Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford

Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford

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.


November 25, 2022 39 min

There are eight American turkeys painted on the walls of Schleswig's Cathedral of St Peter - which is odd... since the frescoes were created two centuries before Columbus even crossed the Atlantic.   

How did the creatures come to be added to the medieval Biblical scene? Was this proof that the Germans reached the Americas before Columbus? Or do the painted birds tell a different story all together? 

For a full list of sources ...

Mark as Played

In a crisis most people respond with decency and solidarity. The bombing of British cities in the Second World War did not cause society to crumble as was expected, but proved instead human resilience. That defiant "Blitz Spirit" is still a source of pride for Britons... but have inconvenient facts about that time been ignored?

Alice Fiennes (co-host of the podcast Bad Women: The Blackout Ripper) explains that the chaos and...

Mark as Played
November 11, 2022 36 min

Thomas Midgley's inventions caused his own death, hastened the deaths of millions of people around the world, and very nearly extinguished all life on land. 

Midgley and his employers didn't set out to poison the air with leaded gasoline or wreck the ozone layer with CFCs - but while these dire consequences were unintended... could they have been anticipated?

For a full list of sources used in this episode visit Tim Harford...

Mark as Played
October 28, 2022 35 min

Candy laced with cyanide and needles in marshmallows, we've long been warned to be suspicious of the sweet treats handed out by strangers at Halloween. But it seems that most stories of "Halloween sadism" are just that, stories. No child seems to have been  killed by adulterated Halloween candy... well... there is one terrible exception. The poisoned Pixy Stix of Pasadena, TX.

For a full list of sources used in this epi...

Mark as Played

Charlie Veitch was certain that 9/11 was an inside job. The attack on the World Trade Center wasn't the work of Al-Qaeda, but an elaborate conspiracy. He became a darling of so-called "9/11 truthers" - until he actually visited Ground Zero to meet architects, engineers and the relatives of the dead. The trip changed his mind... there was no conspiracy.  

His fellow "truthers" did not take Charlie's conversio...

Mark as Played

This week, it's an episode from Warfare, a podcast from our friends at History Hit. It's 1942. The year Anne Frank and her family went into hiding during the Second World War. It was there that Anne began keeping a diary that would become one of the most recognisable testimonies of the Jewish war-time experiences. But what do we know of her life before the war? Host James Rogers explores the Franks' lives before the out...

Mark as Played

Single and looking for love, Dr Robert Epstein found himself chatting with a slim, attractive brunette online. She seemed perfect... perhaps even too good to be true. 

Dr Epstein is an expert on artificial conversation - so surely he'd be the last person to fall for a computer? Chatbots fool us more often than we think... especially when they replicate our very worst conversational habits.  

To read more on this topic try Brian...

Mark as Played
September 23, 2022 33 min

Inventor Franz Reichelt wants to test his novel "parachute suit" from as tall a structure as possible - and the Eiffel Tower seems ideal. Previous trial runs used a mannequin strapped to the chute and have not ended well. Despite this, his plan is to make the Eiffel Tower jump himself. Can he be persuaded to see sense?

Self-experimentation - particularly in the field of medicine - has a long and checkered history. Can we le...

Mark as Played
September 9, 2022 32 min

A meter is longer than a yard. An ounce is heavier than a gram. We harmlessly mix them up sometimes, but a "unit conversion error" when you're filling up the fuel tanks of an airliner can be fatal. Which is exactly what happened to Air Canada Flight 143. 

Tim Harford talks to mathematician and comedian Matt Parker about how the aircraft came to take off without the proper fuel load, how no one noticed until it was too l...

Mark as Played
September 2, 2022 38 min

Invented in the mid-1800s, bicycles have had enduring popularity. Across cultures, they have been embraced, promising freedom and mobility at a lower price point. 

Tim joins Dallas Campbell on Patented: History of Inventions, to discuss the history of the bicycle, from the invention story through to bicycle booms, the C5 Sinclair and the rise of dockless bike sharing schemes. 

If you're interested in the stories behind the worl...

Mark as Played
August 26, 2022 35 min

By the 1970s Howard Hughes was the "invisible billionaire”. A business tycoon, a daring aviator and Hollywood Lothario, Hughes had an amazing life story... but hiding away in luxury hotels he wasn't sharing his memories with anyone.

Then the recluse told a respected publishing house - via intermediaries - that he was working on an autobiography. The book would be a blockbuster... only it was all a lie.

For a full list of so...

Mark as Played

Malcolm Gladwell joins Tim Harford to discuss our recent three-part tale about the race to reach the South Pole. There's talk of imperial decline; the power of the underdog; why getting everything you want is actually a handicap; and limes... lots and lots of limes.   

See for privacy information.

Mark as Played

Polar exploration is dangerous... but trudging hundreds of miles in subzero temperatures isn't made any easier if you're suffering from scurvy. The deadly vitamin deficiency destroys the body and will of even the strongest and most determined adventurer - and it seems that scurvy stuck down the ill-fated expedition of Captain Scott. 

But scurvy... in 1912? Hadn't the Royal Navy to which Scott belonged famously cracked t...

Mark as Played

Cautionary Tales returns next week, but in the meantime enjoy a story of disaster from The Bowery Boys Podcast. 

It's July 30th 1916, just after 2am, and a massive explosion rips apart the munitions depot on Black Tom, an island off Jersey City. Tons of debris and jagged shrapnel pepper neighboring Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Thousands of windows across New York are shattered, and millions of residents are awoken wo...

Mark as Played

Roald Amundsen beat Captain Scott to the South Pole. The Norwegian - using dog sleds and skis - made it look easy... fun, even. He was heading home to safety, while the British party - hauling sleds by hand - were struggling to survive out on the ice.

In this case, to the victor went a spoiled reputation. The British grumbled that Amundsen had somehow cheated, or had at least behaved in an underhand manner. These stinging accusatio...

Mark as Played

1910: Two men are racing to be the first to reach the South Pole. Captain Robert Falcon Scott heads a well-financed, technologically-advanced expedition - aiming to reach the pole in the "proper" and heroic way... on foot. Roald Amundsen's effort is more modest, relying on cheap sled dogs to carry him to victory. 

Scott - for all his money, for all his fancy equipment, for all his backing from the mighty Royal Navy - is...

Mark as Played
July 1, 2022 38 min

July 1995: A deadly heatwave gripped Chicago - bridges buckled; the power grids failed; and the morgue ran out of space - but some neighbourhoods saw more deaths than others.

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg wanted to know why. So he headed to the hardest hit districts and found that social isolation and loneliness played an unsettling role in their heavy deaths tolls.   

Does the Chicago heatwave teach us that in dealing with climate c...

Mark as Played

France 1346: The army of King Philip VI is Europe's pre-eminent killing machine. It's accustomed to crushing any force stupid enough to oppose it, and now fully expects to annihilate a motley band of English invaders in a field near the village of Crecy.   

Except as night falls, it is Philip's army that lies broken and bleeding in the mud. What went wrong? The French knights, it seems, had failed to update their corpor...

Mark as Played
June 3, 2022 34 min

When Mount Tambora erupted it spewed ash across the globe; blotting out the sun; poisoning crops; and bringing starvation, illness and death to millions. It may also have helped inspire great scientific and cultural advances - including the horror masterpiece Frankenstein. How well do we adapt to catastrophe and what are the limits of our ability to weather even the worst circumstances? 

For a full list of sources go to timharford....

Mark as Played

When Billy Joel agreed to let dance legend Twyla Tharp turn his songs into a Broadway musical it seemed like a surefire hit. But in previews, Movin’ Out was panned by the critics. It was soon headed for Broadway and was set to be an expensive and embarrassing failure.So how could Twyla turn things around and avert disaster before opening night?

For a full list of sources go to

If you’d like to keep up with the most r...

Mark as Played

Popular Podcasts

    Current and classic episodes, featuring compelling true-crime mysteries, powerful documentaries and in-depth investigations.

    Crime Junkie

    If you can never get enough true crime... Congratulations, you’ve found your people.

    The Piketon Massacre

    The most notorious mass murder in Ohio’s history happened on the night of April 21, 2016 in rural Pike County. Four crime scenes, thirty-two gunshot wounds, eight members of the Rhoden family left dead in their homes. Two years later a local family of four, the Wagners, are arrested and charged with the crimes. As the Wagners await four back-to-back capital murder trials, the KT Studios team revisits Pike County to examine: crime-scene forensics, upcoming legal proceedings, and the ties that bind the victims and the accused. As events unfold and new crimes are uncovered, what will it mean for all involved? What will it mean for Pike County?


    It’s a lighthearted nightmare in here, weirdos! Morbid is a true crime, creepy history and all things spooky podcast hosted by an autopsy technician and a hairstylist. Join us for a heavy dose of research with a dash of comedy thrown in for flavor.

    Stuff You Should Know

    If you've ever wanted to know about champagne, satanism, the Stonewall Uprising, chaos theory, LSD, El Nino, true crime and Rosa Parks then look no further. Josh and Chuck have you covered.

Advertise With Us

For You

    Music, radio and podcasts, all free. Listen online or download the iHeart App.


    © 2022 iHeartMedia, Inc.