Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford

Pushkin Industries

We tell our children unsettling fairy tales to teach them valuable lessons, but these Cautionary Tales are for the education of the grown ups – and they are all true. Tim Harford (Financial Times, BBC, author of “The Data Detective”) brings you stories of awful human error, tragic catastrophes, and hilarious fiascos. They'll delight you, scare you, but also make you wiser. New episodes every other Friday.

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Our Editor's Take

The Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford podcast updates an old concept for a modern audience. The literal idea behind a cautionary tale is to tell a fable that would warn the listener of the consequences of doing something wrong. Host Tim Harford writes "The Undercover Economist" column for Financial Times. But the podcast has a different theme than his day job.

Each story in the Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford podcast is true. Harford retells these stories to make a point. Thus the title. He also happens to have famous friends act out characters. Alan Cumming, Helena Bonham-Carter, and Malcolm Gladwell, among others, appear.

Thomas Midgely Jr. is one such example in the Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford podcast. This inventor was behind both leaded gasoline and freon. These things changed the world and helped poison it as well. Yet he got lead poisoning from his own discovery. But that isn't what killed him. Then he contracted polio and became paralyzed. But that didn't kill him, either. What did kill him was the pulley system he had invented to help himself in and out of his bed. The ropes strangled him.

For generations, people have warned of poisoned Halloween candy. But this is a myth, except for the man who poisoned Pixy Styx to kill his own son. The Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford podcast explains how and why this happened. The killer was in debt and wanted to collect on an insurance policy.

Two episodes involve Roald Amundsen. He beat Captain Robert Falcon Scott to be first to the South Pole, despite Scott having more money. What was the deciding factor? And why was Amundsen's reputation destroyed despite winning in a fair fashion? The podcast explains. Other Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford episodes talk about famous people. Howard Hughes and Anne Frank are among past subjects. Listeners interested in true-life stories may like this series.

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