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‘Learn to understand statistics and you can better understand the world’



If you know Tim Harford as the man on the radio who debunks numbers on the BBC’s popular show More or Less, well, it turns out he’d rather you didn’t. He would rather not need to debunk any numbers, full stop. But right now he would settle for listeners doing some of his work for him.

You see, the economist is on a mission to stop people being so scared and suspicious of statistics, which are really just figures with a story attached.

“The world is a really interesting place and I wanted people to be able to to think more clearly about [it]. And statistics are a really important tool for doing that,” he adds. His new book is called How To Make The World Add Up. The trick, he says, is to be curious but not overly cynical. Statistics aren’t always trying to fool us, however much it might feel like that, especially when government spin doctors get involved.

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“My golden rule is be open minded and ask questions,” adds Harford, a father of three. He originally made his name explaining the economic rationale behind everything that we do in his first book, The Undercover Economist. “I want people to feel that we all have it in us to think more clearly and evaluate the statistical claims that get made. Often people don’t realise how simple it is.”

Tim Harford says both logic and emotion are involved when we make decisions (Photo: Fran Monks)

Logic and emotion

In true Harford fashion, his ninth book opens not with a story about numbers but about one of history’s greatest art forgeries. It involves fake Vermeers, the Nazis and the world’s leading scholar on Dutch paintings.

“I wanted to make the point that a lot of the judgements we make are not about numbers at all,” Harford says, via Zoom from his Oxford home.

Take Harford’s own reasoning about whether to go ahead with his family’s pre-booked summer holiday to Germany. Sure, he crunched the numbers, figuring they had a lower chance of succumbing to Covid-19 there than in the UK. He also considered the chances someone on the plane would be infected (pretty low) and the evidence the virus might spread on the plane (could happen; pretty unlikely).

But the numbers weren’t ultimately what pushed him to proceed with their plans, he concedes. “We went to Germany because friends who are doctors said, ‘We’ve done our bit, we’re going to Greece for a week.’ At that point, we thought, ‘Okay, if you can do it, we can do it too.’ There’s no logic behind that. That’s just an emotional response.”

How we look at facts

The broader point stands: people should think about their emotional reaction to statistical claims.

“What we believe is all about what we feel and who we think we are, rather than about the facts. I can give you all the technical advice in the world, but if you’re guided by your gut instinct, it’s not going to help. I’m sounding like Yoda with a calculator!”

Harford read PPE at Brasenose College, Oxford, and has worked for Royal Dutch Shell and the World Bank. He first fell for statistics as a teenager, when he read a seminal book on the subject, How to Lie with Statistics, written in 1954 by a US journalist named Darrell Huff. But these days he’d rather people appreciated statistics for the good they can do.

Take the pandemic. Without the scramble to gather data on the virus since January, the world would still be flying blind, Harford says. The least we can do as ordinary citizens is show some interest in the figures, he adds.

“It’s a pretty thin silver lining to a very dark cloud. But I do think the last six months has taught us that this stuff matters. The decisions we are making are hugely influenced by the statistics we gather. The better the statistics, the better the decisions.”

And right now, with the testing crisis and track-and-trace failure, the micro data isn’t good enough to make the right call about a second lockdown, he adds.

Statistics and the coronavirus pandemic

Thanks to More or Less, which vastly increased its audience after moving to a prominent 9am weekday slot during lockdown, Harford gets MPs calling him before going into committee meetings, begging for help understanding the latest data. But he finds it “slightly depressing” that the show got the most attention for holding the government to account for the way it was misleading people about the number of tests being done. “I’m trying to think about what [numbers are] true, but we’re having to spend so much attention debunking a claim and showing what’s not true.”

Holiday dilemmas aside, I’m curious how he applies statistics to his own life. Or, to cut to basics, how worried he is about rising infection rates? “I’m trying to be very cautious and at the same time I’m trying not to be anxious. I’m still very worried about contributing to the spread of the virus. I’m not worried about myself.” Which seems about as good a use of statistics as anyone can hope for right now.

How To Make The World Add Up by Tim Harford(The Bridge Street Press, £20) is out now

Tim Harford’s 10 statistical rules of thumb.

Stop and notice your emotional reaction to a claim, rather than accept or reject it because of how it makes you feel.
Try to combine the “bird’s eye” statistical perspective with the “worm’s eye” view from personal experience.
Check you understand what the data is describing.
Look for comparisons and context and put any claim into perspective.
Don’t forget to think about where the statistics came from.
Query what or who is missing from the data you’re looking at.
Ask tough questions about algorithms.
Pay more attention to official statistics.
Don’t let yourself be beguiled by beautiful graphs or charts.
Keep an open mind and remember that facts can change.

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