Tim Harford is our belated Hero of the Month for May.
Working in my local gym café recently I had to endure a very loud argument between a young gym trainer and a young café worker about who to vote for in the election. The self-employed gym trainer essentially wanted a Conservative win and the employed café worker a Labour win (academic anyway in North East Hants). The argument for the conservatives was that as an ambitious self-employed person, Labour would tax her too heavily and spent the money on benefit claimants. The argument for the Labour party was that as a low paid employed worker Labour were promising an increase in the minimum wage.
Not unreasonable, if a little selfish, positions to hold under the circumstances but what was incredible was the stream of half-facts and pure nonsense shouted by both about the other’s chosen party. Frankly given the hugely uninspiring options offered by either party it was incredible how passionate each side was.
What it did illustrate is that Michael Gove was wrong when he said in the run up to the Referendum that we need less experts. It seems to me that most of the problem with the state of political debate in this country is down to all of us not reading enough about a subject and confirmation bias, where we tend to give greater weight to evidence that supports our existing views.
If we are honest with ourselves, who amongst us read all of the party manifestos and yet we are happy to loudly pontificate about which party is right. Why do we then expect our politicians to play to anything other than the lowest common denominator when communicating with us. It is the same place that ‘Strong and Stable’ comes from.
So I think it is important that we all understand some key subjects a bit better and finance is one of those. I am employed to understand finance to a greater level of depth than my clients but it doesn’t fully let them off the hook.
It is in this context that we are elevating ‘undercover economist‘ Tim Harford this month. Tim has probably done more than any other individual in the UK to make economics and statistics accessible. Whether through his excellent books which he makes readable by using interesting real life stories to illustrate an economic point or his work on Radio 4 such as More or Less or 50 things that made the modern economy.
It is refreshing to listen to the More or Less podcast and hear politicians of both sides have their use of statistics completely and gently demolished. This is not just a negative exercise and it gives you greater understanding of what addition questions to ask when you are being told something that you want to believe but should question more.
The most recent example is the use of death statistics to suggest that there has been a rise in crime (crime has been falling for decades, not that you would know it reading the Tabloids) when in fact one contributor was that the tragic Hillsborough deaths were re-classified following the 2016 inquiry and were added to the statistics for that year.
Tim is a rare commodity that we should value more highly. An expert who does not have an axe to grind but is someone to turn to for a factual analysis when we want to fact-check what we are being told.
If you are interested in become less strident about what you believe in but better informed you could do a lot worse than read everything Tim has written. An honourable mention must also go to Full Fact who are an independent charity who fact check and are worth your time and money.