Cautionary Tales

Cautionary Tales – Number Fever; How Pepsi Nearly Went Pop

Pepsi twice ended up in court after promotions went disastrously wrong. Other big companies have fallen into the same trap – promising customers rewards so generous that to fulfil the promise might mean corporate bankruptcy. Businesses and customers alike are sometimes blinded by the big […]

In conversation with David Spiegelhalter, and the power of checklists

A few weeks ago Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter and I sat down to talk about “what do the numbers mean?”, courtesy of the Cambridge Festival. The conversation is now online – enjoy! I am popping with delight at the news that I have been shortlisted […]

Cautionary Tales – The Curse of Knowledge meets the Valley of Death

How assuming others understand exactly what we are thinking gets people killed. Why were soldiers on horseback told to ride straight into a valley full of enemy cannon? The disastrous “Charge of the Light Brigade” is usually blamed on blundering generals. But the confusing orders […]

Late greats: why some brilliant ideas get overlooked

In 1928, Karl Jansky, a young radio engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories, began researching static interference that might obscure voice transmissions. Five years later, after building a large rotating antenna and investigating every possibility he could think of, he published his remarkable conclusion: some of […]

What data can’t do, and maths without numbers

The New Yorker reviews “The Data Detective” – a wonderful essay from Hannah Fry titled What Data Can’t Do. Go for the anecdote about Tony Blair, stay for the phrase “insidious Kahnemanian swap”. Book of the week: Math without Numbers by Milo Beckman. I picked […]

Cautionary Tales – The Dunning Kruger Hijack, and Other Criminally Stupid Acts

The height of stupidity is being too stupid to know you are stupid… and it’s more common than you think. The hijackers of flight 961 wanted its pilot to fly them to Australia – and wouldn’t listen to his pleas that there simply wasn’t enough […]

Invisible gorillas and indiscriminate doubt

What Conspiracy Theorists Don’t Believe. I was delighted to be commissioned by The Atlantic to write about why indiscriminate doubt is at least as damaging as indiscriminate belief – and in particular, that a fruitful way to think about conspiracy theorists is not by pondering […]