Book Notes #56: How to Lie with Statistics - Darrell Huff

Book Notes: How to Lie with Statistics - Darrell Huff Book Notes: How to Lie with Statistics - Darrell Huff
How to Lie with Statistics offers numerous examples of how manipulating statistical data can be simple and common to build lies around us. 


Title: How to Lie with Statistics
Author: Darrell Huff
Themes: Leadership, Management, Business, Economy, Politics
Year: 1954
Publisher: Penguin Books
ISBN: 0140136290, 9780140136296
Pages: 124

Are you tired of being bamboozled by misleading statistics and charts? Want to learn how to spot a fibber with a bar graph? 

Look no further, because "How to Lie with Statistics" by Darrell Huff is here to save the day!

Would you be surprised if you found out the average annual income of the class you graduated from high school/university was $84,000? 

This survey was presumably based on how much your peers said they earned, but are they really earning that much? 

To maintain their honor, did they decide to lie about their income, knowing that the whole class would be analyzed? 

This error may also be due to the way the collected data were analyzed, in this case, the sampling process.

What is the number of corn in a can of corn and peas? 

Counting them would be the most accurate method. 

Is it too much work? 

Then we can count a portion of the corn kernels and calculate the proportion for the entire can. 

It is a good representation of the total contents of a can if the sample is large enough. 

However, it will still have the false air of "scientific precision" if it is not accurate and reliable enough. 

The conclusions drawn from these biased and/or reduced samples constitute a large part of what we read or believe.

In "How to Lie with Statistics", Darrell Huff offers numerous examples of how manipulating statistical data can be simple and common. 

The book aims to educate readers on how to effectively interpret and analyze statistical information. 

It covers topics such as how to spot misleading statistics, how to understand and use basic statistical concepts, and how to evaluate the credibility of sources of statistical information. 

It is written in a humorous and accessible style and is considered a classic in the field of statistics, and you don't need a Ph.D. in math to understand it. Huff covers everything from how to spot a misleading average to the dangers of cherry-picking data.

The book aims to teach how statistics can be used to mislead and manipulate people, and how to avoid falling prey to such tactics. 

It's a guide for consumers of statistics to be able to understand the data they are presented with and not be swayed by false or misleading information.

All cases are presented in a didactic way and include explanations of the statistical methods used. 

Book Notes: How to Lie with Statistics - Darrell Huff

In each instance, we can observe how the method of analysis, bias, historical/social period, conditions for data collection, etc., influence the dissemination of statistics.

Despite being a book written in 1954 with some facts and situations that occurred in the United States, "How to lie with statistics" invites us to reinterpret and compare situations that occur in our daily lives. 

This book is suitable for those who wish to gain a better understanding of how statistical studies work and how not to be manipulated by them.

Darrell Huff runs the gamut of every popularly used type of statistic, probes such things as the sample study, the tabulation method, the interview technique, or the way the results are derived from the figures, and points up the countless number of dodges which are used to fool rather than inform.

My Book Highlights:

“... Averages and relationships and trends and graphs are not always what they seem. There may be more in them than meets the eye, and there may be a good deal less. The secret language of statistics, so appealing in a fact-minded culture, is employed to sensationalize, inflate, confuse, and oversimplify. Statistical methods and statistical terms are necessary for reporting the mass data of social and economic trends, business conditions, “opinion” polls, and the census. But without writers who use the words with honesty and understanding and readers who know what they mean, the result can only be semantic nonsense...”

“... If the source of your information gives you also a degree of significance, you’ll have a better idea of where you stand. This degree of significance is most simply expressed as a probability… For most purposes, nothing poorer than this five percent level of significance is good enough. For some, the demanded level is one percent, which means that there are ninety-nine chances out of a hundred that an apparent difference, or whatnot, is real. Anything this likely is sometimes described as practically certain...”

“... Extrapolations are useful, particularly in that form of soothsaying called forecasting trends. But in looking at the figures or the charts made from them, it is necessary to remember one thing constantly: The trend-to-now may be a fact, but the future trend represents no more than an educated guess. Implicit in it is “everything else being equal” and “present trends continuing.” And somehow everything else refuses to remain equal, else life would be dull indeed...”

"... When you are told that something is an average you still don’t know very much about it unless you can find out which of the common kinds of average it is—mean, median, or mode..."

"... The importance of using a small group is this: With a large group any difference produced by chance is likely to be a small one and unworthy of big type. A two-peracent-improvement claim is not going to sell much tooth-paste..."

"... The point is that when there are many reasonable explanations you are hardly entitled to pick one that suits your taste and insist on it. But many people do..."

"... The operation of a poll comes down in the end to a running battle against sources of bias, and this battle is conducted all the time by all the reputable polling organizations. What the reader of the reports must remember is that the battle is never won..."

"... The secret language of statistics, so appealing in a fact-minded culture, is employed to sensationalize, inflate, confuse, and oversimplify..."

"... There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics..."

"... Statistics can be used to prove anything that's even remotely true..."

"... The chart may lie, but the numbers never do..."

"... Averages are often used to mislead because they are easily manipulated..."

"... A difference is a difference only if it makes a difference..."

"... A well-wrapped statistic is better than Hitler’s “big lie” it misleads, yet it cannot be pinned on you..."

The book begins by explaining two basic concepts of statistics, helping interpret data and graphs, showing percentages and how they are meaningless in many cases, and finally showing how to use statistics correctly.

The author teaches us five basic questions that can help us find answers and avoid learning false information:

Who is saying this? Look for conscious and unconscious bias.

How does he know this? Look for sampling bias.

What is missing here? Look for missing information that would make it more usable, thus trustworthy

Did somebody change the subject? Look for a subject change between the raw data and the conclusion.

Does it make sense? Look out for anything that fails the common sense test.

We must seek to avoid false information in this world of instant information. 

It helps us in the area of statistics and gives us principles to apply in other areas, such as education, politics, religion, etc.

The 7 main lessons from the book are:

1 - Be aware of the ways that statistics can be misleading, such as by selectively reporting data or using improper statistical techniques.

2 - Always consider the source of the statistics and whether there may be a bias.

3 - Don't be fooled by averages and percentages, as they can be misleading.

4 - Be cautious of correlation and causation confusion.

5 - Try to understand the underlying data and context behind the statistics.

6 - Always be skeptical of statistics and question them.

7 - Be mindful of the visual representation of data and how it can be manipulated.

So, if you're ready to join the ranks of statistic-savvy individuals, grab a copy of "How to Lie with Statistics" and prepare to be entertained and educated at the same time. 

Just don't blame me if your friends start avoiding you because you're always correcting their misuse of statistics!

The book "How to Lie with Statistics" by Darrell Huff covers several strategies that can be used to manipulate or mislead with statistics. 

Some of the key strategies discussed in the book include:

Selective sampling: This occurs when only a small, biased sample of data is used to make generalizations about a larger population.

Cherry-picking data: This occurs when only certain data points that support a desired conclusion are highlighted, while other data is ignored.

Misrepresenting scales: This occurs when the scale on a graph or chart is manipulated in order to exaggerate the size of a trend or difference.

Using averages to mislead: This occurs when statistics such as mean, median, and mode are used to mislead people by giving a false representation of the data.

Misleading correlation: This occurs when a correlation between two variables is presented as evidence of a causal relationship.

Using loaded or vague language: This occurs when words or phrases are used to influence the interpretation of data, or when statistics are presented in a way that is intentionally vague or ambiguous.

Fudging the numbers: This occurs when data is deliberately altered in order to support a desired conclusion.

Overall, the book teaches how to read and understand statistics, it encourages us to be critical and ask questions in order to avoid being misled by false or manipulative statistics.

Chapters of the Book:

1 The sample with the built-in bias
2 The well-chosen average
3 The little figures that are not there
4 Much ado about Practically nothing
5 The gee-whiz graph
6 The one-dimensional picture
7 The semi-attached figure
8 Post hoc rides again
9 How to statisticulate
10 How to talk back to a statistic

In conclusion, How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the ways in which statistics can be manipulated and misinterpreted. 

This book provides a valuable lens through which to view the statistics we encounter in our daily lives, and is a great tool for anyone looking to think critically about the numbers they see. 

Whether you're a student, a professional, or just someone who wants to be more informed, this book is a must-have on your bookshelf. 

So, next time you encounter a statistic, think twice and ask yourself, 'How could this be lying?

Darrell Huff was an American writer and is best known as the author of How to Lie with Statistics, the best-selling statistics book of the second half of the twentieth century, and for his use of statistics as a tobacco lobbyist.

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