Why black lives should matter
September 16, 2019
How to take control of your life in the age of smartphones
September 23, 2019

Learning to think logically

The Art of Statistics: How to… by David Spiegelhalter, Basic Books, US $32.00, Pp 428, September 2019, ISBN 978-1541618510

People have always counted and measured but modern statistics as a discipline really began in the 1650s when ‘probability’ was properly understood for the first time by Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat. Since then, statistics have been everywhere. They are an integral part of both the sciences and business. In the digital age, the basic literacy of statistics is essential for understanding the complexity of modern life. At the heart of statistics lies the 400-year-old concept of ‘probability.’ In The Art of Statistics, leading statistician David Spiegelhalter says that, given this solid mathematical basis for dealing with variability, progress was remarkably rapid. When combined with data on the ages at which people die, the theory of probability provided a firm basis for calculating pensions and annuities. Astronomy was revolutionized when scientists grasped how the theory of probability could handle variability in measurements. Victorian enthusiasts became obsessed with collecting data about the human body (and everything else) and established a strong connection between statistical analysis and genetics, biology and medicine. In the twentieth century statistics became more mathematical and the topic became synonymous with the mechanical application of a bag of statistical tools, many named after eccentric and argumentative statisticians.

David Spiegelhalter says that this common view of statistics as a basic ‘bag of tools’ is now facing major challenges. He argues that we are in an age of data science, in which large complex data sets are collected from routine sources such as traffic monitors, social media posts and internet purchases, and used as a basis for technological innovations such as optimizing travel routes, targeted advertising or purchase recommendations systems. Statistical training is increasingly seen as just one necessary component of being a data scientist, together with skills in data management, programming and algorithm development, as well as proper knowledge of the subject matter.

Another challenge to the traditional view of statistics comes from the huge rise in the amount of scientific research being carried out, particularly in the biomedical and social sciences, combined with pressure to publish in high ranking journals. David Spiegelhalter says that this has led to doubts about the reliability of parts of the scientific literature, with claims that many discoveries cannot be reproduced by other researchers — such as the continuing dispute over whether adopting an assertive posture popularly known as ‘power pose’ can induce hormonal and other changes. The inappropriate use of the standard statistical method has received a fair share of the blame for what has become known as the reproducibility or replication crisis in science.

With the growing availability of massive data sets and user-friendly analysis software, it might be thought that there is less need for training in statistical methods. David Spiegelhalter argues that this would be naïve in the extreme. Far from freeing us from the need for statistical skills, bigger data and the rise in the number and complexity of scientific studies makes it even more difficult to draw appropriate conclusions. More data means that we need to be even more aware of the worth of evidence. All this can be brought together under the term data literacy, which describes the ability to not only carry out statistical analysis on real-world problems but also to understand and critique any conclusion drawn by others on the basis of statistics. But improving data literacy means changing the way statistics is taught.

The Art of Statistics is an authentic and comprehensive book on statistics every modern person needs to read to clarify questions and assumptions that agitate a modern mind. It will help us understand the modern phenomena. No matter what your profession is, The Art of Statistics will help you understand and perform your job better. More importantly, it will help you think logically and challenge the established truths. David Spiegelhalter has made statistics accessible to laypeople. You do not need any special knowledge of statistics to understand this beautifully written book. The Art of Statistics will go a long way to make statistics popular.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *