Meet the undercover economist
Conversations with Data: #61
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Welcome back, data enthusiasts. In this latest edition of our Conversations with Data newsletter, we have some exciting announcements for you:
News Impact Summit's Data Journalism event programme is out! Some of the confirmed speakers include Financial Times' John Burn-Murdoch, Civio's Eva Belmonte and The Markup's Julia Angwin. Register here.
The Verification Handbook for Disinformation and Media Manipulation is now available in Arabic, English and Turkish in PDF format. A big thanks to Teyit and Al Jazeera Media Institute for providing the translations.
Now to our podcast. In our latest episode of Conversations with Data, we caught up with the FT columnist and BBC broadcaster Tim Harford about his new book, "How to Make the World Add Up". As an economist and journalist, he talks to us about the power of statistics and why they aren't just a tool for debunking misinformation.
What we asked
Tell us about your career and how it began.
I studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University, which is the classic degree for people who have no idea what they want to do with their lives. I thought I would quit economics, but I was persuaded by a wonderful man called Peter Sinclair not to quit. And my new book is dedicated to Peter, who sadly died this year. Having been persuaded to stick with economics, I ended up teaching in Ireland for a year at University College Cork. This was followed by a master's degree back at Oxford.
After that, I worked in scenario planning for Shell and the World Bank before finally joining the Financial Times in 2006. Around the same time, my book, "The Undercover Economist", was published. A TV show based on the book was broadcast by BBC 2. Shortly after that, I was asked if I would present "More or Less" on BBC Radio 4. It was one of those strange things where, as far as my journalism career went, nothing happened for about 10 years, and then everything happened all at once.
Where did your love for interpreting quirky numbers come from?
Well, I had to learn it after I became the presenter of BBC Radio 4's "More or Less". My training as an economist actually didn't really prepare me to think about statistics. It's a different discipline. Obviously, there are numbers in economics, but it is a different thing. I found myself picking up a lot along the way. And one of the things I think I've learnt is that the difference between good statistical journalism and good journalism, in general, is not as big as some people may think.
Tell us about your new book. What should readers take away from it?
The book is an attempt to help people think clearly about the world. My argument is that numbers, statistics are a good way to do that. There are a lot of things that we can only understand about the world; there are patterns we can only perceive if we have the data -- if we are able to to use statistics. They are a tool for showing us the way the world is in the same way that air traffic control needs radar, or an astronomer needs a telescope. We social scientists need statistics. That's the basic argument of the book.
What has disturbed me is so much of the way we think about statistics is in the mode of fact-checking and in particular debunking falsehoods. The most popular book ever published about statistics is reportedly "How To Lie With Statistics" by Darrell Huff. I think it's very striking and very worrying that the most popular take on statistics is from cover to cover a warning against misinformation. We can use statistics to illuminate the world. That's what the book is trying to do and argue for.
Who is the book aimed at?
The book is aimed at helping ordinary citizens have a little bit more confidence in their own judgement and showing them how to apply their own judgement to figure out what's true and what's not.
In your book, you talk about the importance of getting the back story. What advice do you have for data journalists?
There is a couple of things to bear in mind. One is that just because you've got a wonderful spreadsheet in front of you doesn't mean that you shouldn't be picking up the phone and talking to people. For instance, talking to experts who might understand the data better than you or people who created the data. In one of the other chapters, I warn people against premature enumeration. This is when you've got all the numbers to start analysing, plotting graphs and taking averages. I like to think of this as doing all the cool things that we data journalists like to do with numbers before you actually understand what it is that those numbers are describing. And very often there will be really important facts about the data that are not in the spreadsheet but only in the footnotes. Or they won't be visible at all unless you have a conversation with somebody about how the data were produced.
You continuously work across several projects. Where do you get your ideas from?
The world is full of ideas. I find things that happen in the real world. And because I'm a nerd, I'm always looking for a nerdy perspective on that. My very first book, "The Undercover Economist", is mostly a question of me going. "Ha! When I sit in Starbucks, it looks like this. Why does it look like this? Is there an explanation in economic theory as to why it looks like this?" This has me trying to figure out what it is that I'm seeing in the world, but using this quite nerdy lens. While this is not unique to me by any means, it's not typical for a journalist. And the other thing is, I'm often trying to make connections between one thing and another that are not obvious. I'm thinking to myself, what's the parallel?
Finally, what other upcoming projects are on the horizon for you?
This is book number nine. It's coming out in the U.S. and Canada in February 2021. In the rest of the world, it's called "How to Make The World Add Up", but in the U.S. and Canada, it will be called the "The Data Detective". There will be a new series of "Cautionary Tales" podcast coming out in January as a 14 part series. BBC's "More or Less" will also be back on the air in January. So a lot is going on, and I'm sure a new crazy project will occur to me very soon.
Latest from DataJournalism.com
The final News Impact Summit will be held on 24-26 November. Data Journalism: Build Trust in Media is a free live-streamed event held on YouTube hosted by the European Journalism Centre and powered by Google News Initiative. The full programme includes an impressive line-up of speakers from Solutions Journalism Network, OCCRP, Financial Times, Disclose, Civio, WeDoData, Internews and The Markup. Want to attend? Register here for free.
The FinCEN Files investigation reveals how some of the world's biggest banks have allowed criminals to move dirty money around the world. With more than 85 journalists in 30 countries, ICIJ explains how it investigated leaked documents involving about $2 trillion of transactions using statistical and textual analysis. Read the full article here.
Our next conversation
In the next episode of our Conversations with Data podcast, we will speak with Betsy Mason about election maps and how best to communicate results to voters. Betsy is a freelance writer and editor specialising in science and cartography based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is co-author with Greg Miller of All Over the Map, an illustrated book about maps and cartography for National Geographic, and the cartography website Map Dragons. Her work appears in numerous publications including National Geographic, The New York Times, Science, Nature, WIRED and New Scientist.
As always, don’t forget to let us know what you’d like us to feature in our future editions. You can also read all of our past editions here.
Tara from the EJC Data team,
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