Darrell Huff made statistics seem like a stage magician's trick: all good fun but never to be taken seriously. Long before the coronavirus, I'd started to worry that this isn't an attitude that helps us today. We've lost our sense that statistics might help us make the world add up. It's not that we feel every statistic is a lie, but that we feel helpless to pick out the truths. So we believe whatever we want to believe (more on that in the next chapter), and for the rest we adopt Huff's response: a harsh laugh, a shrug, or both.
This statistical cynicism is not just a shame—it's a tragedy. If we give in to a sense that we no longer have the power to figure out what's true, then we've abandoned a vital tool. It's a tool that showed us that cigarettes are deadly. It's our only real chance of finding a way through the coronavirus crisis—or, more broadly, understanding the complex world in which we live. But the tool is useless if we lapse into a reflexive dismissal of any unwelcome statistical claim. Of course, we shouldn't be credulous—but the antidote to credulity isn't to believe nothing, but to have the confidence to assess information with curiosity and a healthy skepticism.
Good statistics are not a trick, although they are a kind of magic. Good statistics are not smoke and mirrors; in fact, they help us see more clearly. Good statistics are like a telescope for an astronomer, a microscope for a bacteriologist, or an X-ray for a radiologist. If we are willing to let them, good statistics help us see things about the world around us and about ourselves—both large and small—that we would not be able to see in any other way.
My main aim with this book is to persuade you to embrace Doll and Hill's vision, not Huff's cynicism. I want to convince you that statistics can be used to illuminate reality with clarity and honesty. To do that, I need to show you that you can use statistical reasoning for yourself, sizing up the claims that surround you in the media, on social media, and in everyday conversation. I want to help you evaluate statistics from scratch, and just as important, to figure out where to find help that you can trust.
The good news is that this is going to be fun. There's a real satisfaction in getting to the bottom of the statistical story. You gain in confidence and feed your curiosity along the way, and end up feeling that you've mastered something. You understand
rather than sneer from the sidelines. Darrell Huff's approach is junk food: superficially appealing but tedious after a while. And it's bad for you. But the opposite of statistical junk food isn't raw oats and turnips; it's a satisfying and delightfully varied menu.
In this book I'll be describing what I've learned myself since 2007, when the BBC asked me to present a radio program called More or Less
, a show about numbers in the news and in life. The show's creators, the journalist Michael Blastland and the economist Andrew Dilnot, were moving on. I was less well qualified for the role than the BBC might have imagined: I trained in economic theory, not statistics. Yes, that training gave me some self-assurance when it came to numbers, but it was mostly defensive. I'd learned to spot flaws and tricks, but couldn't do much beyond that.
It was there that my journey away from the viewpoint of Darrell Huff began.
Week after week, my colleagues and I would evaluate the statistical claims that had emerged out of the mouths of politicians or been printed in large type in the newspapers. Those claims often stretched the truth, but by itself a simple fact-check never seemed like a satisfying response. We would find that behind each claim—true, false, or borderline—was a fascinating world to explore and explain. Whether we were evaluating the prevalence of strokes, the evidence that debt damages economic growth, or even the number of times in The Hobbit
that the word "she" is used, the numbers could illuminate the world as well as obscure it.
As the coronavirus pandemic has so starkly illustrated, we depend on reliable numbers to shape our decisions—as individuals, as organizations, and as a society. And just as with coronavirus, the statistics have often been gathered only when we've been faced with a crisis. Consider the unemployment rate—a measure of how many people want jobs but do not have them. It's now a basic piece of information for any government wanting to understand the state of the economy, but back in 1920, nobody could have told you how many people were searching for work. Only when severe recessions made the question more politically pertinent did governments begin to collect the data that could answer it.
***** TABLE OF CONTENTS *****
HOW TO LIE WITH STATISTICS
Rule One: SEARCH YOUR FEELINGS
Rule Two: PONDER YOUR PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
Rule Three: AVOID PREMATURE ENUMERATION
Rule Four: STEP BACK AND ENJOY THE VIEW
Rule Five: GET THE BACKSTORY
Rule Six: ASK WHO IS MISSING
Rule Seven: DEMAND TRANSPARENCY WHEN THE COMPUTER SAYS NO
Rule Eight: DON'T TAKE STATISTICAL BEDROCK FOR GRANTED
Rule Nine: REMEMBER THAT MISINFORMATION CAN BE BEAUTIFUL, TOO
Rule Ten: KEEP AN OPEN MIND
The Golden Rule: BE CURIOUS