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More Damned Lies and Statistics

More Damned Lies and Statistics: How Numbers Confuse Public Issues

Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: 1
Pages: 217
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  • Book Info
    More Damned Lies and Statistics
    Book Description:

    In this sequel to the acclaimedDamned Lies and Statistics,which theBoston Globesaid "deserves a place next to the dictionary on every school, media, and home-office desk," Joel Best continues his straightforward, lively, and humorous account of how statistics are produced, used, and misused by everyone from researchers to journalists. Underlining the importance of critical thinking in all matters numerical, Best illustrates his points with examples of good and bad statistics about such contemporary concerns as school shootings, fatal hospital errors, bullying, teen suicides, deaths at the World Trade Center, college ratings, the risks of divorce, racial profiling, and fatalities caused by falling coconuts.More Damned Lies and Statisticsencourages all of us to think in a more sophisticated and skeptical manner about how statistics are used to promote causes, create fear, and advance particular points of view. Best identifies different sorts of numbers that shape how we think about public issues:missing numbersare relevant but overlooked;confusing numbersbewilder when they should inform;scary numbersplay to our fears about the present and the future;authoritative numbersdemand respect they don't deserve;magical numberspromise unrealistic, simple solutions to complex problems; andcontentious numbersbecome the focus of data duels and stat wars. The author's use of pertinent, socially important examples documents the life-altering consequences of understanding or misunderstanding statistical information. He demystifies statistical measures by explaining in straightforward prose how decisions are made about what to count and what not to count, what assumptions get made, and which figures are brought to our attention. Best identifies different sorts of numbers that shape how we think about public issues. Entertaining, enlightening, and very timely, this book offers a basis for critical thinking about the numbers we encounter and a reminder that when it comes to the news, people count-in more ways than one.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93002-5
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xviii)
    (pp. 1-25)

    CBS News anchor Dan Rather began his evening newscast on March 5, 2001, by declaring: “School shootings in this country have become an epidemic.” That day, a student in Santee, California, had killed two other students and wounded thirteen more, and media coverage linked this episode to a disturbing trend. Between December 1997 and May 1998, there had been three heavily publicized school shooting incidents: in West Paducah, Kentucky (three dead, five wounded); Jonesboro, Arkansas (five dead, ten wounded); and Spring field, Oregon (two dead and twenty-one wounded at the school, after the shooter had killed his parents at home)....

    (pp. 26-62)

    A recent newspaper column by a prominent political commentator began: “It is a truism in politics that around 40 percent of Republicans will always vote for a Republican presidential candidate and about the same percentage of Democrats will vote for their party’s candidate. The battle is for the middle 20 percent.”¹ Percentages–1; pundit–0. Numbers that appear to be simple can confuse even people who are paid to provide insight to the rest of us. And there is no shortage of confusing numbers.

    For instance, claims made in the debate over the proposed 2003 federal tax cut seemed contradictory....

    (pp. 63-90)

    A series of recent polls asked American adults to estimate the percentage of children without health insurance and to describe recent trends in the teenage crime rate, the teenage birth rate, and the percentage of children raised in single-parent families.¹ A clear pattern emerged: on each of these issues, large majorities—between 74 and 93 percent of the respondents—judged that the problems were worse than they actually were. For example, 76 percent responded that the percentage of children living in single-parent families had increased during the previous five years. In fact, the percentage had not changed. Some 66 percent...

    (pp. 91-115)

    A couple of times each month, I receive an e-mail message from the editor of some scholarly journal, asking whether I’d be willing to review a manuscript. Most people know that professors are under pressure to “publish or perish.” Peer review is a largely hidden part of that publication process. Typically, after completing their research and writing reports about their findings, scholars submit their manuscripts to journals that specialize in publishing such articles. The editors of these journals receive more—sometimes far, far more—manuscripts than they can possibly publish, and they use peer review to help them choose among...

    (pp. 116-143)

    Anyone who follows the news hears about economic recessions. In good times, commentators speculate about the risk of a recession beginning; in bad times, they wonder whether the current recession is about to end. It turns out that the authority to make these determinations, to identify when recessions begin and end, belongs to the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the federal government’s National Bureau of Economic Research. This usually anonymous committee made news in the summer of 2003, when it proposed changing the criteria used to determine when a recession was ending.¹

    The committee had been using several monthly indicators...

    (pp. 144-169)

    It is no trick to spot controversies about statistics. Arguments over numbers make the news. Have Hispanics become the nation’s largest ethnic minority? Should federal guidelines for acceptable levels of arsenic in drinking water be modified? Is hormone replacement therapy beneficial or dangerous? Such questions highlight debates about data.

    The widespread assumption that statistics can reduce complexity to summaries of simple facts is more than just a way of attributing magical power to numbers. It is also a way to win arguments. In debates over social and political questions, people sometimes present statistics as though they are rhetorical trump cards,...

    (pp. 170-182)

    Bad statistics aren’t rare. You can probably spot at least one dubious number in this morning’s newspaper. Recognizing bad statistics is not all that difficult; it takes clear thinking more than it requires any advanced mathematical knowledge. And most people will agree that we ought to stamp out bad statistics.

    Still, bad numbers flourish. Why? Shouldn’t we be able to teach “statistical literacy”—basic skills for critically interpreting the sorts of statistics we encounter in everyday life? Why can’t statistical literacy be part of the standard high school or college curriculum? Shouldn’t we be able to, in effect, immunize young...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 183-196)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 197-200)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 201-201)