Book Report on “Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists” by Joel Best

Topics: Sociology, Statistics, Problem Pages: 2 (664 words) Published: June 18, 2013
This report is based upon the book “Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists”, written by Joel Best and published by University of California Press in 2001. Joel Best, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, has written a highly readable treatise on statistics, and how we can become better consumers of the statistical information that permeates the environment in which we live. Joel Best is a sociologist and, as a result, this is not a book about the mathematics of statistics, but about its sociology. That is, a book about the ways in which bad statistics are generated and spread through society.

The title of the book comes from Mark Twain’s famous phrase “lies, damned lies, and statistics”, which is usually interpreted as grouping statistics with lies. A more critical title would come from the phrase “figures don’t lie, but liars can figure”. Despite its cynical title, Best’s book is one of the best ways to learn how to cease being awestruck by statistics, and to start critically evaluating them. In straightforward prose filled with real world examples, Joel Best deconstructs the processes by which social statistics are created and take on a life of their own, primarily through blind and unquestioning repetition by the media. He also delineates how such statistics are sometimes mutated, misinterpreted, misapplied, and manipulated. In his view, there are no perfect statistics, just better or worse ones. Every statistic involves human choices: defining what to measure, determining how to measure it, deciding whom to count or how to count it, and choosing how to deal with unreported cases (the dark figure) of whatever is being counted. Not only does every statistic contain identifiable, though generally unrecognized strengths, weaknesses, and dark figures, but many of the most controversial and heavily publicized statistics are created by people in advocacy...
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