In their book, “How to Read Numbers,” Tom and David Chivers seek to reveal the complexity of statistics found in news reporting. The authors state on page two, “We’re going to talk a lot about numbers: about how they’re used in the media, and about how they can go wrong—and give misleading impressions.” The book’s focus then remains on how statistics are used in the media and specifically in news reporting. It is not a standard text on the academic discipline of statistics, but rather its focus remains throughout on giving the laymen a better understanding of statistics when news articles involve numbers. It is equally a book for journalists to read and apply to their profession of unbiased news reporting. The authors sound a warning as well as provide a justification for their book on page three, “It’s easy to use numbers to mislead or obfuscate as people have a tendency do.”
The book is extremely timely, as it uses examples of statistics used in reporting the COVD-19 global pandemic. There are several examples of both good and bad use of statistics used in this type of reporting. The book is also timely because of the increase of “fake news” and biased reporting by news outlets that have political agendas. The book acts as a call to intelligent and unbiased reporting, and to intelligent and careful reading of news by the masses. It is incumbent upon the reporter to use statistics responsibly and accurately and it is equally necessary for readers to understand the nature and shortcomings found in statistical reporting. The book gives the reader the tools to have a heavy skepticism when numerical data is used in the news. On page two they say, “You can’t rely on news organizations to give you those numbers straight, without exaggeration or cherry-picking. . . because they are trying to report exciting, interesting or shocking things. So that they will buy their papers.”
But the book is not an overly-pessimistic view of statistical research used in news reporting. It is a realistic assessment of reporting in today’s fast-paced world. The book is generous in its appraisal of the difficulty that journalists face daily. On page 163, we learn that Tom Chivers has in fact been a journalist “for a distressing number of years now.” He provides an insider’s view of the profession and he has a lot to say to his fellow journalists on how to make their use of statistical reporting better. There is much at stake: “We need to understand how numbers are made, how they’re used and how they can go wrong, because otherwise we’ll make bad decisions, as individuals and as a society” (p.3).
Even though the book deals with some complicated mathematical research at times, the material is accessible for the non-specialist. The authors have a knack for making the subject easily grasped and the applications practicable. They point out the most common mistakes in reading statistical research and teach the reader how to avoid them.
Statistics are like bikinis: What they reveal is suggestive, but what they hide is vital. It is therefore necessary to get the full, accurate picture of the data and not a partial, obscured view of the facts. 1 Corinthians 13:12 gives the same idea theologically, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror. . . now I know in part, then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”