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Numbers Rule Your World

Review: Kaiser Fung, Numbers Rule Your World

You all know what statistics is, right? I mean, everybody knows. But if you had to explain why it's useful, and what it's useful for, would you have an answer? Do you know how statistics makes a difference in all our lives, all the time? Even if you (think you) do, check out Kaiser Fung's book, Numbers Rule Your World.

Just in case you were wondering: yes, that is the same Kaiser Fung who also runs the wonderful Junk Charts blog.

After my recent review of Cornelia Dean's Am I Making Myself Clear?, I am quite sensitive to how technical information is packaged for broad audiences. There are two very clever tricks here that I think should be copied, immediately, by everybody: first, this book about statistics is almost entirely devoid of actual statistics. It doesn't bore you with concepts like means, standard deviations, etc., but rather tells you what they're good for and what their limitations are.

Secondly, every chapter is built around two related examples, which Fung alternates between in every section. That way, there's a little cliffhanger at the end of every page or two of text, which keeps you reading.

The examples are also great because they show actual, real-world examples that people can not only relate to, but most would probably find important: doping in sports, salmonella outbreaks, risk assessment for insurance companies, etc. The book does not tell you how to do these things yourself, but why the people who do them use statistics.

There are tons of statistics books, but the fact that this one almost completely bypasses the actual statistics to show you what they're good for clearly makes it special. It's a bit like that quote about teaching people not how to build a ship, but to yearn for the sea. They can always pick up the necessary skills if they have reason enough to do so.

Now somebody write such a book about visualization!

Posted by Robert Kosara on September 28, 2010. Filed under book-reviews, criticism.