Statistics made palatable

math anxUntil journalism schools require that students take a course in probability and sadistics statistics—and find the special kind of people to teach those of us who are not naturally drawn to math-related subjects—most journalists will struggle with numbers.

There’s no dearth of statistics texts and other books that claim to be user-friendly and and serve not so much teach readers how to perform statistical analyses but to clearly explain them conceptually.

But damn few live up to that promise.

I just read in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review (NYTBR) that just such a book, published last year, is now available in paperback. It’s aptly titled Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data by Charles Wheelan.

I’m not a math-phobe. I even took two—two!—courses in stats when I was studying journalism in university. But that was a long time ago, and I welcome occasional refreshers. So I picked up the book and I can recommend it, even though I’m not finished reading it yet.


In her NYTBR review of it last year (January 2013), Dr. Abigail Zuger called it “a riff on basic statistics that is neither textbook nor essay but a happy amalgam of the two.”

Dr. Zuger, who is associate professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York and a frequent contributor to the Times, also called it “sparkling and intensely readable” and “the most important health book of the year … even though it’s not primarily about health.”

She added, “It is not the place to learn for the first time about medians and means, but definitely the place to remember what you were once supposed to know about these and other key concepts — and, more important, why you were supposed to know them.”

I’m not sure I agree with that assessment, but for those who feel they need a gentler introduction, I can suggest two other books:

Barbara Gastel‘s Health Writer’s Handbook (2nd ed.; Blackwell Publishing; ISBN: 0813812534; 2005 Paperback: 366 pages) has an excellent chapter on statistics and types of medical studies that is  ideal for mathphobes; and

The latest edition (3rd) of News and Numbers: A Writer’s Guide to Statistics, by Victor Cohn, Lewis Cope and Deborah Cohn Runkle (Wiley-Blackwell; ISBN: 978-1-4051-6096-4; paperback: 200 pages, October 2011). The book was originally written (as News & Numbers : A Guide to Reporting Statistical Claims and Controversies in Health and Other Fields) in 1989 by the late Victor Cohn, who was science editor and writer for the Washington Post for 25 years. The book was updated in 2001 by Lewis Cope who was science writer at the Star Tribune of Minneapolis-St. Paul for 29 years. Cohn’s daughter Deborah Cohn Runkle was involved in preparing the 3rd edition.~TM

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