The Data Detective: notes from Tim Harford’s 2020 guide on numeracy

Our preconceptions warp our interpretation about statistics, and our political decisions shape what data we even collect.

It can seem statistics aren’t worth trouble. But statistics show us things we cannot see any other way, like the human or anecdotal scale. So goes economics journalist Tim Harford’s 2020 celebration of and guide through statistical analysis for the layperson, the book The Data Detective: Ten Easy Rules To Make Sense of Statistics.

“It’s easy to lie with statistics,” goes the line that gets attributed to American mathematician Frederick Mosteller (1916-2006). “But it’s even easier to lie without them.”

I’ve read a few of Harford’s books, which are friendly, fun and readable. They’re full of stories and collected wisdom for those interested in overcoming statistical trickery.

Below I share my notes from the book for future reference.

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Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts and Fake News

Tall tales and blurring the lines between fact and fiction is part of the American identity.

Fake news isn’t new but the latest variation on the theme. So argued Kevin Young in his 2017 book Bunk
The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News

The book came from a series of articles he wrote for The New Yorker. It mashes culture, journalism, cultural appropriation and Americana. It reads like a collection of interesting tidbits, which can be fun, though I put the book down and picked it back up a few times over the couple years since it was given to me.

It still adds to my understanding of my field and my country. As Young quotes poet Mary Karr as saying: “The American religion — so far as there is one anymore — seems to be doubt. Whoever believes the least wins, because he’ll never be found wrong.”

Below I share my notes from the book for my future reference.

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Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few

Pitting the free market against government intervention is a false premise. Free markets can’t last without government intervention. The debate is how much, which is not just an economic but a political challenge to overcome.

That’s a big theme from Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few, a 2015 book from progressive academic Robert Reich, who was President Clinton’s labor secretary. Today he’s a prolific writer, speaker and social content producer. Though I don’t align entirely with his politics, he’s a thoughtful and effective writer. I still recommend the book after all these years.

Below I share my own notes for future reference.

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A list of once-great, now closed Philadelphia manufacturing giants

Philadelphia is old enough a city that its business community has lived many lifetimes.

Though its Quakerly tradition shunned ostentatious consumption, there are old roots. In 1732, The Rowland Company became one of the first incorporated businesses in the country (and it still operates in Philadelphia). 1881, Wharton became the first college-level business school. The Philadelphia Contributionship(1752) is the country’s oldest property insurance company; Rawle & Henderson (1783) is the oldest law-firm and (since relocated) D. Landreth Seed Company (1783) is the oldest seed companies (George Washington was a customer).

Philadelphia’s global clout declined in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Many of its prominent manufacturing businesses did not adapt to a changing world. Out of my own curiosity I’ve started a running tab of some of the more prominent closures from that time.

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I Never Thought of It That Way: notes on having difficult conversations

Our whole lives bring us to each opinion we hold.

Or, as Mónica Guzmán puts it: “We don’t see with our eyes after all but our whole biographies”

Guzmán happens to be an old friend from early in our journalism careers. She has since joined a movement for more civil discourse. Her latest step in that work was publishing last year her book I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times.

I’m inspired by Guzmán’s work and her approach. The book reads as a kind of manual for engaging across the political spectrum, and is part of a movement of advocates, nonprofits and organizations intending to improve civil dialogue. Guzmán advises us to pursue INTOIT moments, or “I never thought of it that way.” When do those moments confirm or challenge our beliefs?

To get there, she guides us to ask good questions that follow CARE (curious, answerable, raw and exploring). Examples includes asking “How did you come to believe?” rather than why do you believe this. Another one she likes: What am I missing? Most generally I appreciated her guidance: “The most important thing about bridges is not It to cross them but to keep them.”

Below I share my notes from the book for my future research.

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Code of the Street

In the 1990s, a 15-year-old we’ll call Tyree moved from an unstable home in North Philadelphia to his grandmother’s home in Southwest Philadelphia. Her home was stable, but he walked into a new neighborhood with new dynamics. He fought his way into a new group of teenage boys who lived there and suffered violence and intimidation. All along, he had to follow an unwritten code.

In some sense, it’s an old story, as old as the the Roman empire or shogunate Japan, maybe older still. The difference today is this code’s interplay with race, drugs, more powerful weapons and higher expectations for we think the American promise is. This theme and that story are from the 1999 book, “Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City,” written by ethnographer and academic Elijah Anderson. (It was published following to surging crime and the proliferation of drugs within cities in the 1990s, and was followed by books like Off the Books focused on the underground economy.)

Earlier that decade, Anderson wrote about similar themes in the Atlantic. The book gives more space to allow it to read almost like an oral history, with lengthy passages from residents.

The book explores the cultural and internal battle between “decent” and “street” life by going deep on several neighborhoods in Philadelphia, especially Germantown in its northwest section. That decent and street divide runs throughout the book. Through an ethnographic study and lengthy direct quotes from residents, Anderson delves into the intricate code of the street, which has developed as a way for residents to replace trust in institutions and instead rely on their own methods of justice and protection.

According to Anderson, the vast majority of residents in these hard hit neighborhoods of the 1990s were “decent” and trying to live a peaceful life, with only a small minority belonging to street families involved in drugs and violence. However, the proliferation of guns has made even small conflicts deadly, and the code of the street dictates that might makes right. Children as young as 10 years old begin to identify with and engage in either a decent or street lifestyle, with a strong cultural belief that toughness is a virtue and humility is not, he writes.

Anderson also writes about the concept of “code switching,” in which individuals alternate between decent and street behavior depending on the situation. The term “code switching” has become much more commonly used to describe how Black Americans navigate white culture, though this use is at least as important and interesting.

Throughout the book, Anderson discusses the role that economic dislocation, drugs, and a lack of opportunities play in the development and adherence to the code of the street. He also touches on the discrimination faced by black men in the job market and the impact of welfare reform on family dynamics. The consequences of the code of the street are severe, with a high rate of incarceration among black men in their 20s and the acceptance of early pregnancy and single motherhood as a way of life.

Overall, “Code of the Street” offers a detailed and nuanced look at the complex issues facing poor urban communities. Tellingly, though almost 25 years ago, the book is still informative, if only as a window into the voices and perspectives in the late 1990s confronting the cultural forces at play. I recommend the book. My notes are below.

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Intellectuals and Society

If “social justice” is the work to ensure our human-made systems operate with greater fairness, then “cosmic justice” is the understanding that the universe results in countless unexpected obstacles to that goal.

At times these forces operate in competition, and to better understand the world, one must appreciate them both. That’s among the themes of Intellectuals & Society, a dense 2010 book written by conservative economist Thomas Sowell. The book is centrally a criticism of “intellectuals,” whom Sowell describes as those “dealers in ideas” who have never implemented any. By and large, he directs his ire on left-leaning academics, authors and commentators.

Sowell’s writing and speaking are frequently distributed on social media via the Hoover Institution and other right-leaning political efforts, so I was curious to dig deeper into his work. Harvard educated and associated with the conservative University of Chicago economics department (an acolyte of Milton Friedman), Sowell is himself is one of the more prominent conservative intellectuals.

The book has a few opinions that might be considered unsavory, and others that twist facts as much as he criticizes his political opponents of doing. For example, he rightly celebrates the good of a free market, but he seems unwilling to admit of any market failures — like, industry consolidation that eventually results in limited choice, or the concentration of inherited wealth that saps productivity.

But Sowell is serious and rigorous, so I follow him for his perspective. Like, John Stuart Mill wrote of those whose politics differ from your own, “know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”

In particular, I appreciate two bits of criticism he lobs at the left. For one, years back I heard his challenge that progressives spend a lot of time working to redistribute wealth without pausing much to consider how that wealth is created in the first place. In my reporting, I’ve found that to be largely (if not entirely) true. Second, in this book in particular he introduces a framework between the “tragic vision” of the world, in which the world will always be messy, and the “vision of the anointed,” in which the world can be cleaned up. Sowell, who clearly identifies with the tragic vision, criticizes intellectuals as falling victim to the vision of anointed — forever trotting out some neat and clean idea to organize the world without ever caring much about how it works in practice.

I disagree with Sowell on lots of topics. But he is someone who challenges me in important ways. I respect him, so I would recommend his books, including this long and dense tome. Below I share my notes from the book for my future reference.

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Merchants of Doubt

The modern era of fighting facts with doubt began on Dec. 15, 1953.

Months earlier, landmark research from Sloan-Kettering showed cigarette tar gave mice fatal cancers, and the attention was widespread. The research wasn’t even groundbreaking. In the 1930s, Nazi scientists documented cigarette dangers — but, you know, they were Nazis, so polite Allied researchers weren’t keen to rely on them. That’s why this new research from a credible American institution was so damning.

To combat this, the tobacco industry met at a New York hotel that day to decide to actively discredit the research. Not engage in it, not to adapt the product but just to muddy the waters. A now infamous internal trade memo in 1969 said “doubt is our product.” This strategy was then repeated again and again. It was employed by organizations such as the Marshall Institute, which pushed for the “balanced” coverage of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, also known as “Star Wars”) and climate change. That’s what one-time Trump ally Steve Bannon meant when he advised political campaigns to “flood the zone with shit.”

This work and the men behind it is the focus of the influential 2010 book “Merchants of Doubt,” written by by Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes and made into a movie. discusses the tactics used by various organizations to challenge scientific consensus and sow doubt in the minds of the general public, with a focus on the tobacco and defense industries. It highlights the dangers of giving equal weight to both sides of an issue, regardless of the strength of the evidence supporting each side.

More than a decade later the book is enlightening, My notes from the book are below.

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Finding your ikigai

I was first Introduced to the Japanese concept of “ikigai” while studying in Tokyo in 2006. It may have shaped me subtly but I missed much of the meaning.

In recent years, this approach to finding a purpose has gotten much Western attention, and I’ve found it much more important to me at this stage of my life. A few years back I wrote down what I feel my ikigai is today and follow it. I recently read the 2016 book “Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life” by Francesc Miralles and Hector Garcia and found their translation of the concept refreshing.

One of the ways to find ikigai is by following the habits of the so-called “Blue Zones,” which are areas of the world with the highest concentrations of centenarians (people who live to be 100 or older). The Blue Zones have certain things in common, such as a diet low in calories and rich in vegetables, a strong sense of purpose and social connections, and regular physical activity.

Another important aspect of ikigai is the idea of “hara hachi bu,” which means eating until you are 80% full. This concept comes from Okinawa, Japan, and is believed to help people live longer, healthier lives.

The book also discusses the importance of mental training and stress management for overall well-being. The American Institute of Stress has found that many health problems are caused by stress, and it’s important to find ways to manage it.

In addition to physical and mental well-being, the book emphasizes the importance of finding flow and living in the present moment. The concept of “flow,” as defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, refers to a state of complete immersion in an activity.

Finally, the book discusses the idea of resiliency and anti-fragility, which involve the ability to adapt and thrive in the face of adversity. This is similar to the teachings of Stoicism, a philosophy that emphasizes the importance of accepting what we cannot control and focusing on what we can control.

Overall, “Ikigai” is a clarifying and inspiring book that offers practical advice for finding purpose and living a fulfilling life.

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Guns, Germs and Steel: notes from the 1997 classic

The distribution of productive grains and domestic-friendly animals was highly concentrated. This explains a vast amount of the inequality we face today.

That argument was made famous in the classic 1997 book “Guns, Germs and Steel,” written by Jared Diamond. The book’s case is so influential that I’ve seen it routinely referenced across dozens of books and articles I’ve read. I wanted to return to the source so I finally read the original book. It was even wider in scope than I realized.

Diamond posits that the root of cultural differences can be traced back to geographical and environmental factors, including the availability of domesticable plants and animals, the presence of diseases, and the ability to develop and spread technology.

One key point made by Diamond is that the availability of domesticable plants and animals played a significant role in the development of societies. For example, the Fertile Crescent, which includes the Middle East, had a wealth of domesticable grains and animals, such as goats, sheep, cows, and pigs, which allowed for the development of farming and the creation of larger, denser populations. In contrast, regions like Mesoamerica had fewer domesticable species and struggled to develop farming at the same rate.

Diamond also discusses the impact of disease on human societies, particularly the way that farming and larger, denser populations facilitated the spread of germs. In many cases, European colonizers brought diseases with them to the Americas and other regions, leading to devastating epidemics among indigenous populations. However, in a few exceptional cases, Diamond also notes that indigenous diseases decimated European colonizers and their livestock, as was the case in the tropics.

Finally, Diamond examines the role of technology in the development of societies, noting that the presence of metalworking and writing, for example, can be linked to the success of certain societies. Overall, Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” offers a thought-provoking examination of the complex factors that have shaped human history.

Portions of his wide-sweeping argument have been challenged. Nothing so simple is ever perfect. But it’s still provocative and important.

Find my notes from the classic below.

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