Statistics has played a leading role in our scientific understanding of the world for centuries, yet we are all familiar with the way statistical claims can be sensationalised, particularly in the media. In the age of big data, as data science becomes established as a discipline, a basic grasp of statistical literacy is more important than ever.
In How to Tell the Truth with Statistics, David Spiegelhalter guides the reader through the essential principles we need in order to derive knowledge from data. Drawing on real world problems to introduce conceptual issues, he shows us how statistics can help us determine the luckiest passenger on the Titanic, whether serial killer Harold Shipman could have been caught earlier, and if screening for ovarian cancer is beneficial.
How many trees are there on the planet? Do busier hospitals have higher survival rates? Why do old men have big ears? Spiegelhalter reveals the answers to these and many other questions - questions that can only be addressed using statistical science.
Spiegelhalter (Sex by Numbers), a University of Cambridge statistician, demonstrates in his intriguing, nontechnical primer how to reliably evaluate even the most extravagant claim. Spiegelhalter's goal is to show readers that statistics is about more than just counting numbers. A question about what happened to children having heart surgery at a particular hospital becomes a lesson in the psychological effects of "framing" results: reporting the "mortality rate" might cause alarm, but providing a "survival rate" sounds more reassuring. From issues with pie charts and the "wisdom of crowds," to using data distributions, modelling relationships, and the correlation/causation quandary, Spiegelhalter offers clear and surprisingly enlightening examples. Concepts including margins of error and statistical significance, he demonstrates, become vital when assessing a statistics-backed claim, such as one made by a mischievous journalist who published a paper "proving" chocolate consumption caused weight loss the data was real, but any trained statistician could see it was statistically insignificant. Spiegelhalter's book is both fully comprehensible and valuable in a digitally driven world in which data literacy has become newly important.