Uncover how sensational statistics are used to scare us, says Michael Wilding

We are programmed to instantly translate signals into alerts. Is that moving pattern of light and shadow in the undergrowth a tiger? If you live near tigers it is the survival option. Safety lies in seeing danger.

In today’s competitive 24 hour news cycle, danger is news. In this world, instead of shadows, we have numbers. Numbers possess massive power to clarify and explain. Misused or misunderstood they can also obscure, confuse, even terrify. Bacon raises cancer risk by 21 per cent, announces a headline. The article fails to explain what the 21 per cent means, leaving readers to assume a scary significance. This book shows, by deconstructing the research, how tiny is the actual risk.

Count three sheep and the result can be anything from 1.5 to four depending on the method. Use roadkill to measure hedgehog populations and it may reveal more about traffic density than the animals. The rainbow is white: deeper analysis is needed to find the detail. Every day we absorb a barrage of cryptic numerical information presented as statistics, comparisons and projections. We should employ healthy suspicion when interpreting it, this book advises us. What does it mean? How was it acquired? What has been left out?

This is numbers as a holiday read. What you know is explained, what you don’t is demystified. Among much else, to discover why 300 million is not a large number but six is, and why we think otherwise, read this excellent book.

Michael Wilding is podiatry services manager for NHS Southwark Provider Services.

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