The Truth Detective: How To Make Sense Of A World That Doesn’t Add Up by Tim Harford

The Blurb On The Back:

Wanted: Truth Detectives!

Did you know that a TOY SPACESHIP can teach you about why prices keep rising?

Or that a pooping cow can show you how to INVEST YOUR POCKET MONEY?

And that even the greatest minds have been fooled by FAKE NEWS and dancing fairies?

In a world of bamboozling headlines and dodgy data, it can be hard to work out what’s really going on.

So pick up your magnifying glass and join Tim Harford, economist and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s More or Less, on an investigative adventure packed with tips and tricks to help you hunt down the truth about the world around you – using the power of numbers and your own brilliant brain!

THE TRUTH DETECTIVE was released in the United Kingdom on 16th March 2023.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

You can order THE TRUTH DETECTIVE by Tim Harford from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Tim Harford is an economic journalist and broadcaster who hosts BBC Radio 4’s programme MORE OR LESS.  This very useful guide to understanding statistics and data is aimed at readers aged 9+ and includes concepts such as inflation while looking at how information is presented and how that can be used to fool you.  Ollie Mann’s accompanying illustrations are lively and witty and I enjoyed the conceit of drawing in fictional detectives.

I picked this up because I have enjoyed Harford’s work on MORE OR LESS and given the need to encourage younger readers to think about maths and statistics, I was interested to see how he approached what can be quite complicated ideas.

The book is centred on the idea of behaving like a detective when it comes to looking at statistics, data and information and I liked the fact that Harford puts forward a number of fictional detectives (with a particular focus on Sherlock Holmes but includes less well known detectives like Ottoline Brown and Feluda).  

I wish he had used more examples of this other detectives to show how to question data and statistics because as it is, it is very Holmes heavy, but I can’t complain about how he uses ‘real life’ people who either challenged assumptions using data/statistics or presented their findings in a way that helped people to understand them.  I was particularly interested in the mini section on Florence Nightingale because I had no idea of the work she had done in presenting research on mortality in order to get her ideas across (and nor did I know how sly she was in how she presented that information).  Special mention should be made to the fact the fact that he does not look at the people he mentions uncritically, e.g. Darrell Huff gets mentioned as a villain because while he pointed out how statistics could lie, he then accepted payment from the tobacco industry to misrepresent statistics for their benefit.

The book goes through points not only about what is in data/statistics but also what’s missing, what types of comparison are being made, and how to present information.  He also pays specific attention to confirmation bias and how information/statistic/data can play to what you want to believe and why some people believe things because they “feel” right.  There are plenty of real life examples here to support his arguments, e.g. the pooping Norwegian cow that predicted stock prices, which is sure to appeal to younger readers.

Ollie Mann’s illustrations have a fun, cartoon quality but also support the ways in which statistics can be presented and I liked the bright oranges, greys and blacks as they really pop against the text.

All in all I think this is a good, solid guide that really makes you think about what you’re being told and how you’re being told it.  On that basis, this is definitely worth a look even if you have a younger reader who isn’t ordinarily keen on anything maths or statistics related.  

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