Written by Professor Richard Harris, Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol
How to Lie with Statistics is a best seller within the statistical literature. Authored by the writer Darrell Huff, it is a short text, first published in 1954 and still in print today. Within it, Huff shows how statistics routinely are misused, misunderstood and misinterpreted in businesses, in public policy, in journalism and in other ways. In writing the book, Huff’s intention was not to encourage falsehood. Quite the opposite: he was teaching people how to avoid errors by exposing the dodgy applications. More recent books explore a similar purpose. For example, The Tiger That Isn’t by Andrew Dilnot and Michael Blastland (2007) and A Field Guide to Lies and Statistics by Daniel Levitin (2016). Understanding the validity of statistics is important because they shape our beliefs and reinforce our prejudices, especially in an era when they can be circulated at speed on social media with little regard to their veracity. Data skills allow us to do what Huff described as talking back to statistics – to have the knowhow that does not accept every statistic at face value but can spot errors, misunderstandings and brazen manipulations of the truth.
What has this to do with geography? The answer is that data skills are essential in geography. They are central to how we practise geography, to how we acquire geographical knowledge, and to how we apply geographical concepts and ideas to particular studies and contexts to facilitate geographical learning. They are skills that will aid the successful completion of a geographical project and independent investigation. However, they are also hazards that can ‘trip up’ the unsuspecting student. Fortunately, the most common types of problem can be avoided with a little forethought and care. The aim of this article is to provide guidance.
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This project was funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation
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