Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Extracurricular Education: How to Fake the Numbers


Among a small handful of books that I consider essential, Darrell Huff's 1954 classic How to Lie with Statistics is the one probably best suited to our current political and financial situation. While all of my English teachers in high school were (rightly) flogging Strunk and White, both my math teachers and my history teachers should have been forcing us to purchase our own copies of Huff's book. I'm even slightly chuffed my Journalism teacher never mentioned this book.

In the introduction Huff points out that "This book is a primer in ways to use statistics to deceive. It may seem altogether too much like a manual for swindlers." But he is quick to note "The crooks already know these tricks; honest men must learn them in self defense." Indeed, in these days of politicians claiming media bias (when the media doesn't agree with them) or in financial meltdowns where numbers so huge no longer shock our senses, it takes an extra bit of mental jujitsu to not be confused by numbers casually tossed around without question.


In a very approachable manner Huff tosses out examples of how statistics are molded and shaped to mean whatever the bearer wants them to mean. The problem may not even be in the inaccuracy of the information given but in the information not included with the data. One of Huff's examples is a simple coin toss experiment where the result of ten flips yielded a different result than the traditional assumption of a 50% draw for either side of the coin. Reporting 80% heads isn't factually wrong, but it isn't statistically correct, and Huff is thorough in explaining how to root out the fault in the data.

At the very end Huff includes a chapter called "How to Talk Back to a Statistic" that provides five simple questions any citizen can ask when confronted with a statistical number presently plainly as fact. The one thing a lie cannot withstand is a question, and under the weight of five questions a statistic should reveal itself quite plainly.


For another take on a similar topic, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper
by John Allen Paulos specifically looks at the way math and numbers are used in news stories. Using some very simple math Paulos examines advertising claims, electoral shenanigans, examines the true cost of last savings-and-loan bailout, and basically will leave you unable to see or hear a number used without wondering what else is behind it.

The problems with the use and abuse of statistics and numbers in our daily lives should be a call to arms against apathy. Too often I have heard adults, when confronted with contradictory information, simply choose a side and call the other side liars. I also hear a lot of people use the words "bias" and "agenda" interchangeably when listening to politicians and news reports when all that was required was a little scratching at the surface, a simple question of source. It makes me wonder if the reason my teachers in school weren't pushing books like these on us was because they weren't a little afraid they'd have to answer a lot of questions themselves about the efficacy of those standardized test scores, or about how those test scores were averaged, and why, if this information is out there, do people keep falling for the same old statistics?

How to Lie With Statistics
by Darrell Huff
W.W. Norton 1954

A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper
John Allen Paulos
Anchor Books 1995


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1 comment:

Lee Wind said...

This sounds really cool. And you're right about the financial crisis numbers being so huge that they've lost all meaning. There was some artist who did a pile of grains of rice to represent statistics that seemed too big to grasp:

http://www.voanews.com/english/archive/2007-12/2007-12-21-voa65.cfm

The artist's name is Jake Oldershaw, and it was really cool.

Thanks for this recommendation - just like we need to be savvy consumers and know how to "interpret" commercials, it'll be good to know how to "interpret" statistics.