Editor’s note: The following is an interview with distinguished British statistician David Spiegelhalter originally published at The Browser.
Every statistic is the result of someone’s work, and we’d do well to ask ourselves why it was created. That way, says the statistician, we have a better chance of working out when dangers are being overstated and data misused.
What do you mean by “risk literacy” and why do you think it is so important for people to have it?
I am a statistician and I know that people find probability and statistics quite difficult to understand, and not intuitive. And after years and years of careful research I have finally concluded that it is because probability and statistics really are difficult to understand and unintuitive. I think knowing something about how chance works in the world is a basic skill that people should have, along with reading, writing and basic numeracy. Otherwise you can be subject to all sorts of manipulations, and that will come out in some of my book choices.
Let’s have a look. First up is The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow, which looks at how the mathematical laws of randomness affect our lives.
This is a general introduction to the history of probability and the way it comes into everyday life. It intersperses the historical development with modern applications, and looks at finance, sport, gambling, lotteries and coincidences.
It starts off with quotes from Cicero feeling that people were being misled by thinking that the gods influenced the throw of a die. Then it carries on through the early development of probability in the 16th century with [Italian Renaissance mathematician Gerolamo] Cardano. He threw two dice and looked at the distribution of the sum of the two faces. There was an incredibly popular game called Hazard where you threw two dice and betted on what the total would be. Amazingly, people had been gambling for centuries and had never realised you could do maths on gambling. Probability – which used to be known by the wonderful term “the doctrine of chances” – grew out of this.
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