The Numbers Game

We often talk of social statistics, especially those that seem as straightforward as age, as if a bureaucrat were poised with a clipboard, peering through every window, counting; or, better still, had some machine to do it for them. The unsurprising truth is that, for many of the statistics we take for granted, there is no such bureaucrat, no machine, no easy count, we do not all clock in, or out, in order to be recorded, there is no roll call for each of our daily activities, no kindergarten 1, 2, 3.

What there is out there, more often than not, is thick strawberry jam, through which someone with a bad back on a tight schedule has to wade—and then try to tell us how many strawberries are in it.

I’m reading Blastland and Dilmot’s The Numbers Game right now, and it is brilliant so far. I love that it starts with one of the fundamental quantitative reasoning questions: What did you count and how did you count it?  

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The book is tangentially related to the long running BBC radio show More or Less, which you can can listen to for free here.

Milo Schield’s short paper Teaching the Social Construction of Statistics deals with “strawberry jam” issues, and is well worth a read.

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