How to Truth with Statistics

27th January, 2022

“The crooks already know these tricks; honest men must learn them in self-defense.” – so wrote nerd legend Darrell Huff, in his million-selling “How To Lie With Statistics” (1954).

It’s a delightful little work, full of deceptive graphics, spurious correlations, biased samples and all sorts of other statistical crimes, playfully illustrated. As a teenager I loved reading it.

If you read How to Lie with Statistics and you will be more sceptical about the way numbers can deceive you.

But there’s a darker side to Huff; he sold out to the tobacco lobby, worked on a sequel “How To Lie With Smoking Statistics” (thankfully never published), and testified in Congress in an attempt to blow statistical smoke in the eyes of legislators.

It’s sad and infuriating. Now just because Huff turned bad doesn’t make “How To Lie With Statistics” a bad book. (It isn’t. It’s excellent.) Yet the book does have a serious weakness, and Huff’s personal failings are relevant here.

That weakness is Huff’s tendency to make statistics seem like a game, a stage magician’s trick, all good fun but never to be trusted. I worry that we’re starting to trust nobody; we’re starting to believe that lying with statistics is all anyone ever does. Huff does not help.

Scepticism is all very well, but not if it curdles into cynicism. Statistics can be used to deceive but they are also a vital tool in our quest to understand the world around us, like a telescope for an astronomer.

So alongside a healthy scepticism, we need the skills to distinguish statistical truth from lies, and the confidence to realise that statistics are often the only window we have onto a large and complex world.

A few months ago, I published my own antidote to Huff. (Cory @Doctorow suggested it should have been titled “How To Truth With Statistics”. Alas I missed that idea.)

That book is out on 1 Feb in paperback in the US and Canada with the title “The Data Detective”.

Elsewhere it’s called “How To Make The World Add Up” – it was top of the Sunday Times Business Bestseller lists in 2021, although I think it’s much more than a business book.

If you’ve read the book and enjoyed it – thank you! Please spread the word. If not, now would be a wonderful time to pick up a copy.

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