Reading Recommendation: Stat-Spotting

In the first year of this project, we have focused on the themes of statistical literacy, data as argument, and data visualization. One book that supported our understanding of statistics and data in the wild is Stat-Spotting: A Field Guide to Identifying Dubious Data by Joel Best.

Statistics are formed from data. As Best writes, “[e]very statistic is the result of specific measurement choices.” Keeping this idea in mind is important when interpreting statistics that you encounter. Statistics are representations of data. They have been created to summarize data.

Best’s advice is easy to put into practice whenever you see a statistic. He writes:

…it is always a good idea to pause for a second and ask yourself: How could they know that? How could they measure that? Such questions are particularly important when the statistic claims to measure activities that people might prefer to keep secret. How can we tally, say, the number of illegal immigrants, or money spent on illicit drugs? Oftentimes, even a moment’s thought can reveal that an apparently solid statistic must rest on some pretty squishy measurement decisions.

Asking those questions is one way to be a more critical consumer of statistics. Try it!


Source: Best, Joel. Stat-Spotting: A Field Guide to Identifying Dubious Data, 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013.

Image: “Percent Characters Null Rate Symbol Percentage” by geralt, on Pixabay. CC0 Public Domain.