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Speaker Spotlight: Tim Harford

Meet the researchers behind the Cambridge Festival: Economist and author Tim Harford

Tim Harford is an economist, broadcaster and senior columnist for the Financial Times. He will be speaking to David Spiegelhalter, Chair of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at the University of Cambridge, about Harford's recent book, How to make the world add up: Ten rules for thinking differently about numbers on 27th March 3-4pm.


How has Covid demonstrated the importance of understanding statistics?

It's done something much more fundamental. It's shown us that statistics aren't just a weapon in a political argument, to be dismissed with a sneer, or taken for granted. They are vital. Without solid statistics we are flying blind.

Do you think people will generally emerge from Covid with a better understanding of statistics?

I think they will emerge with an appreciation for how important and informative statistics can be - which, I think, is enough. One of my central points is that it is easier than we might think to make sense of statistical claims - if we approach them calmly and with an open-minded spirit of curiosity.

How do we make it easier for people to admit when they get things wrong?

We need to be less obsessed with the "U-turn". That's just laziness: either they were wrong before or they're wrong now and we don't need to worry. In my experience, when people admit they are wrong, explain their error and apologise when necessary, they get a warm reception. The real barrier is internal: we hate to admit we made a mistake.

What is your favourite case study/story from the book?

There are so many! But I am increasingly drawn to Florence Nightingale's astonishing ability to launch a public health revolution from her bedroom - sound familiar - armed mostly with a fancy pie chart. It's quite a rollercoaster of a tale.

What one of the 10 rules do you think people fall down on most?

The first, and simplest: notice your emotional reaction to claims. So much of what we believe or disbelieve, amplify or reject, we do so on the basis of an emotional reaction that we haven't even consciously noticed. We all need to slow down and calm down - then the world might start to add up.