Tag Archives: marketing

Book Review: How to Lie with Statistics

Book cover

How to Lie With Statistics

For a book to remain in print for fifty years it must be good. This one was originally published in 1954 and, as far as I can tell, has been in print ever since. A book less than 150 pages long, generously seeded with amusing cartoons is not what you would expect to find on a graduate school reading list but that is exactly where I learned about this one. Darrell Huff and illustrator Irving Geis produced a little marvel with their book “How to Lie with Statistics”. As Huff points out early in the book a cat-burglar who writes a how-to memoir in prison does not do it for other cat-burglars. They already know how to burgle. The intended audience is people who do not want to be burgled, or, in the case of this book, lied to.

Huff is careful to spread the blame for lying statistics widely, overeager researchers, poor information gathering by statisticians, advertising people willing to apply lipstick of any color to their pig, journalists looking for a marketable story. The fact that most of these lies are “true” is not ignored. For me the most memorable story he uses to make this clear is the restaurateur who explains his rabbit-burger is 50% rabbit, he mixes it in a 1 to 1 ratio with horse-meat. One rabbit to one horse.

After nine chapters of explaining how easy it is for statistics, charts, graphs, and percentages to lie the last chapter makes a serious attempt to explaining how we can avoid being lied to by asking a few simple questions like, who says so, how does he know, what’s missing, and does it make sense. As Huff points out it is important to be able to detect these lies, not just because of misleading advertisements but because we have elections every few years.

As an amateur historian who is just a few years younger than this book I have to admit I enjoyed the window into the past that the many cartoons offered. Yes, we really dressed and smoked like that. The books age was a little disconcerting when Huff dissected an article about the income of the “average” Yale graduate. Going to Yale hardly seemed worth the $25,000 income it offered until I ran it through an inflation calculator, then it made sense. This book is one of the most informative and fun books I have read in a long, long time. It was informative not because I know nothing about statistics, I do, it was informative because neither of the classes I have taken on statistics covered how easy it is to miss-use or misunderstand exactly what it is the numbers say. If you do not like being lied to, consider reading this book.

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An open letter to all the politicains sending me emails

Dear (insert politicians name here),

Thank you for the opportunity to win a chance to meet you. But, um, please remember you are not a rock star or a Hollywood star. I send you money to get you elected so you can work for my interests, not because I have any desire to meet you or hang out with you. Do your job by representing my interests and I will continue to support you with the money I can spare and with my vote. Please remember that I live near Main Street not Wall Street. I don’t mind if you help them as long as you are not harming me at the same time.

So, again, I am not interested in meeting you. If you simply represent my interests we are good and I will be happy to vote for you and support you with what resources I can.

Just to remind you, in case you have forgotten what my interests are, or never paid attention, I will give you a quick rundown.

1. Have jobs available that allow me to support my family without having to resort to charity or government programs. Remember those 1950s television families where one parent was able to stay home with the kids? Aim for that.

2. I want my family and friends free to walk down the street, go shopping, go to a movie, knock on a door without being shot.

3. If they are shot I want their assailant prosecuted, not allowed to walk free thanks to some magic get out of jail free phrase like “I felt threatened”

4. I don’t want to have to worry about loosing my job and my home because some greedy banker found a new way to loot the economy. Providing for national security means protecting us from internal threats as well as external ones.

5. I don’t want to loose my home because of medical bills. Sure the ACA will hurt a lot of bankruptcy lawyers, I don’t care. Improve it but don’t try to kill it.

6. Members of my extended family have, do, and will serve in the military. If you send them into harms way make damn sure it is worth their lives and the lives of the people they will need to kill.

7. Don’t waste my money but don’t let the nation fall apart from neglect. If there is a large enough need for a road or a bridge to justify the expense then build it and maintain it. Always use sealed bids, always require a performance bond. The same applies to the military. If the need is real buy it and maintain it but we don’t need to have a military bigger than the entire rest of the world. If we don’t have anyone standing with us we are doing something terribly wrong.

8. Put the blindfold back on justice. Laws should not have different consequences based on the color of someones skin or the size of their bank accounts.

9. I have no problem with means testing benefits as long as taxes are also means tested. No one should have to miss a meal to pay their taxes.

10. Just because “it is good for GM” (or any other corporation) does not mean it is good for America. Be skeptical of every back slapping good old boy (or girl) that tries to give you advice, ask what is in it for them. Vote for what is best for the lives of your constituents.

Work towards my priorities and I will vote for you and support you as I can. Don’t worry about upsetting any special interest. We the people are the only ones that get to decide if you keep your job. Don’t worry about losing a big donor, do what is right for us. After all there will always be other special interests willing to throw money at you.

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The second most segregated place in America

Thanks to Katie (somehooser) on Flicker

Thanks to Katie (somehooser) on Flicker

Christmas has come and gone and once again I received a bookworm’s most coveted gift, a gift certificate to Half-Price Books. I have a long list of history books, old and new, that I am looking for so I went straight to the American History section and started browsing. I searched for some titles about two labor leaders I am interested in, A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. This year is the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, the reunion will again be in my hometown, Oxford Ohio, where the students were trained on the Western University campus. Nothing. Not even titles I already have.
“Twelve Years a Slave”, a new movie is also an old book that I have not yet read. No copy of it either. I felt really stupid when I realized what the problem was. You see for book stores there are two, no, three, American histories and they cannot mix. I was in “American History” and someone in some marketing department somewhere decided long ago that “American History” was straight, white, wealthy (for the most part), Protestant, male history. All the books I was looking for were in exile off the the side in a section called “African American Studies” which is a little easier to find that “Gender Studies” where women’s (except maybe First Ladies and Betsey Ross) and LGTB history are hidden.
I get a little angry every time I think about this. What were they thinking when they started segregating our history? The first African born man, a Muslim to explore what is now the United States came with an expedition from Catholic Spain in 1527, the first English WASP did not show up until 1585. Since 1619 there have been African and European descended Americans working side by side. Not always as equals, but definitely working side by side. The fact is they were equals at first, indentured servants who would regain their freedom once their debt was paid. Unfortunately lawyers, politicians, and capitalists got together and soon the indentured servants who did not have political clout in mother England were chattel property.
We have been side by side since the beginning of the Colonies and certainly since the beginning of the nation, the first man killed in the Revolution was of African ancestry. How is that not “American History”? Pentecostal Churches date to the Great Awakening and their practices are a blend of European and African worship. The banjo, the staple of Bluegrass music originated in Africa. Blues and Jazz are blends of African and European music styles. Rock is just “white” Americans adopting “Black” American music. America has an Afro-European culture.
I would dare say that African and European genes run through most of us and that if your grandparents were born here it is very likely that you have ancestors from at least two continents. Shouldn’t all of our history share the same shelves?

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