DAMNED LIES AND STATISTICS: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists

Joel Best, Author . Univ. of California $19.95 (190p) ISBN 978-0-520-21978-6

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. (May)

Reviewed on: 05/07/2001
Release date: 05/01/2001
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