Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

Cautionary Tales

My podcast, telling true stories about mistakes and what we should learn from them.

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.

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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.

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17th of July, 2020Cautionary TalesComments 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.

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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.

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10th of July, 2020Cautionary TalesComments off

Cautionary Tales – The Village of Heroes

Not far from where I grew up, there’s a village called Eyam with a story to tell – a story of a plague, and of tragedy, and of heroism.

That old tale sits easily with stories of our modern response to the pandemic: too many people seem unwilling to suffer the slightest inconvenience to help others.

Has human nature really changed so much? Or might it be that the old story, and the new ones, are leading us astray?

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.

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Further reading and listening

The story of Eyam has been covered repeatedly in the media of late (the BBC got there a few years early) but a particularly useful source is Patrick Wallis in 1843 Magazine, who provides a valuable note of historical scepticism.

Rutger Bregman’s compelling book is Humankind.

James Meek writes an excellent and horrifying account of the earlier plague of 1348 in the London Review of Books.

The conversation between Eddie Compass and Fred Johnson is reported by the Floodlines podcast.

Geraldine Brooks wrote a novel about Eyam, Year of Wonders.

The study of the petrified forest is Robert B. Cialdini, Linda J. Demaine, Brad J. Sagarin, Daniel W. Barrett, Kelton Rhoads & Patricia L. Winter (2006) Managing social norms for persuasive impact, Social Influence, 1:1, 3-15, DOI: 10.1080/15534510500181459

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3rd of July, 2020Cautionary TalesComments off

Cautionary Tales – The Spreadsheet of Life and Death

Clive Stone was dying, and the drug that might help him was unavailable: a spreadsheet somewhere said that the numbers didn’t add up. But Clive Stone wasn’t a man to accept that sort of decision without a fight.

How do we value human life? What happens when we turn flesh-and-blood people into entries on a spreadsheet? And, perhaps just as worryingly, what happens when we don’t?

Written by Tim Harford with Andrew Wright. Producers: Ryan Dilley with Pete 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.

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Further reading and listening

Read Clive Stone’s story in his own words on the Kidney Cancer Support Network; the story was also covered by the Telegraph, the BBC, the Guardian and The Oxford Mail.

Spencer Banzhaf’s article, The Cold-War Origins of Statistical Life, was indispensable on the history of the concept. For a recent exploration of the issues, see Howard Steven Friedman’s book Ultimate Price.

Thomas Schelling’s fascinating book, Choice and Consequence, contains his essay, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”.

The BBC reported on the value-for-money of the cancer drugs fund.

NICE offers a useful explanation of QALYs and how they are used.

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26th of June, 2020Cautionary TalesComments off

Cautionary Tales – A Tsunami of Misery

Saving people from an urgent threat can cause their lives to be blighted in profound, yet hidden ways.
A monstrous wave and then a nuclear disaster forced Mikio and Hamako Watanabe from their home. But being saved from the potential dangers of a radiation leak destroyed their lives in a different way. Why do urgent dangers prompt us to take action, when far worse long-term ills are so often ignored?

WARNING: This episode discusses death by suicide. If you are suffering emotional distress or having suicidal thoughts, support is available – for example, from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (US) or Samaritans (UK).

Written by Tim Harford with Andrew Wright. Producers: Ryan Dilley with Pete 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.

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Further reading and listening

I relied on long pieces by two brilliant journalists, Evan Osnos, “The Fallout” in The New Yorker, and my friend Robin Harding “Fukushima nuclear disaster: Did the evacuation raise the death toll?” in The Financial Times.

Additional sources include Mari Saito, Lisa Twaronite “Fukushima farmer takes on nuclear plant operator over wife’s suicide” Reuters

Kyung Lah “Husband of Fukushima suicide victim demands justice” CNN

Makoto Takahashi “Five Years after Fukushima, there are big lessons for nuclear disaster liability” University of Cambridge

Dean Karlan and Daniel Wood.  “The Effect of Effectiveness: Donor Response to Aid Effectiveness in a Direct Mail Fundraising Experiment.” 2015. Economic Growth Center Discussion Paper No. 1038.

Karen E Jenni and George Loewenstein, “Explaining the “Identifiable Victim Effect”,  Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 14:235–257 (1997). Professor Loewenstein is quoted by Quentin Fottrell of  Marketwatch.

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19th of June, 2020Cautionary TalesComments off

Cautionary Tales – Fire At The Beverly Hills Supper Club

Why did audience members fail to flee a deadly fire… despite being told to escape?

Flames are spreading through a Cincinnati hotel. The staff know it, the fire department is coming, and the people in the packed cabaret bar have been told to evacuate… and yet people hesitate to move. Why don’t we react to some warnings until it’s too late?

 

Written by Tim Harford with Andrew Wright. Producers: Ryan Dilley with Pete 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.

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Further reading and listening

I first found out about the Supper Club Fire from The Ostrich Paradox by Howard Kunreuther and Robert Keyer. The fullest account I could find is in Amanda Ripley’s book The Unthinkable, including an interview with Walter Bailey.

Another source on the fire was Drue Johnston and Norris Johnson “Role Extension in Disaster: Employee Behavior at the Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire.” Sociological Focus, vol. 22, no. 1, 1989, pp. 39–51., www.jstor.org/stable/20831497.

For the details on the Torrey Canyon spill, the two key sources are Oil and Water by Edward Cowan, and The Black Tide by Richard Petrow.

For a more contemporary discussion of plan continuation bias I recommend Meltdown by Chris Clearfield and Andras Tilcik.

On ambiguous threats see Michael Roberto, Richard Bohmer and Amy Edmondson, ‘Facing Ambiguous Threats’ Harvard Business Review November 2006 https://hbr.org/2006/11/facing-ambiguous-threats

 

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12th of June, 2020Cautionary TalesComments off
Resources

Cautionary Tales Ep 8 – You Have Reached Your Destination

More than two and a half thousand years ago – so the story goes – King Croesus of Lydia consulted the oracle at Delphi. And the oracle assured him that if he went to war against Persia he would destroy a mighty empire. Reassured, Croesus launched his war, and was defeated. The oracle had been correct, but the mighty empire that Croesus destroyed was his own.

Our modern oracles are predictive algorithms. And perhaps the strange old tale of King Croesus has a great deal to teach us about how to interact with these silicon prophets.

Featuring: Archie Panjabi, Toby Stephens, Rufus Wright, Melanie Gutteridge, Mircea Monroe and Ed Gaughan.

Producers: Ryan Dilley and Marilyn Rust. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Fact checking: Joseph Fridman. Editor: Julia Barton. Recording: Wardour Studios, London. GSI Studios, New York. PR: Christine Ragasa.

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

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Further reading and listening

Both stories about the oracle at Delphi are in Herodotus: The Histories.

Tom Knudson did the original reporting on “Death by GPS” for the Sacramento Bee. Reuters covered the Carpi / Capri confusion. Both stories – and others – are discussed in Greg Milner’s  excellent book Pinpoint.

Gretchen Morgenson covered AIG’s woes for the New York Times in “Behind Insurer’s Crisis, Blind Eye to a Web of Risk” 27 Sep 2008.

Esther Eidinow discusses what we can learn from how the Greeks consulted their oracles in “Oracles and Models” at The Conversation.

The Pierre Wack quote about forecasts is in “Scenarios: Uncharted Waters Ahead” Harvard Business Review Sep/Oct 1985.

The original study of the illusion of explanatory depth is Rozenblit, Leonid, and Frank Keil. “The misunderstood limits of folk science: an illusion of explanatory depth.” Cognitive science vol. 26,5 (2002): 521-562. doi:10.1207/s15516709cog2605_1

The study of how forecasting tournaments nurture humility is Barbara Mellers, Philip Tetlock, Hal R. Arkes, Forecasting tournaments, epistemic humility and attitude depolarization, Cognition, Volume 188, 2019, Pages 19-26

The study of a 1980s diagnostic aid is Wyatt J., Spiegelhalter D. (1991) Evaluating Medical Expert Systems: What To Test, And How ?. In: Talmon J.L., Fox J. (eds) Knowledge Based Systems in Medicine: Methods, Applications and Evaluation. Lecture Notes in Medical Informatics, vol 47. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg

The study of navigating around Kashiwa with or without GPS is Toru Ishikawa, Hiromichi Fujiwara, Osamu Imai, Atsuyuki Okabe, “Wayfinding with a GPS-based mobile navigation system: A comparison with maps and direct experience” Journal of Environmental Psychology, Volume 28, Issue 1, 2008, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2007.09.002.

 

 

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Cautionary Tales Ep 7 – Bowie, jazz, and the unplayable piano

He’d played with Miles Davis and Art Blakey and this was to be the biggest solo concert of Keith Jarrett’s career – but the Virtuoso pianist was in for a shock when he entered Cologne’s opera house. The only piano at the venue was a wreck. His musical contemporaries David Bowie and Brian Eno proved through their collaboration that staying in your comfort zone isn’t always the best option and that disruption can feed creativity. But Jarrett was famed for liking things just so…. would he risk humiliation in Cologne and play the broken piano or would he walk away?

Featuring: Archie Panjabi, Ed Gaughan, Rufus Wright, and Mircea Monroe.

Producers: Ryan Dilley and Marilyn Rust. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Fact checking: Joseph Fridman. Editor: Julia Barton. Recording: Wardour Studios, London. GSI Studios, New York. PR: Christine Ragasa.

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

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Further reading and listening

I urge you to listen to Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert, David Bowie’s “Heroes”, and Brian Eno’s Music for AirportsBut you should also listen to a superb oral history, “For One Night Only: the Koln Concert” produced by the BBC.

For a fuller exploration of the ideas in this episode I tentatively suggest my own book, Messy. Paul Trynka’s biography of David Bowie is Starman. Sasha Frere-Jones has a fine profile of Brian Eno in the New Yorker, but my main source is my own discussions with Brian.

The font study is : Diemand-Yauman, C., et al. “Fortune favors the bold (and the italicized): Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes.” Cognition (2010), DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.09.012

The murder mystery study is: Katherine W. Philips, Katie A. Liljenquist and Margaret A. Neale “Is the Pain Worth the Gain? The Advantages and Liabilities of Agreeing With Socially Distinct Newcomers.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin Vol 35 No 3 March 2009 p. 336-350

The tube-strike study is: Shaun Larcom, Ferdinand Rauch, Tim Willems, The Benefits of Forced Experimentation: Striking Evidence from the London Underground Network, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 132, Issue 4, November 2017, Pages 2019–2055, https://doi.org/10.1093/qje/qjx020

 

 

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Cautionary Tales Ep 6 – How Britain Invented, Then Ignored, Blitzkrieg

Blitzkrieg means “lightning war”, but despite the German name it was not a German invention. Back in 1917 a brilliant English officer developed a revolutionary way to use the latest development in military technology – the tank. The British army squandered the idea but two decades later later Hitler’s tanks thundered across Europe, achieving the kind of rapid victories that had been predicted back in 1917.

This is a common story: Sony invented the digital Walkman, Xerox the personal computer, and Kodak the digital camera. In each case they failed to capitalise on the idea. Why?

Featuring: Toby Stephens, Ed Gaughan and Rufus Wright.

Producers: Ryan Dilley and Marilyn Rust. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Fact checking: Joseph Fridman. Editor: Julia Barton. Recording: Wardour Studios, London. GSI Studios, New York. PR: Christine Ragasa.

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

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Further reading

Mark Urban’s book The Generals has an excellent chapter on J.F.C. Fuller. Other sources on Fuller include Brian Holden Reid’s J.F.C. Fuller: Military Thinker and Harold Winton’s To Change An Army

Other sources on the development of the tank include Macksey and Batchelor’s TankNorman Dixon’s classic On The Psychology of Military Incompetence and Basil Liddell Hart’s The Tanks.

On modern corporate innovation try Gillian Tett’s excellent The Silo EffectCreation Myth” by Malcolm Gladwell, Clay Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma and The Disruption Dilemma by Joshua Gans.

 

The original paper on architectural innovation is:

Henderson, Rebecca M., and Kim B. Clark. “Architectural Innovation: The Reconfiguration of Existing Product Technologies and The Failure of Established Firms.” Administrative Science Quarterly 35, no. 1 (March 1990): 9–30

 

 

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Cautionary Tales Ep 5 – Buried by the Wall Street crash

Two of the greatest economists who ever lived, Irving Fisher and John Maynard Keynes, thought they could predict the future and make a killing on the stock market. Both of them failed to see the Wall Street crash, the greatest financial disaster of the age – and arguably, of any age. Yet having made the same forecasting error, Fisher and Keynes went on to meet very different fates. What does it take to see into the future? And when you fail, what does it take to bounce back from ruin?

Featuring: Alan Cumming, Russell Tovey, Mircea Monroe, Rufus Wright, Ed Gaughan, and Melanie Gutteridge.

Producers: Ryan Dilley and Marilyn Rust. Sound design/mix/musical composition: Pascal Wyse. Fact checking: Joseph Fridman. Editor: Julia Barton. Recording: Wardour Studios, London. GSI Studios, New York. PR: Christine Ragasa.

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

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Further reading

 

Walter Friedman’s The Fortune Tellers is a key source on Fisher. It’s a history of all economic forecasting in the US. I loved it.

Sylvia Nasar’s excellent Grand Pursuit has much more on both Keynes and Fisher.

There are several fine journalist accounts of Keynes’s participation in the Degas auction. Try the BBC, the Wall Street Journal, or History Today.

On Keynes, the central source on his investment performances is David Chambers and Elroy Dimson. 2013. “Retrospectives: John Maynard Keynes, Investment Innovator.” Journal of Economic Perspectives27 (3): 213-28.DOI: 10.1257/jep.27.3.213. There’s more biographical detail in the more informal Keynes’s Way To Wealth by John Wasik.

Philip Tetlock’s original study is detailed in his subtle, scholarly and ground-breaking Expert Political JudgmentHis more recent book with Dan Gardner, Superforecasting is more journalistic and covers his recent discoveries. Both books are very good, but quite different in style.

The case of Dorothy Martin and the UFO cult is told first hand by Festinger and his colleagues in When Prophecy FailsThere’s further discussion in Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)an excellent guide to all the ways in which we can fail to notice we’re wrong, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.

 

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