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Episode Transcript

Hey there, it’s Stephen Dubner. The other day, I sat back and took a look at the work we’ve been putting out on Freakonomics Radio over the past few months. I’m really proud of it; I think a lot of the episodes are very strong; but a lot of the topics are tough: the continuing opioid epidemic; the political and economic issues around immigration, both legal and illegal; the boom in fraud among academic researchers; and how the private equity industry is making our economy evermore top-heavy. Like I said: good episodes, but — yeah, serious stuff. Also: there are wars going on all over the place. Our former and maybe future president just became the first presidential felon. I could go on and on, and I’m sure you could too. So, today we’re bringing you something a bit different, a bit lighter, to head into summer. Something to think about, and maybe talk about, on your cross-country road trip, or while you’re working in the garden, or maybe flying to another continent to visit family, or go to a wedding, or just catch your breath. As you know, we spend a lot of time on this show simply looking for interesting new things in the world, and trying to explain them. Today’s guest is very good at finding such things. For instance:

Tom WHITWELL: There is this thing called takuhaibin. If you are traveling around Japan, rather than hauling your bags from hotel to hotel, there’s a whole system. Every hotel apparently has it. You send it on, and then they ship your bags around for you. I’d never heard of that before. And then you sort of think, well, why don’t we have that?

Stephen DUBNER: Yeah, why don’t we?

WHITWELL: That I don’t know. I only know the facts, and nothing else.

Today on Freakonomics Radio, facts that will make you think twice; that may make you grimace, or laugh; that will hopefully help you catch your breath and look at this wondrous, weird world of ours in a slightly new way.

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Alright, first things first; a proper introduction is in order: 

WHITWELL: I’m Tom Whitwell. I am a consultant and a — you’ve got me stuck with the most difficult question first of all.

Okay, let me help out a bit. Tom Whitwell works at a London consulting firm called Magnetic; they specialize in innovation and design — “not your usual consultants” is how they put it. Among the clients that Whitwell has worked with are: National Grid, the big U.K. power company; Vogue Business, a spinoff from the fashion magazine; and the candy and chocolate company Mars, which — as we will learn in today’s episode — also makes something that is very much not candy or chocolate. Before he got into consulting, Whitwell was a journalist, with magazines and with The Times of London. He also designs electronic musical instruments, some of which have been bought by Thom Yorke, of Radiohead. But none of that is why we’re speaking with Tom Whitwell today. We’re speaking with Tom Whitwell today because of another thing he does.

WHITWELL: Every year, I write a list called 52 Things I Learned. 

Whitwell has been publishing his list of 52 things he’s learned every year for the past 10. He publishes it himself, on the blogging platform Medium, but then it ricochets all around the interweb, or at least certain precincts of it, where it is greeted with enthusiasm and wonder. It is a weird list, in the best way; nearly all the items are at the very least informative, and interesting; some are sad; but some are joyful. The joy is generated by — as Richard Feynman might have said — the pleasure of finding things out. And, for Whitwell himself, the pleasure of sharing these things. The items are short, pithy, word-perfect. Here’s one, from last year’s list: “Only 28 books sold more than 500,000 copies in the U.S. in 2022. Eight of them were by romance novelist Colleen Hoover.” Here’s one from the 2015 list: “In China, cigarette companies are allowed to sponsor schools, with slogans like ‘Genius comes from hard work. Tobacco helps you become talented.’” And this one from 2021: “Ten percent of U.S. electricity is generated from old Russian nuclear warheads.” As a consultant, Whitwell engages with a wide variety of topics; I asked if most of his 52 things are a by-product of his day job.

WHITWELL: There’s certainly bits where part of the job means I will be immersed in one particular subject for a few months and then another subject for a few months afterwards. So, I think if I went back and looked over the years, I would say, “Ah, that’s when I was doing an electricity project. Well, that’s when I was doing a fashion project.”

DUBNER: How much do you enjoy your day job? 

WHITWELL: I enjoy it a lot. The variety is the key thing. Typically a project might last three weeks to about six months. So every few months you’re fundamentally changing, you’re in a completely different environment. A couple of months ago, we were asked to help Mars, who produce chocolate and pet food, they have a chain of stores around — 

DUBNER: I’m sorry, I don’t mean to laugh, but somehow chocolate and pet food in the same sentence conjures images I’d rather not conjure. But please continue.

WHITWELL: And we do a lot of work for them. They might come and say —

DUBNER: Like, would some of your work be for them to not describe themselves as a “chocolate and pet food” company? 

WHITWELL: No, I think that would be marketing, and we don’t really do that. So, one piece of work I did for them, they have a research station in the U.K., which has a large number of cats and dogs living in comfortable and pseudo-domestic situations. And they came to us and said, “We want to be sure we’re using the best technology to track them, to monitor them, to understand what they’re doing. And we want somebody to just spend a little bit of time looking around the market and suggesting different ways you might do this.” And so I spent two weeks or something researching that area. How do people track animals? How do they understand what they’re doing? How do they monitor them? 

DUBNER: So a project like that gives you an opportunity to find pet-related facts that might appear on the list of 52 things you’ve learned that year?

WHITWELL: Yeah. One year has a piece about weightlifting dogs. And that came from some research we were doing for Mars, who I hasten to add are certainly not considering weightlifting dogs as a thing to try to sell.

DUBNER: Oh, you mean a person lifting a dog? I was imagining a dog on a bench press.

WHITWELL: No, dogs lifting weights. Dogs wearing, for example, weighted little waistcoats. Dogs having protein shakes. Dog influencers who are big, muscly dogs who advertise dog protein shakes. And I think there’s some kind of yard equipment that are good for dogs to lift things up. So, essentially dogs, bench-pressing things. 

DUBNER: I see. And is that something that the dogs choose to do?

WHITWELL: I didn’t get too deeply into that. I discovered this thing existed. I was asked in that to say, let’s look at the outside edge, what are the strangest things that pet parents are doing. Something like that will leak over into 52 things because if I’m spending a few weeks researching something like that, I will normally find quite a lot of interesting things and store them away, to put on the list. 

Whitwell has a history of curating odd and interesting things.

WHITWELL: Back in the 2000s, I wrote a blog — when people had blogs — called Music Thing that was all about, “here are interesting, funny, weird pieces of music equipment.”

DUBNER: Can you give a couple examples.

WHITWELL: It’s kind of endless. There is an enormous installation on the coastline, which are pipes that are played by the waves coming in and going out. There’s a big music conference called NAMM, which is the big trade show. And every year, you will find extraordinary things that people invent to do music, whether it’s quadruple-necked guitars or folding drum kits or whatever it is. It’s one of those areas where lone entrepreneurs and inventors can come up with things, and they can find a big audience, and they can get things out there. 

DUBNER: Okay, so take us through the origins of your “52 things I learned” list.

WHITWELL: In 2014, I had left The Times. I had fallen out with the editor, and it became clear I needed to find a different job. While I was unemployed and looking around for things to do, I had this idea of collecting things that I’d found during the year. I was always a fan of the listicle as a genre. And my ambition for it was that I was obviously looking for a job, so I was looking for ways to kind of reach out for people in London who I could reach out to. And I thought, well, if I can get 1,000 people to look at this, then that would feel like out of that, a few of those people are going to be people who might be able to offer me a job.

DUBNER: So, it was a kind of a creativity resume or ingenuity resume, maybe? You were showing people what your brain was interested in, hoping they’d be interested in your brain too? 

WHITWELL: Yeah, it was exactly that, or it was content marketing for me, I suppose.

DUBNER: Can you describe either the characteristics of something you discovered that you know will be a good link or maybe the emotion you feel, or the cognitive jolt you get when you come upon something that you know will be good?

WHITWELL: The simplest thing is, it’s probably something that is counterintuitive. It’s not what you expect. It’s something that maybe seems to have some slightly bigger resonance, but it doesn’t have to.

DUBNER: How much do you care about a sort of news peg? If you sent yourself something in February that was on a topic like transportation safety, and then that year, there happened to be a bunch of bridges collapse, I assume you tend to gravitate toward the peggy things? 

WHITWELL: Not really, no. I probably do ignore that completely, the news peg. That was something that always slightly frustrated me working in newsrooms. And there will often be stories that are two years old, five years old, 10 years old. They don’t need to all have been published that year at all. I don’t really pay any attention to that.

DUBNER: Let’s go to 2022 — 52 things you learned in 2022. This is item number 30. By the way, is there any relevance to the order?

WHITWELL: Just shuffling, really. Try to make sure the first 10 are really good, and then they’re reasonably random, so you don’t get three similar ones. 

DUBNER: So number 30 from the year 2022 was, “In the 1920s, new car sales were falling. So the industry promoted the term ‘jaywalking’ to blame accidents on pedestrians rather than aggressive drivers.” That is such an appealing, catnip-y item on so many levels. So talk me through it. And what I really want to know is how confident we are that that is, in its totality, true. 

WHITWELL: With something like that, the question is, is this clickbait or is this a real thing? And I would be very confident that was true because I — well, I was going to say, “I’ve read” — I haven’t read, I flipped through the book Fighting Traffic by Peter D. Norton, which is all about the early years of the car industry. And the critical point seems to have been in around 1922, ‘23, ‘24, when — it wasn’t a decline in sales, it was a decline in growth. And at the same time, there was this feeling that cars were pretty dangerous. People were getting killed by them. There was a petition in Cincinnati to limit the speed of cars to 25 miles an hour, which I thought was interesting because at the moment the speed limit across most of London is 20 miles an hour. So car companies saw that this was a problem. And this notion of jaywalking, which had evolved I think organically as a word, really, the idea that people were kind of country bumpkins and they were walking around and they didn’t know that there were big cars zooming past.

DUBNER: And a “jay” was a word used by whom to mean what?

WHITWELL: I think it meant country folk, kind of rustics. 

DUBNER: American? It was an American — 

WHITWELL: In America, yeah. This is all American, I think. Before then, roads were for people. If you look at pictures of roads before cars, you had big wide roads and they were full of people and horse-drawn vehicles. I suppose they look in some ways, like when you see pictures of Chinese roads in the ‘80s, when you see enormous torrents of bicycles going across, but you wouldn’t see cars. And this idea that the curb was a barrier that must not be stepped across. I think the really nice explanation of this was when the idea of jaywalking came along, the pedestrian felt they were wrong. They felt they were wrong to be in the road.

DUBNER: That the road no longer belonged to them. It belonged to cars.

WHITWELL: Exactly. Car firms would hire Boy Scouts to give cards to pedestrians saying, we’re in a new era, this is old-fashioned, what you’re doing.

DUBNER: Don’t be a jay.

WHITWELL: Don’t be a jay. Don’t cross the road like that.

DUBNER: And how strong is the evidence that it was actually the auto industry that built and encouraged this movement to the point where laws were written forbidding it?

WHITWELL: I am only basing my evidence on Mr. Norton’s book. But he tells a very clear story that the relationship between the American Automobile Association and the National Safety Council got closer. And there was a guy called Charles Price who had worked for the National Safety Council, and he was the person who came to the industry and said, “You need to own safety.” For example, go into schools and say, “We’re going to teach people road safety.” Road safety meant, get out the road, it’s not for you.

DUBNER: So how did jaywalking laws come about? And was any segment of the auto industry directly affiliated with that? 

WHITWELL: I don’t know exactly that. I think they came in — it’s funny, coming from the U.K., this whole concept of jaywalking is alien to us. We have no law like that.

DUBNER: But pedestrians do seem to be quite obedient in the U.K., because there are crossing lights and all things like that.

WHITWELL: Yeah, we just don’t have laws about it. No policeman will ever go and tell somebody off or give them a ticket for crossing the road.

DUBNER: To be fair, I think that almost never happens in Amer— the only time that’s ever happened to me in my life, and I jaywalk always everywhere, was in Vancouver, and I wasn’t even crossing mid-block. I was crossing at the intersection against the light. There was no traffic. And someone stopped me, and I laughed.

WHITWELL: I mean from reading about it, it does seem like people like you or me are generally not stopped for jaywalking. 

DUBNER: I have read that there was a Department of Justice report on the Ferguson, Missouri, Police Department, the place where Michael Brown was killed by a police officer, and which became a flashpoint in racial policing. It said that 95 percent of the people there cited for jaywalking are Black. Now, I don’t know what share of the population there is Black. But still, that sounds like an aggressively high number. I’m curious what kind of feedback you received, or additional information maybe, about jaywalking when you published that piece?

WHITWELL: I don’t remember. I mean, you got to remember, that piece was what, 14 words? So I don’t think I saw anything particularly with that. I mean, there’s a sort of thread of those kinds of stories.

DUBNER: The kind of story where an industry or a company or maybe a government is behind something that you may think emerged naturally? Is that what you mean by that kind of story?

WHITWELL: Exactly that. One of my favorite ones, which was a fact-checking challenge, but I do think was probably true — the way I wrote it up was that “fondue was invented by the cheese industry.” Which does seem to be more or less true, in that fondue did exist as a kind of niche Swiss dish. But the Swiss cheese industry extensively promoted the idea that this was something that families in America might be doing, and that you could buy a fondue set. 

DUBNER: Another item in this category, then, of inventions that come from perhaps interested sources rather than disinterested sources would be your item about the invention of the carbon footprint.

WHITWELL: Yeah, this was really interesting. So this was in, I think 2001. B.P., British Petroleum, it was called B.P. Amoco previously —

DUBNER: It used to be British Petroleum. They even changed their name, didn’t they?

WHITWELL: They called it Beyond Petroleum. I’m not certain if that was actually their official company name, or if that was their slogan. But there was a great piece by one of the ad executives who worked on it, who said how oil company advertising always used to be aimed essentially at investors and the industry. And it generally consisted of helicopter shots of oil tankers with somebody with a kind of Morgan Freeman voice saying, “We’re working hard to help the world work hard,” or something like that. That was the way oil companies were advertised. And then come 2000, and you’ve got the real beginnings of concern about — I mean, not the beginnings of concern about global warming, but more and more of that. And I think at this stage, the only oil company that acknowledged that global warming was a real thing was B.P., and their advertising switched completely. Instead of these kind of helicopter shots and “we’re making the world go round,” they went out onto the streets and they interviewed people talking about climate change, and talking specifically about their part in climate change and what they should do. And they created a calculator so you could go on and tap in stuff about your lifestyle and how many holidays you went on, this kind of thing.

DUBNER: And you’re saying this carbon-footprint calculator was created for B.P. by its ad agency, the very famous Ogilvy & Mather, is that right?

WHITWELL: Yeah. You got some kind of sum for how much weight of carbon you were responsible for. It just seems like such an interesting and telltale shift, the idea from, “we are the company that is making the world go round” to — as soon as that becomes kind of problematic or questioned — it’s now “we’re interested in you and your responsibility and what you as a consumer are doing.”

DUBNER: It does strike me as interesting, if not paradoxical, that you, a consultant who helps firms do a variety of things but especially change behavior, either their own behavior or the behavior of their customers and so on, are highlighting in many of your items the fact that advertisers, marketers, and firms are trying to change behavior in order to suit their own needs, without those needs being obvious.

WHITWELL: I suppose so. I’m not somebody who works in marketing. I may be slightly more skeptical about marketing than some people. 

DUBNER: When you say you may be slightly more skeptical, why is that?

WHITWELL: Something like the jaywalking story or the carbon footprint story, I think is amazing in how it genuinely changes the way we as individuals perceive the whole playing field. It’s not like you’re thinking, “Product X is better than product Y.” There’s that famous story about when they were trying to get women to smoke cigarettes. And the idea of “torches of freedom,” which is to encourage women to — that feels quite direct. But the entire notion of how we interact with a street being changed by a marketing campaign feels amazing to me. How many people each day are thinking slightly differently as they walk along the pavement because of that campaign 100 years ago?

After the break: more echoes of the past, and perhaps more harbingers of the future.

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Tom Whitwell is a collector of interesting facts. He spends his year reading widely — websites and blogs, newspapers and magazines, books and journals — and then he presents his harvest each December, in a list of 52 items. Most items are short, just a sentence or two. Often, they have nothing to do with the previous year. For instance, this one about Ibn Battuta, the medieval explorer. “When Ibn Battuta visited China in 1345, facial recognition was already in use. All visiting foreigners had their portraits discreetly painted and posted on the walls of the bazaar.” Here’s another: “When users download the Kenyan mobile-loans app OKash, the quietly give it permission to access their contacts. If they fall behind in repayments, the app starts to message all those contacts … to shame the user into repaying the debt.” Whitwell’s skill at distilling a long thing into a short thing comes from his time as a magazine editor.

WHITWELL: It was almost a bit like pull quotes in magazines where you’ve got a magazine article and you find the little quote that is the important bit from the article. 

That “important bit” is then reprinted, in a bigger font, inside the body of the article; this acts as a sort of billboard, or a secondary headline for the article.

WHITWELL: And that’s the thing that often gets read far more than anything else, because people don’t read the body copy, but they scan over and they read the pull quotes. Often, what I was doing was reading an article online and then finding the pull quote and keeping that in a list, keeping a store of that.

DUBNER: Given the state of A.I. in 2024, if I give ChatGPT or Perplexity a 2,000-word article, and I give Tom Whitwell the same article, do you think you’ll do better at finding what might be judged to be the best pull quote, or worse?

WHITWELL: So, I have tried this quite a lot. I’ve done experiments with this over the years. I think I would probably have a pretty good chance of finding a more interesting, more distinctive take. I’ve done things like, obviously, asking ChatGPT to come up with things for the list. And it can come up with fictional ones that are kind of fine, but obviously the fact they’re fictional does make them a lot less interesting than if they were real. I think A.I. at the moment does seem to struggle to find that sort of quirkiness and distinctiveness.

DUBNER: Let’s go to 2017, item number 18. “The N.H.S.,” the National Health Service, that’s the British national health system — “uses more than 10 percent of all pagers in the world.” Tell me about that, how much we trust that claim, etc.

WHITWELL: So this is a really, really interesting one. So 2017, I saw an article in The Economist that had this stat in it. And because it was The Economist, I trusted it. I put it on the list. After 2017, it became a sort of political issue in the U.K. The fact that we were using pagers somehow showed that the N.H.S. was not in a good state, it was not being well managed. In 2019, the government put out a press release that said pagers are going to be banned by 2021. They did say they’re going to be banned except for emergencies, which obviously in a hospital context is quite a large loophole, I think. And obviously between 2019 and 2021, quite a lot happened in the healthcare sphere. So I don’t think a tremendous amount has really happened with this. I think there are still a lot of pagers in use in the N.H.S.

DUBNER: Now the pro-pager people argue that it does fill a gap, right, that it can be more reliable under certain circumstances, less prone to dead spots and so on. What do you know about that? 

WHITWELL: I think like anything, it’s a combination of, there’s issues around the technology, and then there’s issues around culture and etiquette and how it works. I think these are also quite poorly understood. So, I was talking to my dad. My dad used to be a hospital doctor. He started work in hospitals in 1968, and he said they had pagers then. These battery-powered, handheld devices that would go off, and then you had to run and ring a number, and they worked on a private radio network within the hospital. In the U.K., they’re called bleeps, which I always think is quite sweet. I just found this really interesting. I actually spoke to a doctor called Constantinos Regas, who’s an N.H.S. doctor in Southampton. And he previously sent Freedom of Information requests to every N.H.S. trust in the country to say, “How many pagers are you using? How much are you spending on it? What are you doing with it?” He’s definitely anti-pager

DUBNER: Because why?

WHITWELL: Well, he said it’s a weird legacy aberration. He would talk about, you’re on an eight-hour shift, you finally get a chance to go to the bathroom, and then you get bleeped. You have to run. And it turns out it’s a nurse who wanted you to prescribe some paracetamol to somebody who is going to be discharged tomorrow. So that he found very frustrating. He said different wards were different. Some were good, some — he had the phrase, “bleeped incessantly” — which I imagine must be very irritating. But he also talked about having a crash bleep. So this is where you are a doctor around the hospital, or a nurse around the hospital, you have this thing on you and it bleeps, and you have to run to save somebody’s life, literally. I read an interview with a final-year medical student who said, “The first time I carried a crash bleep, I was more self-aware, I felt older and more responsible than I’d ever felt in a clinical setting.” So there’s a kind of status thing, but there’s also etiquette. You need a method to gather people. You need a method to communicate within the hospital. And some people will do that well, and some people do that badly. And that frustration has been mapped onto a particular device, which I think is unfair. I am in some ways pro-pager. The basic story was the N.H.S. uses 10 percent of remaining pagers. I would imagine the other 90 percent are in American hospitals.

DUBNER: So, whether or not that 10 percent is accurate — and I’ve seen it challenged on a couple dimensions — but whether or not that’s accurate, the fact is that if you look around the world a little bit, you do see that older technologies often have long and productive afterlives. Can you talk about any other technologies that you see that are used maybe not so prominently, but seriously, that one might think had disappeared?

WHITWELL: Fax machines are still used in Japan quite a lot. My assumption is that has something to do with handwriting, and having a very complicated script. That may be wrong. 

DUBNER: What about computer programming that is in languages that almost nobody learns anymore? 

WHITWELL: That absolutely is an issue. COBOL is one of those languages, and you often see stories where a particular organization, it might be an old pension fund, has that requirement, that they need to hire people to bring those things to life. The other big one is floppy disks. I think until very recently there were systems on Boeing 747s that relied on floppy disks. These legacy systems do exist and often work well. They’re often just fine. With the pagers, the idea that you can spend an awful lot of money tearing out one system and putting in another system is an idea that people who sell systems often promote. In that press release when the pagers were banned, part of their evidence was, they said, there are 130,000 pagers in the N.H.S., and it’s costing 6.6 million pounds a year. You hear that and you go, well, that sounds bad — until you realize that’s 50 pound per pager per year, it’s less than a pound a week for a critical healthcare piece of infrastructure. It’s probably the best bargain ever.

DUBNER: Here’s an item from your 2023 list that I was particularly interested in, item number five. It says job satisfaction in the U.S. is at a 35-year high, not low, which is what I think everybody would be expecting. You write that in 2010, less than 45 percent of people said they were satisfied with their jobs. But in 2022, over 62 percent said they were. And you write further that, you need to go back to the ’80s to find satisfaction as high as today. Talk to me about that. First of all, were you as surprised as I was to read that number? 

WHITWELL: I was really surprised by that. It was at a time when we had high inflation, a real sense of uncertainty in the economy, and uncertainty in people’s careers. It did absolutely seem just really counterintuitive. How can this be right? There obviously are other surveys. This was a survey by the Conference Board.

DUBNER: Which is funded by whom, or represents whom?

WHITWELL: It’s an American organization. I don’t know an enormous amount about it, but it does seem to be a very large and well-trusted industry body. And the things people were satisfied were, the people they work with, commuting — more than 65 percent of people were satisfied with commuting, which I found interesting — job security, physical environment. But what I found really interesting was the sort of change — so, over the last maybe 10 years, one of the big changes has been in performance reviews, which I was just interested in because it’s such a sort of unglamorous part of working life. No politician has ever stood up and said, “I’ve got a grand vision for performance reviews, and this is how we’re going to change the world.” But this survey suggests that there is a real fundamental shift in the last just 10 years, that you’ve got millions of people who were made unhappy by that process, who now are happier and more satisfied. I think we’ve all met people, and possibly had experience yourself, of those old-school performance reviews where once a year you go and sit with your boss, and they would say something that annoyed you or made you think they really don’t understand who I am at all. They don’t understand what I do in this company. And you were furious for the next six months. And that idea, that training and H.R. is actually fixing things like that, I found counterintuitive and really interesting. 

DUBNER: I do see that the Conference Board is a — “a nonprofit and nonpartisan research group made up of over 1,000 public and private corporations and other organizations encompassing 60 countries.” Maybe it’s not so surprising that a firm representing big corporations says, “Hey, guess what, people at corporations are actually much happier than you think”? But let’s assume that there’s some truth in these numbers. I’m curious to know what it may say about the rise and/or triumph of the H.R. department in firms. Do you think it’s kosher to make that kind of connection?

WHITWELL: That’s how I understood it. I do think that that is an area which, as I said, is very unglamorous and rarely celebrated. But it’s a place where there are people who are very committed to what they’re doing, and they’re experimenting, and they’re changing. Like, instead of having one big annual review, we should have continuous assessment, these sorts of things. Those ideas spread in five, ten years, and they seem to work a lot better.

DUBNER: So this is about job satisfaction in the U.S. What can you tell us about in your country, the U.K.?

WHITWELL: I don’t know, because I haven’t read a survey as extensive as this. I think the real challenge is that counterintuitive split between a kind of national narrative, which certainly in the U.K. is of quite a lot of doom and gloom at the moment, for a whole range of reasons.

DUBNER: Considerably more than the U.S. at the moment, as much as ours may feel gloomy.

WHITWELL: Yeah. I think there’s a classic newsroom thing, which is, something that is bad and critical is reportable and is interesting and is seen as important. Something that is, “This has improved by 5 percent since last year” is almost impossible to report. And that’s not because there’s a grand conspiracy stopping it. It’s just very hard to make that sort of story work. But after a few years of 5 percent improvements, you really start to get a change in the way people work and people feel and in happiness.

Here’s to finding happiness wherever it can be found. After the break: if someone tells you they are 100 years old, should you believe them?

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Given that we are in the sixth month of the year in our twelve-month Gregorian calendar, Tom Whitwell is roughly halfway through collecting items for his “52 Things I Learned” list for this year.

DUBNER: Can you give us any kind of preview of 2024, or do you not do that, or would it be impossible even if you wanted to do that?

WHITWELL: Well, let me just look in my 52 things folder, and see what I’ve posted in recently. One that I saw just last week was, there is a wonderful graph of — well it’s not a wonderful graph. There is a fascinating graph of global deaths from disasters. What’s really striking with this is how much it varies. There’s a really interesting thread about how we are getting much better at coping with those kind of disasters. So there’s a period from 2016 to 2021, when it was extremely low.

DUBNER: Okay, I’m looking at this graph now too. And I see that in 2023, there was a spike. We go from, it looks like an average of around 35,000 deaths per year from natural disaster, but then 2023 was, like, a tripling of that. So the point here is that life in this category is extremely random, yes?

WHITWELL: It is, but the thing I find interesting is that idea that there are ways that we are getting better at some of these. So there’s a whole thing about typhoons in places like Bangladesh and India, where they spent a lot of money building big concrete shelters that are used as schools during the normal periods, but then everyone piles in, and the deaths in some of those things have gone from being, tens, hundreds of thousands of people dying to much, much smaller.

DUBNER: I really appreciate that you seem to be a person who generally looks for the best in people, or the world. But in one case, in your list from 2023, item number 15, you are basically calling a bunch of sweet, cuddly, old people a bunch of liars. You write, “The number of supercentenarians in an area tends to fall dramatically about 100 years after accurate birth records are introduced.” Walk me through this one, please. I’m especially interested to learn how much lying or maybe misremembering or uncertainty there may be for people who think they’re over 100 years old, when in fact they’re not.

WHITWELL: So, this is an amazing story. One of the things I always look at with these lists is something where it’s a little tiny nudge, it’s a few lines, but if you go and get into it, you will discover this extraordinary rabbit hole. And that’s what I’ve done with this business of supercentenarians. A lot of this relates to, in the mid-2000s, this idea came about around blue zones. If you were somebody who read Sunday supplements of newspapers or if you watched National Geographic, they spent a lot of time talking about blue zones, which were areas where people lived remarkably long, like 110 years old. They’d talk about eating beans, drinking red wine, not too much food, little amounts of meat, natural exercise — not going to the gym, but gardening, having friends, having a sense of purpose. A couple of academics, Italian and French academics, I think, identified an area in Sardinia that they felt had unusual longevity.

DUBNER: Ogliastra, it’s called?

WHITWELL: Yes. One of the things I thought, seeing this very casually, I thought the blue zones referred to, like, blue skies and blue sea. It’s just the software they used to draw the graph — put a blue circle around that area. Anyway, they wrote this paper. They had a few suggestions in the original paper about what might be causing this longevity, which was slightly odd. They were to do with inbreeding and genetics, and a lot of it was about male and female longevity being different. A lot of that got lost, because the paper caught the attention of a guy called Dan Buettner. He started his career running celebrity croquet tournaments. He then did these three enormous transcontinental bike rides, where he rode across the Americas and Soviet Union. Kind of got in with National Geographic, discovered this report, and in 2008, published his book called Secrets of the Blue Zones or something like that, with these kind of instructions around eating beans and drinking red wine. And this has been an incredibly successful notion. He was on Oprah, just last year he had a Netflix series about this — that if we all sat around eating tomatoes and garlic, sitting in the sun, drinking wine with our friends, we would live to be 110. 

DUBNER: And you, Tom Whitwell, are here to tell us this is kind of all bulls***.

WHITWELL: Well, it’s not me. It’s an academic at Oxford called Saul Newman. He’s a demographer. So he’s been publishing a preprint of a paper. He published it first, I think, in 2019, and he’s updating and updating it, so it gets kind of longer and longer. And I can’t say I’ve ever read any other papers about developmental biology, but if they’re all like this, I want to read more of them. Because this is an extraordinary document. He just tears the entire thing to pieces from beginning to end. So, a centenarian is somebody who lives past a hundred. A supercentenarian is somebody who lives past 110. Saul’s point is really that this is all not true. He says, in Europe, where birth records are generally pretty well recorded — so in the U.S. they’ve always been very poorly recorded, I don’t think birth certificates were used nationally until 1946 in the U.S. — but in Europe, they were pretty well recorded.

DUBNER: And these were usually state records or church records or family records? 

WHITWELL: I think in small areas, they were sort of community records, I guess. He says remarkable longevity is predicted, if you want to find areas of remarkable longevity — and this is like, 110 and above — you look for areas with poverty, low per capita incomes, short life expectancy, high crime rates, worse health, higher deprivation. As he says, “relative poverty and short lifespan constitute unexpected predictors of centenarian and supercentenarian status.” So his hypothesis is that these figures are not true.

DUBNER: And are they not true primarily because of actual fraud — lying, people saying something that they know to not be true — or the lack of good records, or just general uncertainty?

WHITWELL: I think it’s a combination, but probably fraud is a big part of it. The way I imagine this is, you’re living in a small rural town in remote Greece or Italy. Somebody comes to you with an idea, they say, “I’ve got a mate who works in the council, and if we pay him a bit of money, he can change your age so that you as a 50 year-old are now 60 so you get your pension.”

DUBNER: So it’s not just, you turn, whatever, 91 and you start telling people, “Yeah, I just hit 100,” just for pride. You’re saying this was financially-driven fraud, sometimes. 

WHITWELL: This is the suggestion.

DUBNER: That got much darker, much faster than I expected, Tom. I thought it was just lovely old people exaggerating a little bit. But you’re saying they’re shakedown artists.

WHITWELL: And there’s lots of other things. I think there’s probably stuff around insurance where you’d get much cheaper insurance if your age was different. And then there’s also these complicated family situations, where you might not want the crazy cousin to inherit the farm. So it’s very useful if the mother becomes the grandmother or vice versa, or children where the parenting of the child is slightly complicated. So there are a lot of possible things, and this isn’t unknown. So 2012, after the financial crisis in Greece, 20,000 people who were getting pension payments or welfare had that stopped — they were obviously investigating government spending — because they were dead mostly.

A quick side note: Whitwell got the number wrong here, on the number of Greeks who lost their benefits. It wasn’t 20,000; it was 200,000. All right, moving on:

WHITWELL: You might say, “Well, that’s Greece, but what about Japan, which generally has much stronger records?” In 2010, 230,000 Japanese centenarians were discovered to be missing, imaginary, clerical errors, or dead. This was an 82 percent error rate.

DUBNER: And what are the blue zones in Japan?

WHITWELL: Okinawa is the blue zone in Japan. World War II was not good for Okinawa. Supposedly about 90 percent of their paper records were destroyed. After the war, if you needed documents, you would go to the U.S.-led military government. They didn’t really speak a great deal of Japanese. And they used a different calendar from the one in Japan. So the opportunities for confusion were significant there.

DUBNER: In those places, where there are supposedly a lot of older people, much older people, are there particular days of the month or months of the year where suspicious birthdays tend to cluster, for instance?

WHITWELL: There is a lot of that. Things like, people are born on the first of the month, which just suggests that it’s probably been kind of chucked in rather than thought about in too much detail. But the paper is relentless. It just goes on and on and on. Things like in France, there are 19 people over the age of 110 in the overseas departments. So that’s Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana. Paris’s population is seven times larger, and it has 17 of these people.

DUBNER: Which suggests that fraud of this sort, if it’s fraud, is easier in certain precincts than in others, where the record-keeping is very different? 

WHITWELL: Yeah. Fraud or just chaos. But there is more. So there’s another big factor in this. His argument is that it’s very unlikely that really anyone is 110. It’s very, very, very unlikely that there are clusters of people who are 110 in very poor areas with low life expectancy. But he then goes back to look at the main argument of this blue zones movement, is that people live a long time because they live what seem like healthy lives. And he looks into these areas to find how well they align with those healthy lives. Okinawa is the one he chooses. So, one of the claims is people in these areas, they don’t go to the gym, but they live in environments that are nudging them to move without thinking about it — they have gardens, that sort of thing. Unfortunately, Okinawa, out of 47 prefectures in Japan, has the highest rate of obesity. And it’s not the lowest for gardening — because, not surprisingly, Tokyo and Osaka are lower — but it’s the lowest after them. So, they’re not healthy, and they’re not gardening.

DUBNER: Now, it’s possible that there was a cohort, however, that was an older cohort that did garden or that is not obese, right? We shouldn’t dis —

WHITWELL: No, that is certainly possible. I mean if you look at cohorts, another of his is, they have a concept called “ikigai,” which means, kind of, purpose in life, and why I get up in the morning. Unfortunately Okinawa has the fourth-highest rate of suicide in over-65s in the country. It’s not a very happy place generally. He goes through all of these things, like their meat consumption. The idea is that people in the blue zones eat very small amounts of meat — maybe five kilos of meat a year. In Okinawa, the average is 40 kilos. Okinawan residents each consume an average of 14 cans of Spam per year.

DUBNER: Well, it could be that Spam has some magical longevity properties that we don’t know about yet. 

WHITWELL: It could. That wasn’t what he was telling Oprah, I don’t think. But yeah. It’s not like the blue zones thing is evil. The advice does seem quite sensible. I’m sure we should all eat more vegetables, we should have a better social life. I do worry about connection between the idea that very poor people living on very, very meager resources can magically live a long time.

DUBNER: And the problem with that supposition is what?

WHITWELL: Well, it’s that actually the opposite is true. So, rich people live longer. Rich countries, the average life expectancy is 80-plus. Poor countries, it’s 60-plus. It’s not mysterious, or subtle. 

DUBNER: So, what has been the response of Dan Buettner and the pro-blue zone crowd?

WHITWELL: I have not been able to find any yet. There has certainly been back and forth with the early versions of the paper. I think the stuff that the blue zone organization is doing, it’s not like it’s a terrible thing. But it does feel from reading this, like the basis of the research is — it’s probably quite a lot more complicated than that.

The Blue Zones organization did, in fact, issue a response to Saul Newman’s critique, attacking his analysis along a variety of dimensions. For instance: even though some blue zones are high-poverty areas, people there do, they wrote, “enjoy very good or excellent public health services.” Saul Newman then responded to their response. Here’s a quote: “It was basically what you’d expect if you told the yeti-hunting society that yetis did not exist.”

DUBNER: Is there a link or three from the past that you are just exceedingly proud of, or happy about?

WHITWELL: I don’t know about proud of or happy about. When you ask that, there are some that seem to kind of — 

DUBNER: Take on a life?

WHITWELL: Well, it’s more that they sort of make sense. So I remember, I think in probably the first one, there was a story that China has completed a major dam project for every day since 1949, which to me just seemed like such an extraordinary way of understanding the world, and kind of ambition and scale.

DUBNER: Are there topics or types of ideas that you avoid?

WHITWELL: There’s definitely a kind of positive thing. I remember quite clearly in 2016, doing the list and thinking, “Actually, this feels quite important to do a list that is full of progress and things that are good in the world.”

DUBNER: Because why — 2016 why?

WHITWELL: Because we had Brexit and Trump, essentially. And so there was such a strong narrative amongst people that are often on the internet of just doom and gloom, and everything is terrible in the world. And you are constantly seeing stories and suggestions and evidence of things being terrible. And trying to find those stories that were about progress or growth or improvement, those I felt were important.

DUBNER: Can you just describe the process a little bit? I’m curious how formal it is. I’m curious how it unspools during the year, and whether you’re diligently reading and saving up links and maybe even coming up with way more than 52 that you have to weed down? Or is it the opposite, you find that in November, December, there’s this rush to get enough. How does it work? 

WHITWELL: So, I do it during the year. The way I do it now is, when I find a link, I email it to myself with the words “52 things” in the title. My Gmail has a filter, and it drops them all into a folder. And then, come November, there’s usually 100 or so in there, and I just start going through it, and —

DUBNER: And in the cold light of day, some that excited you no longer excite you, I assume?

WHITWELL: Yeah, absolutely. And some, I will have sent myself an article that kind of seems interesting but doesn’t, you know, I hadn’t actually worked out what the fact is. 

I’m glad that Tom Whitwell has taken it upon himself to work out what all the facts are, and I’m always delighted to read his annual list of 52 things. Maybe we’ll check in with him again at the end of this year to see what he’s come up with. Thanks to Tom for the good conversation today — and thanks to you, as always, for listening. If you’ve learned some good things so far this year, send them along; I’d like to hear them; our email is

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Alina Kulman, with help from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. Our staff also includes Augusta Chapman, Dalvin Aboagye, Eleanor Osborne, Elsa Hernandez, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Jasmin Klinger, Jeremy Johnston, Julie Kanfer, Lyric Bowditch, Morgan Levey, Neal Carruth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Sarah Lilley, Theo Jacobs, and Zack Lapinski. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; our composer is Luis Guerra.

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