A Field Guide to lies & statistics by Daniel Levitin

By | December 7, 2017

It is not what you know that gets you into trouble. It is what you know for sure that just not so’ This quote in ‘A Field Guide to lies and statistics’ by Daniel Leviton summarises most of what the book presents.

I bought the book to get a good enough understanding to help me raise relevant questions in my interface with scientific researches. It was meant to be serious cumbersome reading. To my surprise, it was highly engrossing and engaging. You just wanted to continue reading it. All thanks to Daniel Levitin; a neuroscientist who explains it in layman’s terms. Simply put, it will help you make sense of a complex world of research, statements, statistics and lies. It will hopefully make you focused enough to spot problems and prevent making wrong conclusion. It is always wise to think twice.

I wish I read this much earlier. It is far more relevant now!

 Lies and StatisticsToday, information is parity. It is hugely assessable, available and affordable. You can pick a subject, and then be lost in the sea of links in the digital world.

Because it is on net and hence true, is one of the most damaging attitudes. No doubt, for most it is difficult to differentiate between the truth and what’s not.

You need to have an attitude of curiosity and own ways to decide when to believe a statement, offline or online, in personal life or professional discussion? It’s important to know, what are lies and how they become truth? And to understand, how critical thinking can save us from accepting untrue statement that sound so appropriate?

‘We are a story telling species, and a social species, easily swayed by the opinions of others. We have three ways to acquire information. We can discover it ourselves; we can absorb it implicitly, or we can be told explicitly. Much of what we know about the world falls in the last category- somewhere along the lines, someone told us a fact or we read about it, and so we know it only second hand. We rely in people with expertise to tell us so… (page 123).

Nevertheless, we must also rely on ourselves, on our own wits and power of reasoning.

The book empathises strongly the need to check numbers, reasoning and the sources of our information for plausibility and rigour. Examining them to the best of our abilities before we repeat them or share them or base our judgement on them.

It aims to help question information we get. It almost trains you to place some basic filters to determine its value.

The brain is a giant pattern detector, and it seeks to extract order and structure from what often appears to be a random configuration. We see Orion the Hunter in the sky not because the stars were organised that way but because our brain can project patterns into randomness.’ ( Page 198)

It cautions you to avoid many common issues and errors, like ecological fallacy, exception fallacy, logical fallacy, generalization, believing correlation means causation, deceptive illustration of information, mistakes with probability, deduction and induction and the expert belief.

In case of research, it warns you not to capture only the data that is easy to capture, analyse and understand to draw inferences proving what you want to tell. It impresses the need to raise the first filter in understanding; ‘what biases might creep in during sampling’? Check for biases during data collection? And while you are it, do not forget to check what was the real question asked?

‘Wisdom does not come in knowing more that is new, but in knowing less that is false’

The section on deception illustration is a favourite of mine. I too have many times used these tools to deliver a skewed inference. I have benefit form them. It demonstrates, why one must pay extra attention while the presenter used the sly of illustrations and graph to make their point.

Once you finish the book, the feeling that surfaces are simple and honest. ‘Now I know better’.

Caution: Reading this may polarise your attitude towards research and statistics. It may push you to question all the information you get. You could become cynical, wanting to dig deep and placing everything under the microscope. Nevertheless, it will be fun, ultimately; it is you who will gain.

I am taking a break from any research data and presentation for a week or 10 days to avoid the book residual impact affecting my interaction.

If you are into management studies or already working with facts, figures and inferred statements then, go ahead pick this 254 pager; A FIELD GUIDE TO LIES AND STATISTICS by Daniel Levitin. INR 599. PENGUIN.



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