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The Data Detective, by Tim Harford

Economics reporter Tim Harford came out with this new book connecting three topics:

– The understanding of statistical evidence and uncertainty,

– The realization that lots of published and publicized social science can’t be trusted,

– Our political discourse that is heavy on lies and light on trust.

What Harford says makes sense: statistical reasoning is serious, not a joke, and it connects to more general questions of assessing evidence. I hope that lots of people read this book.

The only thing that puzzled me about this book is its title. “The Data Detective” sounds like one of those business books celebrating “supercrunchers” or whatever and telling you how you can unearth secrets from your data. But the actual message of the book is more like the opposite, saying that we need more care, common sense, and curiosity, and less naive data analysis. Also, I don’t think that “The Data Detective” captures the book’s discussion of public communication. So I think the title’s a bit off. But the content is great; that’s what’s important.

P.S. A minor reason I like Harford’s book is that he slams the massively overrated author of “How to Lie with Statistics” (see here and here for more background).

6 Comments

  1. Dylan O'Connell says:

    For what it’s worth, regarding the title, the original UK version is called “How to Make the World Add Up”. I’m not sure why they chose to change the title for the US release (or to delay its release for a few months), but it strikes me as a downgrade (also adds a blurb by Malcolm Gladwell, so just all around the Brits got the better “version”).

  2. Renzo Alves says:

    Publishers decide titles based on what they think the public will respond to. This tells us more about publishers and the public than about the book. You probably know that.

  3. Erin says:

    I knew that name sounded familiar! I first saw Tim Harford in a Numberphile video talking about statistics and “How to Lie with Statistics” https://youtu.be/-n-d1ApBTFw

  4. Eric de Souza says:

    Title of Harford’s book outside North America:How to Make the World Add-Up.
    Subtitle:Ten Rules for Thinking Differently About Numbers.

  5. Michael Nelson says:

    In the last few years, Republican politicians running for and elected to high office have begun routinely telling obvious lies about crucial facts. Half of the population correctly perceives these lies and is disgusted. A quarter of the population correctly perceives these lies but takes them in stride as harmless or as a justified means to an end. A quarter of the population buys the lies, or are sufficiently confused by them to doubt the truth. All of which is a recapitulation by politicians and voters of what has happened with conservative media and its audience over the last couple of decades.

    I’m not sure exactly what role empiricism (or lack thereof) has played in creating these problems or can play in fixing them. I definitely buy that not being empirically-minded made many people more vulnerable to propagandists in the first place. But the propagandists have cleverly designed their propaganda to turn people against empiricism, so whether promoting empiricism is the solution is an open question. (One I hope the book addresses.)

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