Quick Review: Stat-Spotting

Sociologist Joel Best has recently done well for himself by publishing several books about the misuse of statistics. This is an important topic: many people are not used to thinking statistically and have difficulty correctly interpreting statistics even though they are commonly used in media stories. Best’s most recent book on this subject, published in 2008, is Stat-Spotting: A Field Guide to Identifying Dubious Data. A few thoughts on this text:

1. One of Best’s strong points is that his recommendations are often based in common-sense. If a figure strikes you as strange, it probably is. He has tips about keeping common statistical figures in your mind to help keep sense of certain statistics. Overall, he suggests a healthy skepticism towards statistics: think about how the statistic was developed and who is saying it.

2. When the subtitle of the book says “field guide,” it means a shorter text that is to the point. Best quickly moves through different problems with statistical data. If you are looking for more thorough explanations, you should read Best’s 2001 book Damned Lies and Statistics. (A cynical reader might suggest this book was simply a way to make more money of topics Best has already explored elsewhere.)

3. I think this text is most useful for finding brief examples of how to analyze and interpret data. There are numerous examples in here that could start off a statistics lesson or could further illustrate a point. The examples cover a variety of topics and sources.

This is a quick read that could be very useful as a simple guide to combating innumeracy.