Skip to main content

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all the relevant aspects, but rather that the book doesn't take a historical approach to statistics, but rather is structured on how the mathematics is used, rather than how it was developed - which is refreshing.

Along the way, Spiegelhalter poses and then explores a number of questions, from basics such as 'How many trees are there on the planet?', through 'Do statins reduce heart attacks and strokes' to 'Does extrasensory perception (ESP) exist?' (The last one is not a general Bayesian attempt on this question, incidentally, but rather a look at how psychologist Daryl Bem managed to come up with data that was statistically significant supporting the idea.) You'll find all the power of statistics, the controversies (frequentist v. Bayesian, misuse of P-values and statistical significance) and the various ways statistics can be got wrong. And this is all presented in the way a thinking reader can understand, without any previous exposure to the mathematics of statistics.

It's not perfect. There are some sections where Spiegelhalter is not clear enough in his non-technical descriptions - for example in description of how the null hypothesis is used, use of P-values and what they really mean - but his task is not helped by the complexity of what's involved, and managing all this without using mathematics is still quite remarkable. As long as the non-technical reader is prepared to go with the flow and, if necessary, re-read a few parts, the book does a brilliant job.

I really wish there was far more of this kind of thing in school maths. The vast majority of those taking maths GCSEs will never use more than arithmetic. It would be so much better if they could be exposed to this kind of explanatory teaching where they aren't required to solve equations or whatever, but instead understand how the mathematics that influences our lives works and how it can be misused. If they then go on to maths A-level, they can easily pick up the basics in the first few weeks - for the vast majority who don't, this is what maths teaching should be like (just as science teaching at this level should have far more popular science).

Spiegelhalter is warm and encouraging - it's a genuinely enjoyable read. Yes, the reader does have to work a bit, but it is entirely worth it. This book should be required reading for all politicians, journalists, medics and anyone who tries to influence people (or is influenced) by statistics. A tour de force.

* There are some in the glossary, but you don't need to see them.
Hardback 

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

How to Drive a Nuclear Reactor - Colin Tucker ****

How To Drive A Nuclear Reactor does exactly what it says on the tin. The book is a general overview of nuclear reactors. From the basic principles that make them work through to what buttons to press in what order (and of course how and why they can go wrong).Nuclear power could be a good step on the path to a greener energy future, but there is a lot of understandable fear. This book can give some idea of what an incredible feat of both science and engineering one of these machines is and, hopefully, make anyone reading it feel far more comfortable about them.The book presents information about everything, almost down to the literal nuts and bolts, giving you a near complete understanding of how a nuclear works. From putting in the fuel to getting out the power and down from the control panel to the construction material. Everything you could ever want to know is here. By the end you'll likely feel ready to walk into a control room and get started (do not try doing this, nuclear …

Being Mortal - Atul Gawande ****

I heard recently that the local geriatric ward puts a photograph of the patient in his or her prime by each bed. The aim is to help staff to treat their patients as individuals, but it makes me uneasy. Do these people only matter because of what they were, not what they are? Because once they stood proud and handsome in their uniform, or looked lovely on their wedding day?

Professor Atul Gawande has the problem surgically excised and laid out for inspection in one of his unflinching but compassionate case studies:

‘What bothered Shelley was how little curiosity the staff members seemed to have about what Lou cared about in his life and what he had been forced to forfeit... They might have called the service they provided assisted living, but no-one seemed to think it was their job to actually assist him with living – to figure out how to sustain the connection and joys that most mattered to him.’

Gawande is an eminent surgeon. As a young resident he displayed little overt emotion when hi…

Twenty Worlds - Niall Deacon *****

This is a truly entertaining and informative book, but the reason I’m giving it the full five stars has as much to do with the refreshing novelty of the author’s style as anything else. There’s novelty in the subject-matter too – the wide variety of recently discovered exoplanets orbiting other stars – but even so this is the third book on the topic that I’ve read. The first two were a lot less fun to read, and (without naming and shaming the authors) it’s worth a brief diversion to explain why.The first author was a university professor with a vast knowledge of the subject, who seemed determined to convey the entirety of that knowledge without stopping to think whether it was interesting or necessary for a general audience. The second author – another academic – took a different but equally tedious approach, with a plodding chronological account that focused as much on the dull routine of the scientists involved as on their work.Niall Deacon doesn’t make either of those mistakes. He’…