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The Data Detective: Ten Easy Rules to Make Sense of Statistics

Our polarized times are a breeding ground for dodgy and misleading statistical claims. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, has seen an explosion of information, with claims and counterclaims about cases, deaths, tests, and vaccination schedules.

How are we to determine which statistics are legitimate when information generation has never been easier? And how can we ensure that reading on important topics leaves us better informed, rather than bamboozled?

One man who has thought extensively about our relationship with statistics is British economics writer Tim Harford. Host of the BBC’s excellent More or Less radio show, Harford has thought carefully about how to evaluate and present information. His work has come together in his new U.S. book, The Data Detective, providing us with 10 simple rules (and a bonus golden rule) for evaluating statistics.

Rather than providing us with some dry methodology as a guide, Harford’s book is rich with storytelling to illustrate the pitfalls and dangers of using data. You will learn about how Florence Nightingale started a public health revolution with a pie chart, how the entire Dutch art world was fooled by their own wishful thinking, and how a stripper and a congressman changed the face of U.S. statistics.

Intrigued? Join us on February 18 for an online book forum, where Tim Harford will regale us with other fun tales that highlight statistical problems while answering your questions on their implications.

Tim Harford
Ryan Bourne

R. Evan Scharf Chair for the Public Understanding of Economics, Cato Institute