Tim Harford: Trial, error and the God complex

Tim Harford’s new book Adapt is essential reading for anyone interested in how to improve development aid.

In this TEDTalk, Tim worries about the prevalence of the ‘God complex’ among politicians, doctors and economists in a world where problems and their solutions are multifaceted and complex.

Tim is a big fan of adaptation through variation and selection, trial and error, to find solutions to complex problems. His thesis is that in order to get closer to solving things like global poverty, we need humility and a willingness to make mistakes — ‘good mistakes.’

This is not a new idea for aid policy, Bill Easterly, Esther Duflo and Owen Barder have all made similar arguments. Indeed, Tim mentions them prominently in his book.

Yet adaptation through ‘trial and error’ is an idea that big aid bureaucracies have struggled to come to terms with as they scale up development programs. In the long run though, the best aid agencies will be the ones that adapt fastest and most efficiently. And Tim’s book is packed with cautionary tales for those that don’t..