Cautionary Tales

We tell our children unsettling fairy tales to teach them valuable life 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 “Messy” and “The Undercover Economist”) brings you stories of awful human error, tragic catastrophes, daring heists, and hilarious fiascos.

Galileo tried to teach us that adding more and more layers to a system intended to avert disaster often makes catastrophe all the more likely. His basic lesson has been ignored in nuclear power plants, financial markets and at the Oscars… all resulting in chaos. At the 2017 Academy Awards, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway famously handed the Best Picture Oscar to the wrong movie. In this episode of Cautionary Tales, Tim Harford takes us through all of the poor design choices leading into the infamous La La Land/Moonlight debacle, and how it could have been prevented.

“La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz hands the best picture Oscar to “Moonlight” (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Find out more about Cautionary Tales and more about Tim Harford’s work here.



Cautionary Tales is hosted by Tim Harford from Pushkin Industries. Featuring original music and an award-winning cast including Alan Cumming and Archie Panjabi (The Good Wife), Toby Stephens (Die Another Day), Russell Tovey (Quantico) – and Malcolm Gladwell.

  1. Mickey Johnson

    Excellent episode. The BBC podcast “more of less” which Tim hosts is also fantastic. I would highly recommend it.

    I nearly lost it at the end with the academy’s solution to the La La Land Debacle. Its comically fitting.

    Its 2019. Why use envelopes at all? why not just code the names of the winners into the teleprompter the presenters read off of. The could just pretend to read it off of blank envelopes for nostalgia’s sake . They are actors after all…
    For a fail-safe they could give someone in the control booth a hardcopy of the full list.

  2. Jen

    I’m an engineer that works in a high risk industry. Quite frequently, the lack of complexity causes catastrophic, single mode failures (the filter taking down a nuclear plant is a good example of a simple, single mode failure in a complex system). What happens when you kick out one of those two columns? Still broke. For every one major failure regarding over complexity I can think of several more that that simple design resulted in failure. You need layers of designed controls so that one thing can’t take you down. Human factored design is hard, and humans are the least reliable control there is.

    The 3rd column support was unnecessary and destabilized the system – but a 4th would have eliminated single point failure. Any one of 4 supports, when correctly spaced, could be removed without catastrophic failure, leaving at least 3 completely adequate supports. Three columns is incomplete risk assessment and control. A simple system is more stable (ok with some movement, but will break the column if a support fully fails), but still accepts catastrophic failure as an option.

    Catastrophic accidents are unacceptable. Period. “Ooops, didn’t think of that” is not an excuse when human life is on the line.

    For the Oscars – I’d have a single set of envelopes and a auditor with a list. Worst come to worst, keep a few envelopes and cards ready so a new one can be assembled based on the list in moments. Keep the back up an obvious Plan B, preventing any situational confusion.

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