As sports fans have their sights on Super Bowl Sunday in Las Vegas this weekend, one of the components that brings heightened anticipation to America’s most watched sporting event is the week preceding kickoff. Everyone, from football die-hards to non-football viewers, finds some way of getting in on the action. Watch parties, food, drinks, and more are commonplace, but one thing that brings this gala to the highest magnitude is the hype surrounding the game.
Another fun tidbit is how millions of sports heads tune in to sports channels such as ESPN with the hopes of getting the latest news. We observe, scrutinize, and do our own Monday morning quarterbacking, listening to bristled banter and obnoxious opinions, watching highlights, lowlights and looking at statistics and analytics in the hope that someone in the studio will validate our thoughts and predictions to prove to others around us, just how right we are about said player or team or stats.
As I read How to Make the World Add Up, Horford would describe this type of sports fanaticism as motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoning is what we hope to be true. It extends beyond sports but constantly shows up throughout the game of life. “We are more likely to notice what we want to notice.”
I found this quote to be profundity through simplicity and at the same time a real smack in the face! A smack in the face because accountability now asks me how often I could have been found guilty of engaging in this? How commonplace is motivated reasoning? When I think about the original intent of media in the United States, journalists of old were supposed to be objective, and anything contrary was considered outside the norm. Watching mainstream media today, you can see how subjective and segregated content has become, with outlets using numbers, analytics, and statistics to substantiate their agenda, and the culprit, in many instances, is motivated reasoning.
Another point that resonated with me was the factual assertion that we often frame our narratives by thinking with our hearts rather than our heads. Hence, we often face heated arguments and conflicts, doubling down on our position and skewing numbers and statistics to bolster our beliefs. Thinking with our hearts does lead to our emotional biases. I can vividly recount within my own ministry context how this process led to several emotionally charged board and budget meetings where facts took a back seat to emotion. Emotions can shape our beliefs, and stripping emotion away from logic is no easy feat, but Harford carefully lays out a successful, effective blueprint.
I also appreciated Harford’s take on professional and impartial statistics. Washington is the bedrock for much of the country’s numerical intake, and how these numbers are generated and disseminated has huge public implications. The COVID-19 pandemic is embedded in my mind as we saw the global ramifications. As the number of COVID-19 fatalities soared, we were steeped in a numbers game that governed our day-to-day living. As I remember, analysts and pundits challenged the number of infections and casualties, and our day-to-day lives became halted as numbers were at the forefront of the decision-making process for masking, testing, quarantine, and re-entry.
Ultimately, I can view the book How to Make the World Add Up, an unofficial addendum to Threshold Concepts. These unique ways of understanding how to approach, analyze, and calculate numbers and statistics is a fresh, impactful way of seeing things how they should be as opposed to how we want them to be. Whether we choose to admit it or not, people are silently addicted to being right! As creatures of habit, this book exposes our flaws and provides fundamental facts about righting our wrongs. In her book Being Wrong Adventures in the Margin of Error, Kathryn Schulz affirms this notion, “we must learn to actively combat our inductive biases: to deliberately seek out evidence that challenges our beliefs and to take seriously such evidence when we come across it.”
Harford is replete in referencing the social consequences of failing to look at numbers correctly. This reading has truly altered my perspective. I am armed with new weaponry for future encounters with numerical matters. A silver bullet was his encouragement to keep an open mind. “We are keen to avoid uncomfortable truths.”  My goal going forward? Ask the right questions and inquire about the missing elements! These are described as landmarks. Following the instructions provided will keep me and others from potential landmines. Do you remember a specific moment when you engaged in motivational reasoning?
 Tim Harford, How to Make the World Add Up: Ten Rules for Thinking Differently About Numbers (London: Bridge Street Press, 2020), 31.
 Schulz, Kathryn. Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. London: Granta Books, 2020.
 Tim Harford, 264.