Tuesday, June 7, 2011

How To Lie With Statistics

In February last year the following request from one of my closest friends popped into my inbox:

My daughter who is a journalist at the Observer posted this request on Facebook. She needs people with real jobs (ie my friends!). If you fancy doing this, email her.

"Hi not-too-meedja-ish friends. Care to pen 150 words on a book related to your profession/passion that changed your life? it's for the new review section in the Observer. message me! x"

I did a worthy-ish review, which was too worthy as it turned out. So I tried again, this time with a bit less formality. "Perfect", Hermione said, which is nice because everyone needs a bit of encouragement.

Newspapers being what they are, the piece never got published, so I thought I'd offer my contribution on the blog since I think it's a book that everyone should read:
I've never been able to spot when someone is lying to me, which explains my disastrous love life. So when I saw Darrell Huff's "How To Lie With Statistics" (1954) on my father's bookshelves, shortly after landing a job on a shipping magazine, it looked like essential reading. Most people don't understand numbers: their eyes glide over them without gripping, like car tyres on an icy road, enabling advertisers, PRs and governments to shore up their arguments with meaningless percentages, skewed graphs and twisted surveys that often go unquestioned. I do question them, and so I can (to use Huff's phrase) "avoid learning a lot of things that ain't so". After reading Huff I could not merely weave a cute story but also see the flaws in other people's. So I swapped the reporter's beat for the subeditor's desk before becoming Editor and now Editorial Director at a consultancy that hurls statistics at a hungry industry.

The review is not as good as I'd like, partly because I was writing to a specific brief and partly because I take word counts seriously. There's a wall in my house that to any visitor looks blank but in fact is filled with my fantasy collection of the shrunken heads of people who said, "I know you asked for 200 words but I couldn't do it in less than 2,500. You can cut it down, can't you?" Trust me, they died in extreme agony.

Moral: Statistics might be facts, but that doesn't prevent them becoming the building blocks of fantasy palaces that make Disneyland look like a concrete outhouse.

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