How to Make the World Add Up by Tim Harford reviewed

How to Make the World Add Up Book Cover How to Make the World Add Up
Tim Harford
Little, Brown Book Group UK
May 06, 2021

When was the last time you read a grand statement, accompanied by a large number, and wondered whether it could really be true? Statistics are vital in helping us tell stories - we see them in the papers, on social media, and we hear them used in everyday conversation - and yet we doubt them more than ever.

But numbers - in the right hands - have the power to change the world for the better. Contrary to popular belief, good statistics are not a trick, although they are a kind of magic. Good statistics are not smoke and mirrors; in fact, they help us see more clearly. Good statistics are like a telescope for an astronomer, a microscope for a bacteriologist, or an X-ray for a radiologist. If we are willing to let them, good statistics help us see things about the world around us and about ourselves - both large and small ­- that we would not be able to see in any other way.

In How to Make the World Add Up, Tim Harford draws on his experience as both an economist and presenter of the BBC's radio show 'More or Less'. He takes us deep into the world of disinformation and obfuscation, bad research and misplaced motivation to find those priceless jewels of data and analysis that make communicating with numbers worthwhile. Harford's characters range from the art forger who conned the Nazis to the stripper who fell in love with the most powerful congressman in Washington, to famous data detectives such as John Maynard Keynes, Daniel Kahneman and Florence Nightingale. He reveals how we can evaluate the claims that surround us with confidence, curiosity and a healthy level of scepticism.

Using ten simple rules for understanding numbers - plus one golden rule - this extraordinarily insightful book shows how if we keep our wits about us, thinking carefully about the way numbers are sourced and presented, we can look around us and see with crystal clarity how the world adds up.

How to Make the World Add Up by Tim Harford

There is a good opening here on statistics generally which I found helpful. While this books was originally published a little while ago it does appear to have been updated since the previous edition with quite a bit about Covid and statistics. Over the course of the book Tim Harford offers 10 “rules” for thinking about the numbers we see presented to us. Each rule has a chapter and the topic of the rule is discussed with pertinent illustrations using real life statistics.

The range of examples in How to Make the World Add Up is quite remarkable really. While thinking about this review I reflected on the fact that, while reading this, I learnt about both algorithms and the work of Florence Nightingale. I doubt that can be said about many books! Each chapter offers statistical examples and then considers how an ordinary person could make more sense of the information. Equally the author suggests ways we might test the veracity of the information we are given. Attention is paid to simple but potentially misleading words such as what is actually meant by “everyone” or “all – very interesting.

Tim Harford suggests we consider our own experiences to some degree at leat. An example of this would be the Transport for London statistics on average occupancy of tube trains and buses. The author feels from his own experience that he has never travelled on an “averagely” occupied service! This allows him to look at the issues with averages as well as how the data may have been collected.

Returning to algorithms I confess I was not aware that there had ever been a “Google Flu predictor” that appeared to be very accurate at predicting outbreaks of flu. After a while it ceased to be accurate. In a nutshell – no one actually knew why it worked! – beware algorithms that people don’t actually understand is the message.

For me the whole book was extremely readable. Some chapters appealed more to me than others but that is inevitable. One that has stuck with me is the chapter than has information on the work of Florence Nightingale. I confess quite a bit of it came as a surprise to me. The chapter is focussed on infographics or how statistics can be presented. As someone who has from time to time presented graphs to illustrate information quite a bit of this hit home to me. The use and misuse of infographics is fascinating.

I’ve been a “fan” of Tim Harford for some years now due to his programmes on Radio 4. I always found them interesting and accessible – this book is very similar. Assuming you have any interest in the subject it makes for a very easy read. However it is also thought provoking and interesting. Above all Tim Harford urges the reader to “be curious” – I would suggest that anyone who is will thoroughly enjoy How to Make the World Add Up.

Note – I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair review