How to Lie With Statistics by Irving Geis

Great And Fun Book On A Serious Topic

There is terror in numbers, writes Darrell Huff in How to Lie with Statistics. And nowhere does this terror translate to blind acceptance of authority more than in the slippery world of averages, correlations, graphs, and trends. Huff sought to break through the daze that follows the collision of statistics with the human mind with this slim volume, first published in 1954. The book remains relevant as a wake-up call for people unaccustomed to examining the endless flow of number s pouring from Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and everywhere else someone has an axe to grind, a point to prove, or a product to sell. The secret language of statistics, so appealing in a fact-minded culture, is employed to sensationalize, inflate, confuse, and oversimplify, warns Huff. Although many of the examples used in the book are charmingly dated, the cautions are timeless. Statistics are rife with opportunities for misuse, from gee-whiz graphs that add nonexistent drama to trends, to results detached from their method and meaning, to statistics ultimate bugaboo--faulty cause-and-effect reasoning. Huffs tone is tolerant and amused, but nononsense. Like a lecturing father, he expects you to learn something useful from the book, and start applying it every day. Never be a sucker again, he cries! Even if you cant find a source of demonstrable bias, allow yourself some degree of skepticism about the results as long as there is a possibility of bias somewhere. There always is. Read How to Lie with Statistics. Whether you encounter statistics at work, at school, or in advertising, youll remember its simple lessons. Dont be terrorized by numbers, Huff implores. The fact is that, despite its mathematical base, statistics is as much an art as it is a science. --Therese Littleton This is an excellent book to get you started on how to spot deceptions and dissembling via numbers and statistics, even if the book is half a century old. Like wine, the book has aged and even got better with time. This book was path breaking in its time, and some of its innovations live on to this day - a provocative title, use of cartoony illustrations, humorous

writing against the backdrop of a serious subject, and more. Short at 144 pages, readable, humorous, it covers a variety of lies spoken in the language of statistics. It wont educate you on statistics per se, on such terms as the bell curve, standard error, sampling error, confidence intervals, etc... but that is not the purpose of the book. How to Lie With Statistics is written by Darrel Huff, a former editor of a magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and freelance writer. He was not a mathematician or statistician by profession. Yet, his book has sold more copies than any other text on statistics. Amazing, isnt it? There is a part of the human brain, and indeed heart also, that is so eager for the truth, in whatever context, in whatever form, that we look at numbers with a reassuring feeling - numbers convey accuracy, preciseness, and authority, which in turn leads us to accept them as being truthful. Words can be used to lie, numbers cannot - so goes the seductiveness of numbers. The secret language of statistics, so appealing in a fact-minded culture, is employed to sensationalize, inflate,confuse, and oversimplify. ... But without writers who use the words with honesty and understanding and readers who know what they mean, the result can only be semantic nonsense. [page 8] Users report 23% fewer cavities with Doakes tooth paste, the big type says. You could do with twenty-three per cent fewer aches, so you read on. These results, you find, come from a reassuringly independent laboratory, and the account is certified by a certified public accountant. What more do you want? ... The principal joker in this one is the inadequate sample - statistically inadequate, that is; for Doakes purpose it is just right. That test group of users, you discover by reading the small type, consisted of just a dozen persons. [pages 37, 38] Chapter 5, The Gee-Whiz Graph, briefly gets into the area of lying with graphs. By using a scale that does not start at zero, or a line graph that is truncated to show only a small window of the actual graph, or by means of a broken graph, and more, graphs can be used to lie. Ample illustrations in the book and in books like The The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, Information Dashboard Design, etc... cover this in a lot more detail and with erudition. Chapter 6, The One Dimensional Picture, is a continuation of the topic on lying with charts, and here the use of representing a single measure along a single dimension along two axes is described If you cant prove what you want to prove, demonstrate something else and pretend that they are the same thing. In the daze that follows the collision

of statistics with the human mind, hardly anybody will notice the difference. [page 74] Wall Street thrives on such numerical machinations... There are often many ways of expressing any figure. ... The method is to choose the one that sounds best for the purpose at hand and trust that few who read it will recognize how imperfectly it reflects the situation. [page 82] Chapter 8, Post Hoc Rides Again, is on correlations and causality. The title of the chapter is taken from the Latin phrase, Post hoc ergo propter hoc, which means after this therefore because of this. If the newspaper is delivered everyday at 7am, and if you go to the toilet at 7:30am, then did the newspaper delivery cause you visit the loo? You would most likely argue not. But you cannot dispute there is a strong correlation, though causality would be disputed, and rightly so, unless there is something in the newspaper content, everyday, that causes movement. The title of chapter 9, How to Statisticulate could have come straight from an Asterix comic book. Misinforming people by the use of statistical material might be called statistical manipulation; in a word (though not a very good one), statisticulation. [page 100] For a spurious air of precisi on that will lend all kinds of weight to the most disreputable statistic, consider the decimal. Ask a hundred citizens how many hours they slept last night. Come out with a total of, say, 783.1. Any such data are far from precise to begin with. [pages 106] In her History of the Standard Oil Company, Ida M. Tarbell went even further. She said that price cutting in the southwest ranged from 14 to 220 percent. That would call for seller paying buyer a considerable sum to haul the oily stuff away. [page 109] Chapter 10 is the last one, and gives the reader five questions to ask when looking a statistic in the eye to try and discern the truth from the numbers, or to at least find out how phony and meaningless these numbers are: Not all the statistical information that you may come upon can be tested with the sureness of chemical analysis or of what goes on in an assayers laboratory. But you can prod the stuff with five simple questions, and by finding the answers avoid learning a remarkable lot that isnt so. [page 122] The five questions are: Who Says So? How Does He Know? Whats Missing? Did Somebody Change the Subject? Does it Make Sense? In summary, this is a fun book on a serious topic.

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