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Issue 6

Book Review: How to Make the World Add Up by Tim Harford

Samyukta Prabhu

Through ten simple rules, Tim Harford breaks down how one can question and understand the data presented in everyday news.

In How To Make The World Add Up, Tim Harford, presenter of BBC’s radio show More or Less and an economist by training, writes a compelling case for the field of statistics. Through the course of the book, Harford explores how statistics can help us understand the world around us in clear and simple ways. He also addresses scepticism about statistics, and tells us why it shouldn’t be dismissed as a means of masking lies and spreading misinformation. 

Harford tells us ten simple rules that we can follow, to better understand the facts and numbers that are presented to us through media. He uses several relevant anecdotes, from the pages of history books to the ongoing pandemic, to tell us how and why we should dig deeper into the information that we receive. Throughout the ten rules and the book, there exists a recurring theme – to be curious. Whether it’s rule 1, that asks us to pause and consider our emotional reaction to a piece of news, or rule 4, that prods us to look for comparisons and context to put a claim into perspective, Harford ultimately urges us to be smartly curious about everything we consume. 

While the book does not draw on technicalities from the field of statistics (don’t worry, there are no mentions of p-value or R-squared here!) it urges the lay reader to consider what statistics professors regularly tell their students. For instance, rule 3 asks us to reflect on the labels of different data components, in newspaper data diagrams and academic papers alike. Similarly, rule 5 explains why looking at the source of data collection (and consequently, the motives and limitations of the data collectors) is necessary. While these rules are mostly straightforward, they are rarely followed by consumers of media. Harford recognises that it is not feasible to ask a reader to judge all the media that they consume through these ten rules. Instead, he proposes the use of these rules as a tool to form a “preliminary assessment” of a news source. If there is no effort made by the author to define terms or give the source of the data, there may be a reason to doubt their claims. At the very least, it should urge you to do a quick Google search to validate the information. The simplicity of these rules can help us easily dig deep into dubious claims made on our social media newsfeeds and television news channels.

The book also delves into specific problems around us, such as algorithmic bias and political polarisation, and tells us how we can figure a way out of it. Without giving too much away, Harford asks readers to appeal to their curiosity to question the types of media they choose to consume and believe in. While statistics might help us establish a correlation between a person’s political belief and the kinds of news channels they follow, Harford gives us a way out of our echo chambers. As he explains in rule 6, we need to develop a skill to recognise what data is being obfuscated or left out in the articles we read and the videos we watch. If we put our political beliefs on pause for a while and analyse our news sources, Harford believes we might come away with more information than we possessed before.

Harford also uses several interesting anecdotes throughout the book to keep the reader engaged. These include controversial studies, where statistics played an important role in establishing credibility. One such study links smoking cigarettes to lung cancer – a contentious claim made by Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill in 1954. Harford explores how the response by the tobacco lobbyists is a tactic that is used by several politicians: namely, raising doubts about the statistical procedures used in the study. The author helps the reader realise the importance of statistics in understanding consequential matters around us by providing many such case studies.

Overall, the book is a relevant and useful read in a time when we are constantly bombarded with more numbers and data analyses than we know what to do with. Harford urges us to rethink the bad name that statistics has been given over the years––a way to come up with dubious studies and clickbait news headlines––and consider it as a magical way of breaking down the hordes of incomprehensible numbers we receive in everyday media. Over time, if we manage to apply even a few rules out of the given ten to the media we consume, we might be able to better understand the nuances and complexities packed in the underlying research. In this manner, the book lives up to its name and truly helps make the world add up.

Samyukta is a student of Economics, Finance and Media Studies at Ashoka University. In her free time, she enjoys discovering interesting long-form reads and exploring new board games.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

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