Book Review: How to Make the World Add Up - Tim Harford

A goldfish, with a shark find stuck to its back.

In How to Make the World Add Up, Tim Harford draws on his experience as both an economist and presenter of the BBC’s radio show ‘More or Less’ to take us deep into the world of disinformation and obfuscation, bad research and misplaced motivation to find those priceless jewels of data and analysis that make communicating with numbers so rewarding. Through vivid storytelling he reveals how we can evaluate the claims that surround us with confidence, curiosity and a healthy level of scepticism. It is a must-read for anyone who cares about understanding the world around them.

This is a lovely and useful book. It contains ten simple rules for dating my teenage daughter making sense of statistics. Every day we're bombarded with hundreds of seemingly contradictory conclusions from an array of confusing statistics. How do we sort the bullish claims from the bullshit?

I was particularly impressed with the book's full throated endorsement of open data and open source. If statistics aren't public - they can't be criticised. If their methodology is secret - they can't be examined. Both are needed for a healthy statistical debate.

The thing which struck me the most was just how easy the rules are to follow. And then I was swiftly batted around the head by the realisation that I only tend to apply them to statistics I'm predisposed to disagree with. All humans are fallible - and this book is a constant reminder that we all need to up our game.

Two very mild points of criticism.

There isn't much new here. If you've been following along with the statistic discourse, or are a regular reader/listener of Tim's work. But it put together well, and provides a great overview of why we trust statistics as well as how to trust them.

Many of the statistics and anecdotes are about America. I appreciate that their hegemony looms large in our legend - but a few more stories from outside their sphere of influence would have been interesting. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, the book is being released in the USA and Canada as "The Data Detective".

Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy. The book is available in all good bookshops (and, statistically, a few bad ones) now:

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