The Financial Times reviews “How To Make The World Add Up”

9th October, 2020

The full review, by Stian Westlake, Chief Executive of the Royal Statistical Society, is available on and was published on 6 October 2020. Some excepts below:

…Covid-19 has also cranked up our latent data-phobia. Can we trust the statistics our governments are publishing about the virus? Might track-and-trace apps unacceptably compromise our privacy? Covid even gave the UK its first algorithmic political scandal, as the grades of school leavers unable to sit exams due to lockdown were downgraded by what the prime minister described as a “mutant algorithm”.

In How to Make the World Add Up, Tim Harford, the FT’s Undercover Economist, offers us 10 rules for how to think effectively about numbers and data in a world where statistics matter more than ever. His tips are refreshingly human, and grounded as much in common sense as quantitative wizardry…

…Harford is at pains to point out that responsible statistical practice is about more than keeping the dodgy numbers out. He explicitly contrasts his book with Darrell Huff’s classic How to Lie with Statistics — said to be the best-selling statistics book ever, published in 1954 and still in print. For Huff, statistics were a cute trick, mainly useful for politicians and advertisers to pull the wool over people’s eyes. Harford takes a more positive view: the right statistics can be a force for good, and we should delight in their usefulness.

The rules are wise and useful, and should be taken to heart by anyone who deals with numbers and data. But what makes this book such a delight are two other, more unexpected qualities. The first is Harford’s entertaining sense of mischief, which lends a twist to several of the stories in the book…

…The book’s other distinctive virtue is a beguiling sense of curiosity that manifests itself in the range of captivating anecdotes. We learn about everything from the psychology of passing off a fake Vermeer (lesson: it’s easiest to be fooled if you want to believe the lie) to the investment strategies of Irving Fisher and John Maynard Keynes (flexibility is good, and sometimes you learn this by being wrong)…

…As such, How to Make the World Add Up brings out an important paradox of statistics as a discipline. We tend to think of statistics as a practical subject, helping us analyse problems, from how to identify effective vaccines to how to contain viral outbreaks. Like mechanical engineering or software development, it has clear worldly benefits, and obvious economic returns. But Harford’s book also highlights the conceptual importance of statistics. It offers us a way of thinking seriously about uncertainty, providing a framework for how we understand the world, and training ourselves not to be deceived.

Details, and to order signed copies from MathsGear, or from Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Waterstones.

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