Tim Harford’s latest book is a cracker (Adam Smith meets Malcolm Gladwell). It’s titled Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure. Some choice quotes:
An enterprising civil servant… decided to bypass the regular commissioning process and order the new plane as ‘a most interesting experiment’. The plane was the Supermarine Spitfire. … it is only a small exaggeration to say that the Spitfire was the plane that saved the free world.
He studied… statistics on the death of corporate titans and compared them with half a billion years of data from the fossil record. The timescales were different, but the relationship between the size of an extinction event and its frequency proved to be exactly the same. … If companies really could plan successfully – as many of us naturally assume that they can… then the extinction signature of companies would look totally different to that of species. In reality, the signatures could hardly be more similar.
Margaret Thatcher famously declared, ‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.’ Tony Blair was proud of the fact that he didn’t’ have a reverse gear. Nobody would buy a car that didn’t turn or go backwards, so it is unclear why we think of these as desirable qualities in Prime Ministers. … But whether we like it or not, trial and error is a tremendously powerful process for solving problems in a complex world, while expert leadership is not.
The Soviet failure revealed itself much more gradually: it was a pathological inability to experiment.
And so Mario Capecci became a street urchin at the age of four and a half. … In 2007, Mario Capecci was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for this work on mouse genes. As the NIH’s expert panel had earlier admitted when agreeing to renew his funding: ‘We are glad you didn’t follow our advice.’
scientific societies shifted from chiefly awarding prizes to mostly handing out grants… Grants, unlike prizes, are a powerful tool of patronage. Prizes, in contrast, are open to anyone who produces results. That makes them intrinsically threatening to the establishment
[Archie] Cochrane … was a prisoner of war in a German camp in Salonica when the prisoners were struck by a severe outbreak of pitting oedemas – a horrible swelling up of fluid under the legs. … he improvised a trial with the only two potential treatments at his disposal: his personal store of vitamin C tablets and some Marmite… He divided twenty severe cases into two groups of ten… one young German doctor … studied the data. He was deeply impressed by the care of the clinical trial and the incontrovertible results.
evaluation experts such as Esther Duflo and Edward Miguel have criticised the evaluation of the Millennium Villages. They may be working brilliantly and they may not, but without a randomised trial it’s going to be difficult to know.
the Inland Revenue Service recently increased the rewards people could earn by reporting suspected tax evaders, and the number of tip-offs increased sixfold
The differences between a carbon permit scheme and a carbon tax are insignificant relative to the differences between having some kind of carbon price and not having one. [See also Peter Martin's column, which quotes Harford on carbon pricing.]