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Four reads for statistics and data

Since getting back into reading while first aptly moving to Reading and joining Stats4SD, one area of literature I am hoping to delve deeper into is the accessible statistical works written by prominent researchers. I have always tended to prioritise reading fiction, but having recently read The Art of Statistics by David Spiegelhalter, I now hope to explore this area further.

Not only will these hopefully be enjoyable and insightful reads, but will also help expand my knowledge of statistics and current real-world problems. An example includes the spread of misinformation, an area that many of these books intend to combat. These books may help myself and others to think more closely about the source of their data and the interpretations we may make when it comes to reporting of findings.

Covid by Numbers: Making Sense of the Pandemic with Data: David Spiegelhalter & Anthony Masters

Two of the UK’s leading statisticians collaborate on an intriguing new book all about the statistics and data that have dominated global life for the past two years; the Covid-19 Pandemic. Covering the data on just about every aspect of the pandemic including case numbers, hospitalisations, the effect of responsive measures, vaccine efficacy and unfortunately deaths.

Having read David Spiegelhalter’s previous work, ‘The Art of Statistics: Learning from Data’, I know to expect a very approachable reading experience. Spiegelhalter knows how to succinctly explain the intricacies and interpretations of statistics and data succinctly and expertly. You will not require an expert level knowledge of statistics or Covid-19 to get into this book. Only an interest in understanding more about the numbers we have seen everywhere for the last 24 months.

Ultimately, I look forward to getting started on reading this book so I can learn more about epidemiological methods, data and the nature of the pandemic. 

Calling Bullsh*t: The art of scepticism in a data-driven world: Carl T Bergstrom & Jevin D West

Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West tackle another of society’s big problems when it comes to statistics and data: misinformation. Compelled to help people in seeing through misinformation, not just old-school style rhetoric, but drawing focus on the “bullshit” presented through maths, science and statistics. You can’t scroll through the news or Twitter for very long these days without some sort of fact-check appearing on the screen. Commonly this is because someone somewhere has misinterpreted (or just plain made up) some statistical analysis. Whether this is a genuine misunderstanding or a misinterpretation through malice, is often left for us to judge. Indeed, even the UK government’s own statistical authorities had to repeatedly inform the Prime Minister and Home Secretary on how they had massively misreported crime statistics.

As with Spiegelhalter & Masters, it appears you do not need a lot of technical experience to approach this book and understand its techniques. They write on numerous examples including shoddy data visualisation, selection bias and the difference between correlation and causation; everything that is needed to read between the lines and sort the fact from the fiction. As the blurb reads, “Now that bullshit has evolved, we need to relearn the art of skepticism”.

I really look forward to picking this book up and learning more on how we can combat the age of misinformation.

How to predict the unpredictable: The art of outsmarting almost everyone: William Poundstone

Moving in a different direction, we have ‘How to Predict the Unpredictable’. This work from William Poundstone aims to teach us how we can do just that. Apparently, when it largely comes down to when people want to act unpredictably, they deviate from the true randomness that we come to expect. Covering areas such as multiple choice-tests and how when these are written by humans, the answers start to form a predictable pattern, or how fraudulent accounting claims often contain over-use of certain types of numbers.

This is a different kind of work to the others presented on this list, but nonetheless likely to be an interesting exploration into the nature of randomness and representativeness. This is another work that I will be adding to my reading list.

A Field Guide to Lies and Statistics – Daniel Levitin

Revisiting the topic of misinformation is Daniel Levitin’s bestselling book, ‘A Field Guide to Lies and Statistics’. A few years old now, with several editions under different names, but nevertheless the aim of the book has remained the same. This is to teach people critical thinking skills, recognise logical problems and biases, and to think more independently about information absorbed through media.

Looking further than just how we can interpret and understand numbers, Levitin looks to outline the psychology of interpretation that can easily go amiss in everyday life. Namely issues of confirmation bias and belief perseverance, thinking patterns which can lead to quick judgments and false justifications are covered.

I have already stressed how fighting information has become one of the key issues of the modern world. It is great that we have so many authors who want to fight this and educate the general public on how they can start thinking more critically. This is another book added to my reading list.


I hope to start Covid by Numbers shortly as we begin to reflect on the now two years of the pandemic. I am sure we can all learn lessons from this book moving forward, as the pandemic continues or should future ones occur.

As for the other books, I am sure I will pick them up soon and start delving into the world of sorting the truth from the lies in the age of misinformation.

Alex Thomson
Author: Alex Thomson

Alex joined the team as a Statistics Intern in October 2019 following the completion of his Undergraduate and Master’s degrees in Population and Geography, and Social Research Methods at the University of Southampton. With a background in demographic and social science research, especially family demography - Alex hopes to extend both his skillset and knowledge base of issues affecting the developing world and building upon an undergraduate trip to Ghana. With experience in STATA and SPSS, Alex hopes to develop his skills in R, survey design and management while at Stats4SD.

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