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This report is based upon the book “Damned Lies and Stats: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists”, composed by Joel Best and released by University of California Press in 2001. Joel Best, a teacher of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, has composed an extremely understandable treatise on statistics, and how we can end up being better customers of the analytical information that penetrates the environment in which we live.
Joel Finest is a sociologist and, as a result, this is not a book about the mathematics of stats, however about its sociology.
That is, a book about the methods which bad stats are produced and spread out through society. The title of the book comes from Mark Twain’s popular expression “lies, damned lies, and stats”, which is normally analyzed as grouping statistics with lies. A more important title would originate from the expression “figures do not lie, but liars can figure”.
Regardless of its cynical title, Best’s book is one of the very best ways to learn how to cease being awestruck by stats, and to begin seriously evaluating them.
In uncomplicated prose filled with real life examples, Joel Best deconstructs the procedures by which social data are created and handle a life of their own, mostly through blind and unquestioning repetition by the media. He likewise delineates how such statistics are in some cases altered, misinterpreted, misapplied, and controlled.
In his view, there are no ideal statistics, simply better or even worse ones.
Every fact includes human choices: specifying what to measure, identifying how to measure it, deciding whom to count or how to count it, and selecting how to handle unreported cases (the dark figure) of whatever is being counted. Not just does every fact include recognizable, though typically unacknowledged strengths, weak points, and dark figures, however many of the most questionable and greatly publicized data are produced by individuals in advocacy positions.
Social statistics – statistics about social problems, such as prostitution or suicide – are often produced by activists who are concerned about the problem, and may exaggerate it. When not produced by activists, statistics are often a product of government, which may be motivated in the opposite direction of the activists, to play down a problem. A quick summary of the issues and topics in this book offers a good overview of clear thinking on statistical issues. Chapter 1, “The Importance of Social Statistics”, explains where statistics come from, how we use them, and why they are important.
Chapter 2, “Soft Facts”, discusses sources of bad statistics. Guessing, poor definitions, poor measures, and bad samples are the primary sources of bad statistics. Good statistics require good data; clear, reasonable definitions; clear, reasonable measures; and appropriate samples. Chapter 3, “Mutant Statistics”, describes the methods for mangling numbers. Most of these arise from violating the four requirements of good statistics, but a new problem arises here. While it is relatively easy to spot bad statistics, mutant statistics require a second level of understanding.
As statistics mutate, they take on a history, and it becomes necessary to unravel the history to understand just how and why they are mutant. Transformation, confusion, and compound errors create chains of bad statistics that become difficult to trace and categorize. Chapter 4, “Apples and Oranges”, discusses the dangers of inappropriate comparison. Dangers arise when comparisons over time involve changing and unchanging measures, and projections. Comparisons among places and groups lead to problems not merely in the data measured, but in the ways the data may be gathered and collated.
Comparison among social problems also creates unique difficulties. Best offers logic of comparison to help the reader understand how to make sense of good comparison and bad comparison. Chapter 5, “Stat Wars”, describes the problems that arise when advocated use questionable numbers to make a case. Chapter 6, “Thinking About Social Statistics”, sums up Best’s advice on understanding statistics – don’t be awestruck in the face of numbers, and don’t be cynical about them, he suggests, be critical and thoughtful.
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