My Conversation with Tim Harford

Here is the transcript and audio, here is part of the summary:

Tim joined Tyler to discuss the role of popular economics in a politicized world, the puzzling polarization behind Brexit, why good feedback is necessary (and rare), the limits of fact-checking, the “tremendously British” encouragement he received from Prince Charles, playing poker with Steve Levitt, messiness in music, the underrated aspect of formal debate, whether introverts are better at public speaking, the three things he can’t live without, and more.

Here is one bit near the opening:

COWEN: These are all easy questions. Let’s think about public speaking, which you’ve done quite a bit of. On average, do you think extroverts or introverts are better public speakers?

HARFORD: I am an introvert. I’ve never seen any research into this, so it should be something that one could test empirically. But as an introvert, I love public speaking because I like being alone, and you’re never more alone than when you’re on the stage. No one is going to bother you when you’re up there. I find it a great way to interact with people because they don’t talk back.

COWEN: What other non-obvious traits do you think predict being good at public speaking?

HARFORD: Hmmm. You need to be willing to rehearse and also willing to improvise and make stuff up as you go along. And I think it’s hard for somebody to be willing to do both. I think the people who like to rehearse end up rehearsing too much and being too stiff and not being willing to adapt to circumstances, whereas the people who are happy to improvise don’t rehearse enough, and so their comments are ill formed and ill considered. You need that capacity to do both.

And another segment:

HARFORD: …Brian Eno actually asked me a slightly different question, which I found interesting, which was, “If you were transported back in time to the year 700, what piece of technology would you take — or knowledge or whatever — what would you take with you from the present day that would lead people to think that you were useful, but would also not cause you to be burned as a witch?”

COWEN: A hat, perhaps.


COWEN: If it’s the British Isles.

HARFORD: Well, a hat is useful. I suggested the Langstroth beehive. The Langstroth beehive was invented in about 1850. It’s an enormously important technology in the domestication of bees. It’s a vast improvement on pre-Langstroth beehives, vast improvement on medieval beehives. Yet, it’s fairly straightforward to make and to explain to people how it works and why it works. I think people would appreciate it, and everybody likes honey, and people have valued bees for a long time. So that would have been my answer.


COWEN: I’ve read all of your books. I’ve read close to all of your columns, maybe all of them in fact, and I’m going to ask you a question I also asked Reid Hoffman. You know the truths of economics, plenty of empirical papers. Why aren’t you weirder? I’ve read things by you that I disagreed with, but I’ve never once read anything by you that I thought was outrageous. Why aren’t you weirder?

The conversation has many fine segments, definitely recommended, Tim was in top form.  I very much enjoyed our “Brexit debate” as well, too long to reproduce here, but I made what I thought was the best case for Brexit possible and Tim responded.


There is nothing puzzling about Brexit polarisation if one has been reading Murdoch owned popular press sources.

Thinking that your opponents have been manipulated by the media into believing what they believe is one of the most comforting ways to misunderstand your opponents.

Leading to a simple question, have you read the English popular press?

The old Marxist "False Consciousness" Doctrine, ith some scapegoating thrown in this time in the form of "if it wasn't for those pesky Murdochs," like a Scooby Doo villain.

OR it could simply be true!

As actually referenced by someone who grew up in and is familiar with the British press landscape. From the transcript - But it gave you a sense of what the different newspapers were saying. Although I wasn’t very conscious of it, to observe how the Daily Mail and the Guardian and the Telegraph and the Times and the Sun — these classic British newspapers — might all report the exact same event, and to see how different their takes were, I think is a useful education.

Typically, being an introvert and an inability to multi-task overlap. Good speakers are multi-taskers. Also, introverts are drained of energy in a crowd, while extroverts are charged with energy in a crowd. Is Hartford an introvert? Probably not. What he likes is being in control - the speaker is in control of the room. That's different from being an introvert. People rarely give an accurate description of themselves. Any why should they?

Where do you get this stuff, rayward?

Multitasking involves engaging in two tasks simultaneously. But here's the catch. It's only possible if two conditions are met: 1) at least one of the tasks is so well learned as to be automatic, meaning no focus or thought is necessary to engage in the task (e.g., walking or eating) and 2) they involve different types of brain processing. For example, you can read effectively while listening to classical music because reading comprehension and processing instrumental music engage different parts of the brain. However, your ability to retain information while reading and listening to music with lyrics declines significantly because both tasks activate the language center of the brain.


Thanks for confirming my point. Yes, I can read and listen to music because they involve different parts of the brain, but I have difficulty giving a presentation on a topic and being constantly interrupted with questions about the topic. Sure, being well learned on the topic helps, but going from the presentation to the question and back again is a challenge. Introverts tend to be linear while extroverts are not. Introverts have the ability to focus like a laser and stay on task, while extroverts do not.

Yeah, but: (1) What you're describing isn't called "multitasking," and (2) you've presented absolutely no evidence for your claim that introverts, extroverts, and ambiverts differ in their ability to do this switch-back-and-forth thing that you insist on calling "multitasking."

So you're wrong on two different levels.

For rayward that's progress.

"Also, introverts are drained of energy in a crowd, while extroverts are charged with energy in a crowd."

No that's phrase is bogus. I'm an extrovert by most of the standard tests and the agreement of everyone who knows me. But I'm drained by crowds and indeed generally dislike being physically crowded. To the point, I won't go to concerts and avoid Christmas shopping. (Thank you Amazon!)

I do enjoy socializing but find the need to recharge (solitary time) afterwards

You only think your are an extrovert because being an introvert is considered inferior. That's why my comment about introverts/extroverts raises hackles. Most people know less about themselves than they do about the dimwit down the street.

This is a big oversimplification. I'm as introverted as they come and I definitely don't get "drained" by crowds.

"...and I should know, for I am that dimwit!"

I cannot judge if I am a good speaker or not——although I believe I am a good speaker. I have spoken in front of large audiences (300-500) and small (15-20). Regardless of if I am good or not, I have always tried to follow the method Mr Harford outlines. I most definitely practice out loud—-from handwritten bullet points (I have spoken from teleprompters—-that is a different thing ) and I time myself. That way of practice almost guarantees a mixture of keeping on a disciplined pace while maintaining an ability to be spontaneous. It is okay to go down sidebars, but one must return pretty quickly. In small audiences——say 25-75—I do my best to try and engage the audience——and try and naturally have them ask questions within the speech itself. I wrote this comment only because I have never read about “how to give a speech”. Oddly, I never thought of doing that—-but I have no reason to think that would not be good. After reading Mr Harwood’s comment, perhaps I will!

One more thing—-There are many times I have been a drone. One most always be aware that the audience can easily become bored with you——try to have a personality——sometimes that can be difficult.

This conversation is from before Johnson was elected prime minister?

Brexit really makes everything drag out forever, doesn't it? At least it was not a Bloomberg columnist responsible for this - There is a reasonable chance the election will break the logjam, but there’s a reasonable chance that it won’t. I guess we’ll see.

Truly amazing insight regarding Scotland - I think it’s quite plausible they will, quite plausible they won’t. 50/50.

Very persuasive speaking indeed. Though such phrasing seems designed to avoid making a judgment of success or failure.

This was recorded in in Nov 2019, i.e. before the December general election Johnson called. I've added a note to the transcript to make this clearer.

You would have been highly unlikely to be burned as a witch in 700. Witchburning was rare in Europe before the Inquisition was formed in the 1200s, and even then was pretty uncommon until a spike in the 17th century. And unless you were specifically presenting yourself as using magic, if you had a flashlight or calculator or whatever, I think people would understand you had some sort of advanced mechanical device.

Imagine an economist doll saying this about mathematicians - "They work in such complicated mathematics."

war games movie, not empire sun movie Joshua the kids clone was john paul 1, im not catholic brother was and his twin died and then the satellites nuked john paul 1, Gerald ford was basically john paul 2, im always abel, Ronald goldman, Ronald Reagan, Reagan and Obama, RO hey the copyright R ring that's me, its very fun, the state will take anyone and take their inputs and make a bunch of profitable corporations or startups with geds dropouts nerds etc, the more educated the less profitable says the intuition ring, anyway nerds are fun though indoctrinated with intentionally saturated Marxist education system, they did extremely poorly when taking over at newtowne, the lefts phds and intellectuals took over at newtowne the lefts laymen will just follow the Clinton recipe, about what I was doing with austerity and ttp ttip, anyway im glad everyone got hired and everyone got raises and the gig economy is dead

still never been baptized, though I have a calvin satellite from the dutch bible my only inheritance the tall guy from three days of the condor the dutch immigrant, that's why im never the pope body, have been Europe helped pope benedict, subversive communists tried to kill benedict and then a uk monarch during planned Bolshevik revolution, they had it planned since 1990 (I remember because I was there), anyway trumps actually pretty good, minus the tweets and rhetoric a spin city guy who entertains the masses while a huge state makes him a genius in the background

700 years in the past?

Ahhhhh, hops for beer.

Well, 700AD, so 1300 years in the past, but still pre-hops. I think they did add various herbs and things in their beers though, so they still might very well have had things to balance out the maltiness.

duh! 700 AD.

Well, hops is not only for flavor. It also helps to stabilize the drink and allow it to transport it far away from the production site......export it, international trade.

So, hops allowed the evolution of beer making from home production to large scale production in breweries. Industrial revolution =)

A local brewery made some non-hops based beer a few years back -- it really wasn't bad. What would would be worse about 700 year old beer would be the lack of carbonation (and refrigeration).

From a book I read decades ago, The knowledge to make a still. It's easy enough to understand, and hard liquor is an extremely valuable commodity. And of course, it doesn't require refrigeration and doesn't spoil.

I tend to think movable type a few hundred years early would have the biggest impact. Imagine publishing the first book on beer!

Show 'em a compass.

Burnt the witch!!!

Someday I hope Tyler doesn’t recommend one of his conversations.

I love how you think there is still a Brexit debate.

Maybe next time you can debate German reunification?

Tim came across as a highly likeable guy.

I disagree with him on Brexit, but he’s a writer I enjoy anc learn from, disagreements or not.

I only read the transcript - was there laughter when Harford said "the BBC is of course neutral and independent and balanced."?

I laughed loudly but I was listening in my car.

"No one is going to bother you when you’re up there. I find it a great way to interact with people because they don’t talk back."
That's how I feel. Public speaking is not confrontational. I like it, one on one can be harder.

Cowen: " But you’ve had a higher growth rate than Germany, right?"

Per capita GDP growth rate from 2017:


Minor nitpick: I think he overvalues dice. They are a quick and easy randomizer but here are three substitutes:

Cards. Not just drawing a random playing card, because there are also "card-driven" games where the cards are designed for the game and have words, events, scenarios, or whatever written on them that tell you what's going on.

Coins. Yeah a single coin only gives you two possible outcomes, but flip 3 coins of different denominations and you've got the equivalent of an 8-sided die.

And in high school when I spent a lot of class time playing games with classmates, but we didn't want to do physically obvious acts such as throwing dice or flipping coins, I'd write down a two or three digit number, have my friend state a three-digit number, and then we'd multiply them, IIRC we'd sum the digits of the product and use the final (ones') digit as our random number. Much more time consuming than rolling a die but from a distance it would appear that we were working on something like a math problem. Obviously works only for games where die rolls are needed only occasionally.

I see YouTube Kids advertising every time we watch a Disney track (which is very often) but wouldn't trust a pre-teen with it unsupervised.

I guess you don't want the subject to drive the interview but how many times would Harford have to bring up gaming before it would get a little more attention? I think there were 4 or 5 mentions of games, board games, dice, etc. Maybe the next time he's on, Tyler can devote the overrated/underrated segment to different games?

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