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How to Make the World Add Up - Tim Harford ****

Many UK listeners will be familiar with the BBC's excellent More or Less radio show, hosted by the Financial Times' 'undercover economist' Tim Harford. The programme takes on numbers in the news to explain them and, where necessary, show what's wrong with them, in a light but informative fashion. The only slight problem with the programme is that it does tend towards silly presentation styles (though the last couple of years these have been toned down). On his own, Tim Harford is perhaps less fun and more serious in style, but remains approachable on a subject that most of us ought to understand better.

One of the most enjoyable things in the field is to shoot down misuse of stats. It's certainly an important thing to do, but Harford points out that only doing this, while entertaining, is potentially dangerous as it may lead to a total detachment from the usefulness of statistics. Instead, he suggests, we need to get better about thinking about the numbers we are bombarded with in our lives, so that we can most sensibly make use of what we are being told.

The approach in the book, in the fashionable 'ten rules' style, gives us a series of statistical 'commandments' such as being aware of our emotional response to data to avoid simply reacting based on emotion, or finding appropriate context, or being aware that facts can change. For each of the ten we are given examples, mostly historical, though all interesting. It's a shame in a way that the book was finished in March, so we get a few initial thoughts on by far the biggest statistical impact on lives in 2020 - the coronavirus pandemic - but it was too soon to have in-depth examples from this.

In the final chapter, Harford condenses all his commandments in New Testament style into simpler guidance that encompasses the rest - be curious. It is curiosity that inspires us to explore the statistics we are given - and to question them effectively when they need questioning, rather than simply dismissing them as fake news or accepting them as indisputable fact.

If you want guidance on what's really happening in the numbers we see, it's impossible to beat David Spiegelhalter's magisterial The Art of Statistics. But if you want to discover the best mindset to appreciate statistics, make the most of them and find where it's necessary to ask more and doubt the outcome, then Harford, through How to Make the World Add Up, is an ideal guide.

I'm reminded in a way of Brian Cox's popular science titles written with Jeff Forshaw, such as The Quantum Universe. If the fans of Cox's fluffy TV documentaries were to pick up one of these books (as no doubt many did), they would find it a lot harder going that the TV shows, but more intellectually rewarding. There's not quite such a disparity between Harford's book and More or Less - but listeners will find it less of an educational entertainment and more of an educative read.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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