Ask Tim: Why Tim Harford is the cure for what ails our world
Written in December 2020
Tim Harford has had a good pandemic: dozens of massively popular podcasts and radio shows, articles, blog posts, a new book and another one coming out in a few months. If you can explain numbers, you can explain science. And if you can explain numbers and science, you are a godsend during a global pandemic. His calm and reassuring voice has guided me through the vagaries of 2020 to such an extent that I am nominating him for science communicator of the year. I also nominate all truthful explainers of data and science – from public health officials to science journalists to academics - as the most important people of 2020.
Early in the year when terms like attack rates and epidemiological curves kept entering public discourse, I was reminded of the astute observation of the writer Michael Lewis” “The world’s not just a stage. It’s a casino, and our lives are games of chance”. What is the probability you will contract COVID if you go to that barbecue; how likely are you to die or have a stroke or have no symptoms at all if you do contract the virus; how effective is that Oxford vaccine really? The casino of life churns through the numbers like a quantum computer and it can all seem a little overwhelming, unknowable, complex.
Enter stage right, Tim Harford. Harford is a prolific writer, talking head, thinker and explainer. As the host of the BBC’s show More or Less which has been examining the truth behind statistics for over a decade, he was well positioned to move to center stage. More or Less has become one the best fora for shining a light on the facts about COVID-19. Harford also hosts a new show called How to Vaccinate the World which every week looks at the granular details of how to translate the scientific breakthrough of multiple vaccines into the end of the pandemic
Here’s an example of the clever analysis of More or Less. Early in the pandemic the British Health Minister promised to carry out 100,000 COVID-19 tests a day by the end of April. On the May 6th episode Harford looked into the data after the Health Minister, Matt Hancock, declared on May 1st: “I can announce that we have met our goal. The number of tests, yesterday, on the last day of April, was 122,347.”
But rather than take the number at face value, Harford asked “But did he really succeed?” before answering his own question “He didn’t really do it.”
Home testing kits that had been mailed out but not necessarily completed or mailed back were included in the statistic – even though there is no guarantee that those tests would ever be used and if they were completed, they would likely be double-counted by inclusion in a future day’s total. That number – 122,347 included over 40,000 tests that were mailed out. In fact only 82,000 tests were carried out on April 30th.
“So Matt Hancock actually missed the target he boasted about completing” Harford observed.
Unable to hide the exasperation in his voice, even Harford admitted he was surprised: “So in short, the government literally changed the definition of tests completed to include tests [that] entered the postal system so they could boast about hitting their target”
From there, Harford explored the wider phenomenon that as soon as a measure becomes an official target, it ceases to be a good measure of anything because policy-makers will distort the number to ensure a target is met.
Distorting a target is on the continuum between truth and lies and may seem to provide kindling to feed the fire of the worst COVID-19 conspiracy theories. Is there is a danger that unpacking statistics and always questioning data might lead to a kind of nihilism? If most/all statistics are misunderstood and misrepresented, how can I trust anything? If the British Health Minister lies then maybe, some people start to believe, QAnon conspiracies are as reliable as official COVID statistics from a government or efficacy data from a pharmaceutical company
The truth-seeking ethos grounded in science and evidence that is the foundation of the Enlightenment project has been buffeted by the forces of anti-rationalism for centuries. The bizarre, completely ungrounded conspiracy theories of the American far-right which breed in the fertile landscape of social media and new online media is the strangest reaction against the Enlightenment. Their adoption by the Republican party and the lengths to which they went to undermine COVID-19 science and overturn the 2020 presidential election suggests they may be one of the most dangerous
Harford told an interviewer in October 2020 that what had surprised him most about the pandemic has been the extent to which the flow of information became politicized.
“But it is surprising how to me - I shouldn't have been surprised, but I have been surprised - how quickly certain kinds of people decided that this was yet another weapon in a political argument. What we want, I think is, you know, we want to figure out what's going on, we want an open-minded curious search for the truth. But unfortunately, that is not always what is rewarded by our political system, by our media ecosystem, by social media. People love an argument people love to take sides. And if you see somebody who is just cherry picking the data, who is willing to use any piece of information to argue their case, you've got to be sceptical”
The spirit in which you approach data and science is so important. Not to start with the ideology, but to start with Tim Harford’s level of open-minded curiosity and confidence that with the right tools, and perhaps a little bit of elbow grease, you can find something close to the truth. Because in the end the truth has the advantage of being out there in the real world, whereas conspiracies live only in the mind and on Facebook servers.
There is a small but critical movement of rational data-driven thinkers getting their message out. People like Max Roser and Steven Pinker are moved by the same spirit as Harford. Science journalists at major media outlets spend their lives trying to translate data into concrete images and relatable narratives.
The last thing a liberal modern society needs are unquestioning followers of the state. Nor do we need people who instinctively distrust all institutions and instead live in an alternative reality. The perfect balance is a well-informed citizenry with a high level of trust in institutions such as the media, the healthcare system and the government, but who are still able to spend some time to think skeptically about pronouncements - they trust, but verify.
Tim Harford would be the first person to warn against a cult of personality or blind trust in a guru. But if you’ve exhausted all your sources and you’re short on time, it might be a good idea to look for someone you can trust above all others, who communicates with perfect clarity, who is patient and always seems to know the right question and have the right answer. In other words, ask Tim.