Tim Harford
Interviews

Tim Harford on Economics, Statistics, and the Pandemic

It would be a stretch to call Tim Harford a household name, but for an economist, he comes close. In a long and varied career, he has presented a range of podcasts and radio shows, published several best-selling books, including The Undercover Economist and How to Make the World Add Up, and writes a regular column in the Financial Times. He is also a member of the Royal Economic Society council and a visiting fellow at Nuffield College. In a recent interview with The Oxford Blue, he discussed his work, the power of statistics, and the coronavirus pandemic.

Looking back on his first book, The Undercover Economist, Tim is modest about his success. “I stumbled onto something that worked and I was very lucky”, he says with a smile. The book in question has sold over a million copies and was only the first in a series of bestsellers, but his success isn’t entirely a mystery to him. “I think one of the things that appealed was my sense of curiosity about the world,” he reflects. “I think people find that curiosity, infectious in a way that I think I didn’t really understand at the time, but I maybe understand a little bit more now and perhaps I should have realized all along.”

Since then, Tim has released a number of new books and his writing has evolved with each one. More so with every book he’s written, Tim has found himself telling stories. “A really interesting craft as a writer is to tell a story,” he says, “to talk about protagonists, to have a character arc, to have the plot twists of a proper story, not just an anecdote, not just an example, but a proper story.” Of course, he’s talking about his works of nonfiction, but this doesn’t lessen the need for a narrative in his eyes. As he points out, “we’re built to understand stories.” He elaborates. “There was psychological research into this sort of thing, and you can remember a lot more information if it comes in the form of a story.”

Another important line of work for Tim is podcasts, and his most recent podcast Cautionary Tales leans heavily into narrative non-fiction. “Cautionary Tales is a podcast about things going wrong,” he explains, “and in each case, the idea is to tell the story but also to learn the lesson.” Although the lessons are invariably complex, drawing on rigorous academic thought across several disciplines, Tim makes them approachable, and listening to the podcast, it is impossible not to get caught up in the narrative. His explanation for this is simple. “Stories of things going wrong are a lot more interesting than stories of things going right.” Perhaps, it is a fascination with disaster and mishap that has made two series of the podcast so popular, with a third series on the way in February.

Tim’s interests are broad, spanning the social sciences and beyond, but one area he’s especially passionate about is statistics. Over thirteen years presenting the BBC Radio 4 statistics programme “More or Less”, he has developed a respect for the numbers and has recently written a whole book on the subject, How to Make the World Add Up, one of the Sunday Times’ top 10 business bestsellers of 2020.

In particular, he thinks it is important to restore some faith in statistics in what, in reference to an article by Simon O’Connell of the World Economic Forum, he calls a “post-trust world”. “I think it’s important to push back against that,” he says about the phrase “lies, damned lies, and statistics”. He goes on to tell the story of Darrell Huff, a statistics skeptic who later tried to cover up legitimate statistics about the negative effects of smoking on behalf of the tobacco lobby. The point he’s highlighting is that casting doubts on all statistics just because they can be used to tell lies is dangerous. “It’s like saying… people can lie using words, therefore I will never read a book again,” concludes Tim. “You’re just cutting yourself off from a world of information that you could access.”

Of course, he is by no means naïve. He accepts that people lie with statistics, but hopes we can move away from the present world of distrust. “A lot of that is about institutions figuring out how to earn the trust of individual citizens,” he tells us, but he also hopes that we can make progress on an individual level if we have a sincere apolitical desire to know the truth. For those without the time to read his book in its entirety, he has two basic rules for thinking about statistics. First, check your emotional reaction to ensure you aren’t doubting a statistic because you don’t like what it’s saying; or similarly simply accepting it because you agree with the point it makes. Secondly, make sure you know what the statistic is telling you in context. “We can all do it,” Tim insists, and he believes if we do, we’ll be in a much better place to think clearly about the world.

Unsurprisingly, however, the coronavirus pandemic has loomed largest in Tim’s thoughts recently, and he has written numerous columns on vaccines and lockdowns in the Financial Times. “I think some parts of government have done very well,” he says about the response to the pandemic, singling out the “calculated gamble” taken in vaccine procurement and the Office for National Statistics’ success in “gathering relevant data quickly”. But he gives other parts of government a “mixed grade”, which, it quickly becomes apparent, is about as damning as his mild disposition will allow. At the time of the interview, schools had just been closed for a third lockdown a day after they’d been reopened and declared safe. “That’s hard to understand,” Tim comments. “I’m too puzzled even to be angry.” He seems genuinely shocked by the government’s behaviour. “In the end, you’ve got to judge the government by results,” he says, “and the UK has had one of the very worst death rates relative to the population of anywhere in the world.”

However, Tim is cautiously optimistic about the future, particularly about the mass vaccination campaign. “I can see a lot of potential for error,” he warns, but this does not detract from his enthusiasm. “I think what a lot of people don’t understand or haven’t fully absorbed is just how much you get if you can protect the most vulnerable people. So if you can vaccinate about 5 million people, that’s all the over eighties, all the care home residents, and all the NHS workers and care home staff. More than two thirds of all deaths so far have been from people that fit that description.” According to Tim’s calculations, this could be done mid-January, and should have a substantial effect on hospital admissions. He also points out that every vaccine given can break transmission chains, forcing cases further down. “We will see the benefits,” he says with confidence. “Not today, not tomorrow, but soon.”

At the time of writing, it is too early to tell whether Tim is right about the effects of the vaccine, but in the meantime, he hopes we can start to learn from the ordeal. “For me, the lesson I’m going to learn is it’s really important to look at the data; to look at the world, and to read the academic literature to try to understand things.” This is a challenge, and Tim accepts that, but if we learn, he hopes we can be better prepared next time.

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Ben Blackburn is Interviews Editor at The Oxford Blue. He is a first year Philosophy, Politics and Economics student at St Catherine's College.