How to Lie with Statistics, by Darrel Huff, should be required reading for everyone. The cachet of numbers are used all the time in modern society. Usually to end arguments–after all, who can argue with “facts”? Huff shows how the same set of numbers can be tweaked to show three different outcomes, depending on where you start and what you use. The fundamental lesson I learned from this book is that mathematical calculation involves a whole set of conditions, and any number derived from such a calculation is meaningless without understanding those conditions.
He also mentions that colleagues have told him that the flurry of meaningless statistics is due to incompetence–he dispatches this argument with a simple query: “Why, then, do the numbers almost always favor the person quoting them?” Huff also provides five questions (not unlike the five d’s of dodgeball) for readers to ask, when confronted with a statistic:
1. Who says so?
2. How does he know?
3. What’s missing?
4. Did somebody change the subject?
5. Does it make sense?
All this is wrapped up in a book with simple examples (no math beyond arithmetic, really) and quaint 1950s prose. In addition humor runs from the beginning (the dedication is “To my wife with good reason”) to the end (on page 135, Huff says “Almost anybody can claim to be first in something if he is not too particular what it is”). This book is well worth a couple hours of your time.