meals help kids concentrate in school” – it was, “Wow, it takes a campaign by a TV chef to find out something like this.”
The research was carefully done by serious economists, but we could have more confidence in their findings if the project to improve school meals had been designed as an experiment. It wasn’t; it was designed for a TV show. After it started, Tony Blair, the British prime minister at the time, was falling over himself to endorse it. Yet it was a simple idea that Blair’s government could have tested out years before.
One of the main ideas of the book is that the world is full of interesting ideas that might help solve some of our big problems, but nobody really knows which of these ideas will work and which will fail. So policy makers, corporate leaders and social campaigners need to be much more open to all sorts of formal and informal experiments. Jamie Oliver created an accidental experiment. It would be nice if we spent a bit more energy doing this deliberately.