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Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists 1st Edition

4.1 out of 5 stars 48 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0520219786
ISBN-10: 0520219783
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

When it comes to thinking about statistics, there are four kinds of people: awestruck, naive, cynical, and critical. According to sociologist Joel Best, the vast majority of people are naive (yes, you too probably suffer from a mild case of innumeracy), and the result is mutant statistics, guesswork, and poor policy decisions. "Bad statistics live on," writes Best in this highly accessible book, "they take on lives of their own." Take this one: a psychologist's estimate that perhaps 6 percent of priests were at some point sexually attracted to young people was transformed through a chain of errors into the "fact" that 6 percent of priests were pedophiles. Then there was the one about eating disorders. An original estimate that 150,000 women were anorexic, made by concerned activists, mutated into 150,000 women dying from the disorder annually (the truth: about 70 women a year). But these two mutant statistics have been published and passed along as facts for years, enduring long after the truth has been pointed out.

In an effort to turn people into critical thinkers, Best presents three questions to ask about all statistics and the four basic sources of bad ones. He shows how good statistics go bad; why comparing statistics from different time periods, groups, etc. is akin to mixing apples and oranges; and why surveys do little to clarify people's feelings about complex social issues. Random samples, it turns out, are rarely random enough. He also explains what all the hoopla is over how the poverty line is measured and the census is counted. What is the "dark figure"? How many men were really at the Million Man March? How is it possible for the average income per person to rise at the same time the average hourly wage is falling? And how do you discern the truth behind stat wars? Learn it all here before you rush to judgment over the next little nugget of statistics-based truth you read. --Lesley Reed

From Publishers Weekly

Who really said, "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics" Mark Twain or Benjamin Disraeli? Best, professor of sociology at the University of Delaware and author of several books, including Random Violence, settles the question once and for all: Disraeli (whom Twain credits for his use of the remark in his autobiography). The quote's misattribution is similar to the twisted course statistics often take as they "mutate" into bar-chart monsters with slim if any relation to the original numbers or reality. For instance, a few years ago it was estimated that 150,000 American women are anorexic. Somehow, this mutated into an erroneous if not dangerous statistic: 150,000 women die annually from anorexia. Since only about 55,500 American women between 15 and 44 (the age range for most cases of anorexia) die from all causes each year, this number challenges common sense and the ability of reporters to question what they write about. But it has become a frequently cited, "authoritative" figure that's hard to dispute. Best explains in untechnical language important statistical concepts like "dark figures," "false positives" and "false negatives," and how statisticians often err in comparing dissimilar groups (e.g., test scores of American high school students to those of Europeans, with their multitrack systems of secondary education). He has an annoying habit of italicizing words and phrases to emphasize a point, and he conflates "activists" and "advocates" (academic writers' favorite bogeymen as purveyors of suspect statistics), but these are minor issues. This informative and well-written little book will be a particularly worthwhile addition to libraries' collections and will help all readers become savvier and more critical news consumers.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 190 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; 1st edition (May 8, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520219783
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520219786
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.7 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (48 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #107,498 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Are ten percent of Americans gay? Is the white male in the work force rapidly becoming a minority? Are 150,000 young American women dying each year from anorexia?
Joel Best clearly answers "no" to each of these three questions and, more importantly, shows why many people would say "yes". His point is that descriptive statistics are the product of a social activity, not just a representation of society. Social advocacy causes people to collect the data that they feel will best support their preconceived notions: They talk to unrepresentative groups. They start to collect new measures and then wonder why the "statistics" have grown since ten years earlier (when they weren't much -- if at all -- measured). They multiply erroneous assumptions. They mutate data. And the press and other publications carry the mutations forward.
This book offers plenty of illustrations of intentions run amok. Many of the reports provide useful information for a classroom lecture on the need to discern if a person is "speaking rot", as Harold Macmillan once said was the primary purpose of an education.
A good, crisp 171 pages in length, it is absent discussion of the more difficult inferential statistics and, as a result, it is easy to understand by the lay person.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a book about reading and understanding statistics. It is not a book on research methods. As a book that helps to analyze and think critically about statistics, however, it is a book on methodology: the critical comparison of method issues.
Best’s point is a central issue in modern industrial democracy. If we are going to make effective policy choices as citizens and voters, we must understand the issues on which we make decisions. The same holds true for the decisions we make in business life and in research. Many of the choices we make are based on statistical evidence. To make informed choices, therefore, we must be able to think about statistics.
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 based statistics. Good statistics require good data; clear, reasonable definitions; clear, reasonable measures; and appropriate samples.
Chapter 3 catalogues “mutant statistics,” the methods for mangling numbers. Most of these arise from violating the four requirements of good statistics, but a new problem arises here. Where 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 based statistics that become difficult to trace and categorize.
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This is a short book which could be shorter without compromising its message. The author explains in very easily understandable terms the perils of misinterpreting public presentations of statistical data. Perhaps he was trying to keep it simple, but I felt that he repeated himself too often. I would have appreciated more examples of actual cases of flawed statistical reporting. It would have helped his case to provide some examples of good uses of statistics. With the author, I wish the media, as the willing or unwitting conveyors of misleading statistics, were more mindful of the flawed information they present to the public.
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Format: Hardcover
How many times have we heard that 25% of women on American college campuses have been raped? Or, that 130,000 young women die each year from anorexia? Or, that most medical research has customarily been performed on behalf of men?
Joel Best, a professor at the University of Delaware, has written a highly readable treatise on statistics, and how we can become better consumers of the statistical information that permeates the environment in which we live. Not only does he share some egregious examples of the misuse of statistics (as those described in the above paragraph), but he also explains how to become more discerning about statistics as they are (ab)used by partisans of various causes.
This book is especially timely in the wake of the furor that erupted at a University of California campus recently when the Independent Women's Forum took out an ad in the student newspaper declaring "Take Back the Campus." The ad was critical of several statistics that are used by advocacy groups to distort the facts about male college students in their relations with women. One is the "25% of women ... raped" statistic cited above. Rape is a serious crime, that is universally abhorred, but a review of the study used to establish the 25% figure showed that the figure was misleading at best. Professor Best gives a thorough evaluation of this situation, leading to a conclusion that the actual figure is most likely less than 3%.
You will not find a better book on how to read statistics and understand their implications. I strongly those who want to know how to discover the truth about important issues of our day to read this book.
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