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Thursday, March 28, 2019

The joy of stats | Books and Arts -

Evelyn Lamb, Freelance math and science writer based in Salt Lake City, Utah enjoys a rich study on number-crunching and its ubiquitous fruit.

Tracking data can be baffling without a thorough knowledge of statistical approaches.
Photo: solarseven/Getty

The aphorism “All models are wrong, but some are useful”, attributed to statistician George Box, is a cliché for a reason. It cuts to the heart of a central challenge facing researchers in many areas of science. The world is more complicated than anything that a mathematical, scientific or statistical model can capture. Yet models of the world, however imperfect, are necessary for drawing conclusions about everything from pharmaceutical efficacy to unemployment numbers. David Spiegelhalter’s The Art of Statistics shines a light on how we can use the ever-growing deluge of data to improve our understanding of the world — and of some of the pitfalls we encounter in the attempt.

The book is part of a trend in statistics education towards emphasizing conceptual understanding rather than computational fluency. Statistics software can now perform a battery of tests and crunch any measure from large data sets in the blink of an eye. Thus, being able to compute the standard deviation of a sample the long way is seen as less essential than understanding how to design and interpret scientific studies with a rigorous eye.

Throughout the book, Spiegelhalter emphasizes the importance of the “PPDAC” structure: Problem-Plan-Data-Analysis-Conclusion. He describes how statisticians approach each section of an investigation, and the tools that come into play...

Spiegelhalter does not shy away from discussions of subtle statistical issues such as the nature of different types of uncertainty. So, as he warns at the beginning of chapter 9, where the rubber of mathematical probability theory hits the road of statistical inference, some material will prove challenging even to scientifically sophisticated readers. Some passages require pencil, paper and a few passes through to fully digest, but the approachable big-picture explanations and end-of-chapter summaries help, as does the glossary...

The Art of Statistics will serve students well. And it will be a boon for journalists eager to use statistics responsibly — along with anyone who wants to approach research and its reportage with healthy scepticism.
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Recommended Reading
The Art of Statistics:
Learning from Data (Pelican Books)