Thursday, February 4, 2021

Tim Harford's "The Data Detective"

Tim Harford, “the Undercover Economist”, is a Financial Times columnist, BBC broadcaster, and the author of nine books (most recently How To Make The World Add Up / The Data Detective: Ten Easy Rules to Make Sense of Statistics) and the podcast “Cautionary Tales”.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to The Data Detective and reported the following:
Page 99, pleasingly enough, is the beginning of a chapter. It opens with a delightful excerpt from Terry Pratchett's Reaper Man:
Rule Four

Step Back and Enjoy the View

The shortest-lived creatures on the Disc were mayflies, which barely make it through twenty-four hours. Two of the oldest zigzagged aimlessly over the waters of a trout stream, discussing history with some younger members of the evening hatching.

“You don’t get the kind of sun now that you used to get,” said one of them.

“You’re right there. We had proper sun in the good old hours. It were all yellow. None of this red stuff.”

“It were higher, too.”

“It was. You’re right.”

- Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man

The newspapers had an alarming message for Londoners in April 2018:

“London’s Murder Rate Is Higher than New York’s for the First Time Ever!” The headlines played into a narrative of gangs gone wild. And if we ignore for a moment that the very definition of “murder” differs on either side of the Atlantic, this claim is also perfectly true. In February 2018, there were fourteen murders in New York City, but fifteen in London.

But what should we conclude? Nothing.

We should conclude nothing because that pair of numbers alone tells us very little. If we want to understand what’s happening, we need to step back and take in a broader perspective.
Not a bad representation of my book - which is an attempt to help readers think more clearly about the world, by being wiser about statistical claims, and wiser about themselves. Each chapter begins with a quotation - they range from Umberto Eco's Serendipities to The Empire Strikes Back, Watchmen, and The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. Each chapter is phrased as a 'rule'; a habit of mind that I've found it useful to cultivate in my own work as an interpreter of the news and the numbers. Some of my favourite chapters tell a story - about an art forgery, about a computer gone wild, or about how one of the richest and most famous economists on the planet came to grief - but others, like this one, begin with an example and proceed swiftly enough to practical advice
Learn more about the book and author at Tim Harford's website, Facebook page, and Twitter perch.

Tim Harford: top 10 undercover economics books.

The Page 69 Test: The Undercover Economist.

The Page 69 Test:The Logic of Life.

The Page 99 Test: Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure.

The Page 99 Test: The Undercover Economist Strikes Back.

--Marshal Zeringue