Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread Out of Data by Charles Wheelan
Ok, I’m not sure that most folks are quite ready to embrace the statement by Hal Varian, chief economist at Google, quoted on the book jacket. Varian says that the field of statistics is ‘sexy.’ But if isn’t quite that, it isn’t the dreadful bore that we think of it as. Wheelan, in Naked Statistics does a great job of making the field interesting; he does a good job of making it fun. Reading his book may open you to the possibility of a career that requires statistical analysis. And so—I think it is the sort of book that shapers of the Common Core are steering you toward.
Wheelan points out that though you do need to understand some advanced math to comprehend statistical analysis, these days working with statistics means using a computer program to run the numbers and do the analysis. What he makes the reader realize is that the saying about computer analysis—‘garbage in, garbage out’—always holds true. So one of the most important traits of a person working with statistics is thoughtfulness—what information belongs in the study? Another is integrity. You don’t tweak the results by using biased data. Decision-making problems like this are really quite creative. Tackling problems like this is the thing that makes people enjoy their jobs and want to come to work in the morning. Really. I’m not kidding.
Most adults can think of important situations when the wrong data seemed to have been used to make important decisions in organizations, corporations and educational institutions. Wheelan shows us how bias in statistical analysis leads to crummy results. Bias may be malicious—purposeful, with a hope of a specific outcome –or just a result of carelessness. One of the most interesting examples Wheelan gives—interesting because it affected all of us so deeply and most of us so negatively—is the “irresponsible use of statistics . . . for gauging risk on Wall Street prior to the 2008 financial crisis.”
I think you need to read the book to see how statistics can be fun—find out:
- Why the makers of Shiltz Beer (a cheaper brand) felt safe in having a live televised taste test against Michelob (considered a better brand) during a Super Bowl halftime
- How Netflix uses statistics to determine what movies you will like and then recommend them to you
- Why you should not buy extended warranties on most products
- How political pollsters can take very small samples and correctly determine the outcome of major elections
- Just what Lebron James has to do with the Central Limit Theorem
- How it is that a CEO in charge of a multimillion dollar corporation in less likely to be stressed out over his or her job than his/her secretary is stressed
- Why it’s important to remember not to kill anyone with your statistics (common regression mistakes—some of these ‘mistakes’ are made on purpose—and yes, that IS interesting reading!)
High school housekeeping: The author does a wonderful job showing how statistics can be fun and valuable (and conversely how they can be used for ethically indecent ends). And you can enjoy the book without ever having taken a statistics class. However, this is a book for students who have some math background and who are reading at grade level or above. Reading it may help you decide to take a few stats classes in college. It will help you understand why statistics are used in just about every important decision that an organization makes. You’ll understand why you might want to have a look at the data that goes into any statistical analysis that affects you. And it will help you see how truly creative brilliant researchers are—check out the chapter on program evaluation (Will going to Harvard change your life?)