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Book Review: Naked Statistics by Charles Wheelan

October 23, 2013

Naked Statistics How many times have you wondered how two different people looking at the same report managed to draw totally opposite conclusions? How many times have you looked at a set of data yourself and decided that the data must be wrong because it doesn’t show what you “know” to be true? Well, I suspect that you aren’t alone. I suspect that you also have an aversion to “doing the math” necessary to convince yourself that the data is actually correct.

Wheelan claims that “Statistics is like a high-caliber weapon: helpful when used correctly and potentially disastrous in the wrong hands.” This is an incredibly important topic as we move forward into our increasingly connected world where we are creating data at an accelerating rate. The data is only raw knowledge.  How we analyze that data is what allows us to derive useful information to create actionable knowledge. The tool we use to analyze the data is, like it or not, statistics. Wheelan gives us an easy to follow and understand overview of statistics. Even if you didn’t like math in school, you will find this book useful as well as insightful.

Here’s the rub. No matter how hard we try, when using descriptive statistics, we lose the detail in the data. We’ve “summarized” it and just like the summary of a good book, we will miss a lot of the nuance in the story. Neither this review nor the summary of data known as descriptive statistics is an exception to that rule. And because of that loss of fidelity, we will find as Wheelan puts its, “Smart and honest people will often disagree about what the data are trying to tell us.”

Wheelan includes many examples of how statistics is enlightening and infuriating. The examples are from everyday life and you are likely to recognize them; things like “Money Ball” and the “Wall Street failure.” You will learn about correlation, basic probability, the Central Limit Theorem, Inferences, Polling, Regression Analysis and more. All without tears!

So why should you be interested? Because the big questions will be answered by statistical analysis and you will want to know at least enough to not be “taken in” by those who would purposely try to confuse you or convert you to their views using statistics and data. Wheelan believes that there are five “large” questions that statistics will help us answer in the future.

  1. What is the future of football? Will it die of concussions?
  2. What (if anything) is causing the dramatic rise in the incidence of autism?
  3. How can we identify and reward good teachers and schools?
  4. What are the best tools for fighting global poverty?
  5. Who gets to know what about you?

Wheelan doesn’t answer these questions. The data is still being collected and analyzed. What he has done, however, is set the reader on the right path to understanding the complexity of those questions and why there aren’t any easy answers. He has given the reader at least a working knowledge of statistics so that we can decide for ourselves who is doing the best job of presenting the information and knowledge buried in ever expanding universe of dots for us to connect. The sub title of this excellent book is “Stripping the Dread From the Data.” What I found is that now I know how to make sure that I strip the dread from the statistics which apply to the data. The dread is when the proper use of statistics on that data shows my cherished beliefs to be ill conceived!

See this book on Amazon.

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