Friday, May 28, 2010

Book Review: The Numbers Game by Michael Blastland & Andrew Dilnot

Blastland, Michael, & Andrew Dilnot. The Numbers Game. New York: Gotham, 2009.

The media is full of numbers that purport to tell us something important about our health, government programs and other things affecting life. These numbers can be confusing. Too often, they are misleading or meaningless.

The authors of The Numbers Game uncover the weakness and occasional strengths of the numbers in the news as they did on their BBC television series More or Less. However, the book is not an exposé. It’s a guide to making sense of these numbers. They provide perspective and pointers to make the numbers less confusing.

The perspective on numbers is that counting people and things related to their behavior is very difficult. People don’t fit tidily into neat categories, they move, change their minds, experience misfortunes and luck and sometimes even lie. The people who count people can have problems of their own like bias, poor methods and plain wrongheadedness. Even well meaning people and organizations call fall prey to logical fallacies. Blastland and Dilnot want you to have a healthy skepticism, but not to become cynical about the whole affair. Careful counting by people aware and respectful of the limitations of numbers can produce very useful information.

When you see numbers in the news, you can turn to the pointers to make sense of them. For instance, keep things on a human scale. When you see the huge cost of a government program, what does it cost per person or per unit of whatever is to be increased or decrease? On that scale, is it reasonable and realistic? Another tip is to remember that correlation is not causality. That two things rise and fall together (or inversely) doesn’t necessarily mean one causes the other, something else my influence both. In addition, though it seems unlikely, improbable things happen all the time.

Each of the pointers on how to understand numbers can be turned around. The people that count, make decisions based on numbers and report on numbers can do a better job by keeping numbers in perspective and making them more understandable.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in
The Unfinished Game by Keith Devlin

No comments:

Post a Comment