from the world's big
Economist Tim Harford just launched a new podcast, 'Cautionary Tales'
The new podcast is a deep dive into human nature.
- In "Cautionary Tales," economist Tim Harford explores why humans are so susceptible to con artists.
- In the podcast's first episode, Harford uses a famed oil tanker spill to highlight how important it is to admit mistakes.
- Future episodes compare the Oracle at Delphi with computer algorithms and a famous awards show messing up the envelopes.
Humans are susceptible to cons. We're even more likely to fall for larger-than-life personalities. This isn't me writing about the vague "other humans" out there, the ones that you and I (wink, wink) know exist but would never fall victim to. As economist and journalist, Tim Harford — the author of the bestselling book, The Undercover Economist — recently told me, the con is "baked into" human nature.
Yet, as he explores in his excellent new podcast, "Cautionary Tales," we can learn from past mistakes. Take a few deep breaths, count to 10, make better decisions — decisions, he points out on his podcast, that can save lives. We can better educate ourselves to learn about things we think we know about but actually do not.
Part of Pushkin Industries, the company co-founded by Malcolm Gladwell and Jacob Weisberg, Harford joins Gladwell and Michael Lewis for a series that explores the meaning behind both historical and modern-day events. In the debut episode, Harford discusses the tragic Torrey Canyon reef crash in 1967, which dumped 120,000 short tons of crude oil into the waters near Cornwall. The captain's inability to change course is, in itself, a lesson about the value of admitting mistakes and putting our new-found knowledge into action.
In episode two, we hear the story of Wilhelm Voigt, a Berlin native that isn't a captain but played one in society, an incredible story that shows us the depths of our beliefs in powerful con men. Harford discusses the political consequences of such cons during our interview. I'm sure you can guess where that conversation ends up.
As with Revisionist History and Against the Rules, "Cautionary Tales" is a welcome addition to podcasting. Humans might fall for cons and be unwilling to own up to mistakes, but we're also animals with a deep love for storytelling. Harford excels at that medium, both in writing and narration. The podcast is a pleasure to listen to and, bonus, you might just learn something along the way.
A powerful way to unleash your natural creativity | Tim Harford
Derek: Your new podcast is on Pushkin, which has this vibe of radio from a century ago. It's not just people talking; there's music, sound effects, and acting involved. Why did you go that route with "Cautionary Tales"?
Tim: One of the things that quickly became clear as I was looking at the stories that I wanted to tell is that very often these are stories where we don't have tape. We don't have a lot of archival footage. Very often there was nobody there when it happened. The journalist showed up afterwards; in some cases—there's one story that's two and a half thousand years old—we don't have tapes.
What do you do? Well, you can do the usual thing, which is to put an expert in an arm chair and ask him or her to explain what happened. We wanted to do something different. These little historical reenactments are like fresh herbs and spices throughout the podcast. These little scenes include a very different way to access a story that you wouldn't have another way to tell.
Derek: Your show is billed as "the science behind what happens." There has long been a replication problem in science. I know you mostly deal with the social sciences, but what was your training in science and why did you choose what you chose when approaching a topic?
Tim: It's a very good point because of the replication crisis—I think crisis is the right word. One of the issues is people looking for the perfectly counter-intuitive results, the thing that's just weird enough to be surprising and yet not so weird that you completely dismiss it. There's a lot of psychology published that has been filtered through that medium. I'm coming at it from a slightly different angle.
Rather than the coolest new study that might surprise you, I'm saying, "This thing happened, this oil tanker hit the rocks or this economist was the most famous economist in the world and he went bankrupt or they gave the Oscar to the wrong movie." Start with that story and then say, "What is it that social scientists can tell us about that story? What are the explanations?" Very often you find there's more than one explanation. There's usually no single cause. Then the question is: What explains it? What do the people who have thought hard about this sort of thing make of these accidents?
I talk about Milgram's experiments, but I try to remind people that a lot of the experiments that he did were not reported. These are very famous electric shock and obedience experiments. I'm trying to pick that apart and think about what modern psychologists now make of those experiments of what they think those experiments really tell us—to not to be uncritical in the way that I think about these studies.
Derek: I've read that study in many different contexts. The way you frame it about being an example not of obedience, but of a willingness to admit our mistakes, is really important. Why are we so unwilling to admit when we're wrong?
Tim: That's a big question. In some cases it's a social thing. In politics, for example, you don't want to admit that you're wrong because you're conceding ground to the other side and you don't want to lose faith socially. You don't want to lose political advantage. In other cases, you personally have committed so much to a particular viewpoint that it becomes extraordinarily painful to face up to the error.
This is the old idea of cognitive dissonance, which I explore in an episode about John Maynard Keynes and Irving Fisher, two great economists and their forecasting. Long story short, both are geniuses; both get really into stock market investing. One goes bankrupt; one dies a millionaire. What explains the differences?
One of them is willing to admit he made a mistake and one is not. Irving Fisher is more exposed. He's more publicly committed. He's going to lose face socially. But he's also too deep in debt to admit "I'm getting this wrong, I need to change direction." It's more painful to the sense of who he is, which the guy who doesn't make mistakes.
There's a third problem, which is something I emphasized in Adapt: We didn't know we made a mistake. No one ever tells you that you made a mistake; no one ever gives you the feedback. That's a very common problem.
Derek: Your podcast is supposed to help us learn from our mistakes. How do you help people actually learn what is in their best interest? Is that even possible?
Tim: This is something I explore in the final episode, which is about what happens when we just hand over our process to an authority figure or to a computer algorithm. What happens when we just let our GPS tell us where to go? One of the really interesting groups of studies that I talk about in that episode is what happens when you are forced to stop and think. These studies explore something called the illusion of explanatory depth.
In the initial study, they say, "How well do you reckon that you know how a flush laboratory works on a scale of zero to seven?" People will say, "Oh yeah, maybe six." Then the researchers say, "That's really interesting. Here's a pen and paper. Just explain to us in detail how it works." People get really stuck because they realize they don't know how it works. It was all a bit vague. They weren't lying to the researchers; they were lying to themselves. They felt that they understood this everyday object and they didn't.
The next study asked the same questions but about politics. It's by a different group of researchers. They said, "Tell us how a cap and trade system works. Tell us how the US will apply unilateral sanctions on Iran. How does that actually work?" People often feel they know pretty well what these policies are. Then again, when you ask them to explain, not to advocate, don't tell me whether it's a good idea, just tell me what it is. Again, people go, "Ah hmm. Uh hmm. I thought I knew but I don't know."
What's fascinating is that people's views about politics become more moderate. They think, quite reasonably, "Maybe my previous view that I was willing to die in a ditch to defend cap and trade or to prevent cap and trade, maybe that view that I thought was super important, maybe I shouldn't hold that view so strongly anymore given that I didn't really understand what it is that I'm talking about."
Not in every Cautionary Tale, but it comes up again and again, is that if you can calm down and slow down, whatever terrible thing happened wouldn't have happened if somebody had been able to count to 10 and think about what was going on.
Derek: When I was listening to episode two, I was reminded of a story growing up. There was a sporting goods chain called Herman's. Two men walked in, went to the back of the store, and grabbed a canoe. They put it over their heads and walked out of the store. It took 20 minutes for anyone to realize that they stole it.
Tim: Because they just walked right out as if they had bought it.
Derek: You say the judge, at the end of "The Captain of Köpenick," goes down and shakes Voigt's hand even though he admitted his crime and was a con man. What do we learn from that?
Tim: We're tremendously subjected to appearances. I wish I had a silver bullet for that one, some pill you could take that would cure us of that. I talk about the fact that just being tall is tremendously advantageous if you're running for political office.
Tim Harford: What Prison Camps Can Teach You About the Economy
Derek: I'm six-three, so I appreciated that.
Tim: Yeah, me too. As far as presidents go, that's not that tall. When you look at it, it's like they're picking a basketball team. It's a myth that the taller candidate always wins, but it definitely seems to be an advantage. The example of appearances matching the eye that I just can't get my head around is the adverts where the guy says, "I'm not a doctor, I just play one on TV," as though it's the most natural thing in the world. And it clearly works! That that advert ran for a long time is absolutely astonishing.
Even this particular con man, Wilhelm Voigt, would not have said, "I'm not actually a military captain. I'm just wearing the uniform." Of course, I can't help but think of a certain president who's most famous for playing a successful business man on TV. He's famous for acting as a businessman. It makes a huge difference to how we perceive the world.
Derek: Do we ever get over that? Is that something we can teach out of ourselves?
Tim: I have never seen a piece of research that says there is a cure for that. That is why, for example, blind recruitment processes and blind audition processes are so powerful. Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse studied what happens when the great American orchestras switched to blind auditions. They thought they were doing it to prevent discrimination against particular students who have powerful teachers; they didn't only want the "in crowd" to be recruited. They put up screens so you wouldn't know who was playing. Surprise, surprise, suddenly a load of women who previously wouldn't thought to be good enough were being recruited.
It's not enough to just tell people, "You shouldn't discriminate against women. Hey, don't be too impressed by uniforms. Treat people who don't look attractive the same way as you treat attractive people." You can tell people that, but I'm not sure it makes a great deal of difference. We can, again, slow down, have a think, and ask ourselves, "Am I overweighting this person's appearance? Am I favoring this person for president because they they look presidential rather than this other person who doesn't seem to look like what I imagined the president to look like?"
I don't think there is an easy cure for that. That's heavily baked in human nature. It's simpler with con artists. If you can slow them down and slow yourself down enough, you can usually spot the con. With a more subtle influence, like who we want to run our companies and who we want to run our country, appearances are always going to matter.
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
Do you get worried or angry? Ever forget to tithe? One minister has bad news for you.
- A recently published article claims to identify the symptoms of "low-level atheism."
- Among these symptoms are worrying, cursing, and not tithing.
- There is a solution to all of this though, not being an atheist. Sending in money is also involved.
Are you worried about literally anything? You're an atheist now!<p>The essay begins by focusing on worrying, an all too common problem and gateway emotion to atheism:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>"Every time we take a thought break and begin to wonder about how we will pay the stove oil bill, or the light bill, or what we are going to do if we get laid off from work in six months, we are worrying. We are actually telling the Lord, 'Jesus, you know all that stuff you said in Matthew chapter six about how you will take care of us? I don't believe it. I don't believe that you can do what you promised, so I am taking matters into my own hands; I'm going to worry about it until the situation is taken care of.'"</em></p><p>As it turns out, God plans his days around your dilemmas and will get to them in due course. So, if you are bothered about not being sure where your rent is coming form this month, you're doubting the Lord. Concerned about things like climate change? You're practically an iconoclast. Anxious at the thought that you aren't a good enough Christian? According to this, that exact worry is a sign that you aren't!</p><p>Are you feeling even more worried now? Oh, that isn't a good sign at all. You ought to be worried about that. </p>
Swearing and occasionally being angry, now signs of metaphysical distress!<p>According to Lindley:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>"I have only sworn two times since receiving the Holy Ghost. The Lord has the power to change our attitudes and habits. I wish I could say that I never get angry anymore either, but that is not the case. Just like you, I struggle with atheistic tendencies.</em></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>"Every time something doesn't go the way we want it to and we get angry, we are telling the world, 'I am losing my temper, because this problem is so messed up that not even God can sort it out.' When we slam doors, swear, yell, break dishes, speed, or shake our fist at somebody we are in the grip of an atheism attack. </em></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>"You see the Bible very clearly states that there is nothing too hard for God to fix.</em> <em>'And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose.' </em>(Romans 8:28 NKJV) <em>This is why a person who has been born again can hit their thumb with a hammer and not swear. This is why the sincere Christian can look at a flat tire and say, 'I guess God needs to slow me down, because he has someone he needs me to cross paths with today.' Swearing and getting angry only says, 'There is absolutely no way that God can turn this flat tire into a blessing!'"</em><em></em></p><p>Well, shit. It seems that being angry with things, including things that might seem to be perfectly reasonable things to be mad at, is admitting that you think God is useless.</p><p>How exactly this reconciles with Jesus getting pissed off at <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleansing_of_the_Temple" target="_blank">the moneylenders in the temple</a> and <a href="https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+3&version=NIV" target="_blank">healers that refused to save lives on Sunday</a> is unclear. Neither of these incidents seem to be the things that happen to somebody without bursts of anger, though I do suppose it is possible Christ had fits of atheism multiple times in his life. </p><p>Sometimes I don't believe in myself either. </p>
Stinginess, now coming to a den of heathens near you!<p>Lindley points out the final, most advanced symptom of atheism last: Not sending God money. He writes:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"<em>Some people are so greedy that they actually rob God.</em> <em>'…In what way have we robbed God? In tithes and offerings</em>.' (Malachi 3:8 NKJV)) <em>To those who would hold back the tithe the Lord has a challenge</em>: <em>'Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house, and try Me now in this' says the Lord of hosts, 'If I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it.' </em>(3:10 NKJV)"</p><p>While the God of Abraham is well known not to need money on account of his transcendental nature, it seems that he is still owed ten percent of everybody's earnings. This is not paid to him, of course, but to his helpers. In exchange for this, God will make good things happen. If you don't send money in addition to swearing or occasionally being grouchy, the minister assures us that <em>"you are at extreme risk for very serious complications from your atheism."</em></p><p>While this may look remarkably similar to a concept used by the mafia, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protection_racket" target="_blank">the protection racket</a>, it is an utterly different operation. In the case of the mob, the threat of punishment is used as a way to force people into paying part of their earnings to a larger organization. In return, they are promised the protection of that organization from vague threats, often including that organization. <br> <br> In this holy case, vague are threats used to show people the wisdom of paying part of their earnings to the church. In exchange for their payments, they are offered kickbacks from God and protection from vague threats made by the people telling them they need to send in money. </p><p>Luckily, Lindley suggests a solution for all three problems, especially the last one: Don't be an atheist! In particular, start praying and sending God money. This will resolve the third symptom automatically and the first two eventually.</p><p><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UhnsHvz7UL8" target="_blank">It's an offer you can't refuse.</a> </p>
And now, the serious part.<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="SuG8OGad" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="9e1bfda7981ed1abe9eb979157ea0496"> <div id="botr_SuG8OGad_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/SuG8OGad-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/SuG8OGad-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/SuG8OGad-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>While it is fun to mock the often-ludicrous positions of those who misunderstand atheism, that very misunderstanding is an all too common and all too real issue for the millions of Americans who are not religious. Atheists in the United States face <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discrimination_against_atheists#United_States" target="_blank">discrimination</a>,<strong></strong> are not <a href="https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2011-25187-001" target="_blank">trusted</a>, and are barred from <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discrimination_against_atheists#Atheists_eligible_to_hold_office" target="_blank">running for office </a>in several states.</p><p> In my experience, many of these tend to come from a fundamental misunderstanding of what atheism <em>is</em>. I, at various times, have been accused of being a Satanist, a pagan, or an amoralist, among other things. It is little wonder why a person who doesn't understand what atheism <em>is</em> would find a variety of issues arising from it. </p><p>The minister in this case makes a similar mistake: He begins by thinking that atheism is something other than the proposition that there are no gods and then works forward. In this case, he seems to presume it is some kind of psychological condition which manifests as a hybrid of anxiety, Tourette's syndrome, and kleptomania. His use of the word "symptoms" is revealing. </p><p>While it is true that atheism can be anxiety-inducing, this falls more under the category of "<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Existentialism#Angst_and_dread" target="_blank">existential dread</a>" than psychosis. John-Paul Sartre, the atheistic philosopher who made Existentialism popular, wrote on this extensively. In his essay <em>"</em><a href="http://www.mrsmoser.com/uploads/8/5/0/1/8501319/english_11_ib_-_no_exit_-_existentialism_is_a_humanism_-_sartre.pdf" target="_blank">Existentialism is a Humanism</a><em>," </em>he explains:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>"What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist see him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of himself … what do we mean by anguish? The existentialist frankly states that man is in anguish. His meaning is as follows: When a man commits himself to anything, fully realizing that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind—in such a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility."</em><em></em></p><p>If choosing what you are and what meaning your life will have doesn't give you anxiety, Sartre would suggest you're doing something wrong. </p><p>However, this anxiety isn't necessarily cured by belief. <a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kierkegaard/" target="_blank">Soren Kierkegaard</a>, the founder of Existentialism, wrote extensively on the topics of angst, dread, anxiety, and regretting all of your life choices while being a thoroughly devoted Christian. While he argues that the leap of faith can help, he also argues that we are still fundamentally alone and responsible for our choices when it comes to making that anxiety-inducing <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Concept_of_Anxiety" target="_blank">leap</a>.</p><p>The minister's point about swearing as a result of lacking faith is bizarre enough to be left alone. Ten minutes in any bar in the middle section of the country on a Friday night should be enough to convince anybody that any sincere believer can swear while remaining a believer. </p><p>Furthermore, the minister presumes that a believer is going to be of the kind that thinks God is very engaged in human life. While he may suppose God was involved in his tire going flat, many other approaches to the divine reject that idea. Deists, who tend to think that there is a God who created the cosmos but leaves it <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deism#Aspects_of_contemporary_deism" target="_blank">alone</a>, would be an example. </p><p>All in all, the essay described above is an unintentionally hilarious look at what some people think being an atheist is like. It is hardly the <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/can-atheist-be-in-awe-of-universe/" target="_blank">first</a>, and it won't be the last. Anxiety about atheism has a history going back to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apology_(Plato)#Accusers_of_Socrates" target="_blank">ancient Greece</a>—studies demonstrate the continued <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/atheists-threaten-believers-with-mortality" target="_blank">existence</a> of Christian anxiety about atheists—and this essay is another example of people being unduly concerned about it. </p><p>I'd accuse the minister of worrying too much about atheism, but then he'd be <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=39Bnk6VU53Y" target="_blank">one of us</a>. </p>
The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the perception of selfishness among many.
- Selfish behavior has been analyzed by philosophers and psychologists for centuries.
- New research shows people may be wired for altruistic behavior and get more benefits from it.
- Crisis times tend to increase self-centered acts.
Paul Krugman on the Virtues of Selfishness<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="7ZtAkm6C" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="828936bf6953080e9018307354c0c02b"> <div id="botr_7ZtAkm6C_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7ZtAkm6C-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/7ZtAkm6C-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7ZtAkm6C-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> The Nobel Prize-winning economist on the virtues of selfishness.
Evolution Is Moving Us Away from Selfishness. But Where Is It Taking ...<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cyeqmYCb" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="6c5efecb56456e9acc25cf36935b1826"> <div id="botr_cyeqmYCb_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cyeqmYCb-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cyeqmYCb-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cyeqmYCb-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Exploring Morality and Selfishness in Modern Times<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="02eX1Cag" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="45cc6180db791f32683988fb52faff26"> <div id="botr_02eX1Cag_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/02eX1Cag-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/02eX1Cag-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/02eX1Cag-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> Philosopher Peter Singer discusses the state of global ethics.
Parenting could be a distraction from what mattered most to him: his writing.
Ernest Hemingway was affectionately called “Papa," but what kind of dad was he?