#21: Statistical Sense-Making: Playing “The Numbers Game” (A Philippine Star Article)

This short piece began as a 500-word book review assignment for an online course Writing in the Sciences. Then. after some revisions, I raised the word count to a little more than a thousand. I thought that time: because I had 500 words already, why not chip in about 500 more and take a shot? And this is the result of my earnest effort emanating from a split-second resolve to write. This was published last Sunday, on The Philippine Star, at the Sunday Lifestyle Section.

This is the article: Playing ‘The Numbers Game’. I reviewed this book:

This book kept my thinking going even while on dizzying cab rides and steamy jeepney commutes. That there are no formulas and almost no technical terms in this book – except of course the perennial mean, median, mode, which aren’t really technical but which I believe absent (statistically!) in the working vocabulary of Filipinos. So I’d recommend this book to anyone who has time to spare and want to go to the essence of basic Statistics without having to contend with numbers and symbols, but I bought this from the SALE section of a National Bookstore (in Harrison Plaza) and from all my other visits at other branches I think no customer will sniff out this book for a long time – not maybe in five years.

Here is the article, so read on.

There are questions and questions about numbers. How did we arrive at the “average income” the popular media always trumpets? Is a positive medical test result a good indicator for having a disease? How can we make sense of international rankings in soccer, health, and education?

With data bombarding us every moment of our waking lives, we urgently need a book that can explain the nuances of statistics to the layperson. The book The Numbers Game: The Commonsense Guide to Understanding Numbers in the News, in Politics, and in Life by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot grants us the mental agility to analyze everyday numbers and penetrate their significance.

The statistical enlightenment that the two authors brings us is amazing, despite the fact that neither are professional statisticians. Blastland, a broadcaster, created “More or Less”, a BBC radio show that became a pop hit in the United Kingdom because of its no-nonsense exposition of statistical foibles in the media. Dilnot, a principal of a college in Oxford, was once the show’s host and a fiscal officer.

Fear nothing; the book’s presentation is far from that being done in a traditional statistics class. Expect no statistical formulas in the book – it aims for clarity above technical precision. Even statistics classrooms can benefit from numerous examples and lively explanations.

Once you have set fear aside, expect surprise at statistical facts you may have heard before but without any clue on what they really meant. Note the subtlety in the language often used to express statistics. The book gives you the mental toughness to carefully read numerical findings in the media, between the lines, while deciphering what’s not really there.

For instance, you may have heard already that if you frequently use a mobile phone, your risk of getting brain cancer will double. Taken aback? In the book’s section “Risk”, once you know the proper context behind the risk increase, which is from 1/100,000 to 2/100,000 (a measly increase), you will have nothing to worry about.

Another example, from the “Shock Figures” section, alarms you by stating that the global warming temperature increase can be “up to 11 degrees Celsius”, until you know later that the average increase is just 4 degrees Celsius, a less jarring but more representative finding.

Still another, from the “Causation” section, where you will find out that a direct relationship between hand size and reading ability exists (so if I have extra fingers, I can read better?). But not because bigger hands enhance reading ability – it’s because as you age, both increase.

The lessons learned will stick for a lifetime, and you will feel that your mind gets “reconfigured” after reading. No longer will you accept numbers at their face values; you will begin demanding more information on how those numbers came to be. No more you will be dazed – or intimidated – by official claims; you can start seeing through them for what they really are, and not for what they are cloaked on.

As Blastland and Dilnot state in the Introduction to the book’s United States edition: “The alignment of power and abuse is not unique to numbers, but it is just possible that it could be uniquely challenged, and the powerless becomes powerful.” Let’s admit it; this book implicitly explains how to exploit others with numbers (while giving us the needed ammunition for a counterattack), but you won’t feel inclined to do so. In your quest for steadfastness in dealing with data, you will also want other folks to be vigilant too.

We can go beyond classifying the book as a common reader’s average statistics book. It is also a book of clear thinking. It teaches the fine art of definition. What does “bullying” mean? What does being “unemployed” mean? If we say that some number is a “big” number, what does the “big” mean? It demands that we be critical because the explanation of any finding frequently conceals something. How many samples are there? How are the data obtained? Are there other variables that can affect the relationship between any two given qualities? It allows us to practice a querulous mindset – it makes us see numbers with question marks at their end, with the invitation to probe them further.

The Numbers Game is an easy read. You can finish it in one sitting if you want to – thus making it ideal as a bedside book that can make us all sleep with clear heads and wake up with sharp eyes. Reading it is a deserved respite to the barrage of data all around us. At the very least you’ll be able to answer with candidness the “relevance question”, so often asked in Mathematics classrooms but so often ending there too: “What is the relevance of Math in our daily lives?”

The vista of settings described in the book – from hospitals to highways to workplaces – is more than enough as an answer. Whatever the questions you feel provoked to ask about the data in the book, you will also make a habit to frequently ask when dealing with numbers in local situations: political survey results, school grades, children’s allowance, and salaries, to name a few. They mean more than you think. Probing their deeper meanings brings Math close to your doorstep

In general, we learn how to detect our knowledge gaps about numbers – thus making us powerful in what we know, humble in what we don’t know, active in filling the gaps up, and able to help others make sense of their own numerical realities.

Thought-widening, grand, and clear, The Numbers Game will leave an indelible mark on its readers’ view on all sorts of numbers. In most fields of endeavor, and in the TV and Internet, statistics is an often-used currency of communication today. To be credible, one almost always needs to back up serious claims with facts and figures. Numbers are clear-cut from the outset; according to the authors, they’re “tidy; life isn’t”. But the vast number of numbers creates a sea, and in the midst of that reality the last thing we want to happen is for that sea to drown us.


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