Quick and cool, numbers often seem to have conquered fact. But they are also hated, often for the same reasons.
They can bamboozle not enlighten, terrorise not guide, and all too easily end up abused and distrusted. Potent but shifty, the role of numbers is frighteningly ambiguous.
How can we sour our way through them? First, relax.... Here is a painless introduction to the maths of the real world by the team who created and present the hugely popular BBC Radio 4 series More or Less.
©2007 2008, 2009 Michael Blastland & Andrew Dilnot; (P)2009 BBC Audiobooks Ltd
For anybody interested in how statistics are reported and used, this book includes some fascinating insights. The passage on the ignorance of people in high places is amusing but totally shocking, and the authors remind us how useless league tables can be, giving examples of how people 'game the system' to achieve targets. It is full of pearls of wisdom. For example, whenever I hear a news item quoting some impressive-sounding statistic, I now know to ask one simple question: 'Is that a BIG number?'. And the authors have given me a way of working out an answer, so I can spot the phoney and baloney. Excellent: another case where I bought a print copy after listening to the audiobook.
As a loyal listener to More or Less, this is a bit '101 in numeracy'. A series of amusing examples, such as the way senior civil servants over-estimate the wealth of normal people, but many issues (statistical errors caused by regression to the mean, relative sizes e.g. the government spending: £3b is only one pound per citizen per week for a year) seemed familiar and unsurprising to me.
A jolly, sing-song delivery by Cornelius Garrett kept the narrative bouncing along.
A fascinating book. On the face of it, it is about statistics, but actually it is about something far deeper - how we perceive and interpret the information that affects all our lives deeply. Ex post, everything you read seems like common sense, ex ante however it is not. This simple, highly entertaining book will provide you with a practical sense of how to interpret much of what you hear in the press. You will never view a number in the same way again (and that is a very good thing).
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