Damned Lies and Statistics

Damned Lies and Statistics

Best, Joel. Damned Lies and Statistics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. ISBN 0-520-21978-3.

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This book serves a similar market to the older How to Lie with Statistics, but emphasizes the use of statistics in propaganda rather than the simple presentation of the statistics themselves. There is a huge overlap, as the presentation obviously serves the purposes of propaganda. The cases presented are discussed more broadly, and come from a range of political viewpoints.

Some of the topics covered include how statistics are used in dealing with social issues, including especially how statistics can be inaccurately used with good intensions, how bad statistics are generated, and how they can be modified (mutant statistics) as they are referenced and used. The critical importance of accurate citation, and of finding primary sources for one’s information are emphasized throughout by examples and arguments.

Best argues that the essential need is critical thinking by all consumers of statistics. Too frequently people judge the validity of data by the character of hte people that are using it. Unfortunately both innumeracy (Best’s term) and simple focus on those numbers which seem to justify one’s existing view can cause persons of good character to produce statistical evidence of very questionable validity. I have observed similar problems in other fields as well. But statistics are used in ways that make the issue of careful use and finding primary sources even more important.

People generally believe that data presented with numbers is more accruate and reliable than other data. Unfortunately, numbers can be produced in many different ways. Sometimes its a simple matter of saying “on a scale of one to ten I rate that a six” or something similar. The number makes the result sound much more precise, but the precision is largely illusory. In the case of statistics, one needs to ask how the statistics were gathered, how they have been tabulated and presented, and how accurately and completely they have been cited.

Critical thinking and reading and a willingness to check facts are they key.

I’m adding this book to my list of those extremely useful in helping people become undeceived.