How to Make the World Add Up by Tim Harford
There is a good opening here on statistics generally which I found helpful. While this books was originally published a little while ago it does appear to have been updated since the previous edition with quite a bit about Covid and statistics. Over the course of the book Tim Harford offers 10 “rules” for thinking about the numbers we see presented to us. Each rule has a chapter and the topic of the rule is discussed with pertinent illustrations using real life statistics.
The range of examples in How to Make the World Add Up is quite remarkable really. While thinking about this review I reflected on the fact that, while reading this, I learnt about both algorithms and the work of Florence Nightingale. I doubt that can be said about many books! Each chapter offers statistical examples and then considers how an ordinary person could make more sense of the information. Equally the author suggests ways we might test the veracity of the information we are given. Attention is paid to simple but potentially misleading words such as what is actually meant by “everyone” or “all – very interesting.
Tim Harford suggests we consider our own experiences to some degree at leat. An example of this would be the Transport for London statistics on average occupancy of tube trains and buses. The author feels from his own experience that he has never travelled on an “averagely” occupied service! This allows him to look at the issues with averages as well as how the data may have been collected.
Returning to algorithms I confess I was not aware that there had ever been a “Google Flu predictor” that appeared to be very accurate at predicting outbreaks of flu. After a while it ceased to be accurate. In a nutshell – no one actually knew why it worked! – beware algorithms that people don’t actually understand is the message.
For me the whole book was extremely readable. Some chapters appealed more to me than others but that is inevitable. One that has stuck with me is the chapter than has information on the work of Florence Nightingale. I confess quite a bit of it came as a surprise to me. The chapter is focussed on infographics or how statistics can be presented. As someone who has from time to time presented graphs to illustrate information quite a bit of this hit home to me. The use and misuse of infographics is fascinating.
I’ve been a “fan” of Tim Harford for some years now due to his programmes on Radio 4. I always found them interesting and accessible – this book is very similar. Assuming you have any interest in the subject it makes for a very easy read. However it is also thought provoking and interesting. Above all Tim Harford urges the reader to “be curious” – I would suggest that anyone who is will thoroughly enjoy How to Make the World Add Up.
Note – I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair review