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Can’t count, won’t count

November 19, 2008

I was reminded by a story called “The myth of record debt” of my ongoing frustration at a particular kind of lazy journalism. (Well, there are plenty of slack areas that annoy, but people in glass houses should chose which stones they want to throw, right?). Before I go on, I should put my hands up to a personal degree of struggle with numbers. I can count – I even passed the statistics module of my psychology degree – but I can be a bit rubbish too. It may be laziness on the part of my neurons, or it may be a genuine difficulty with holding numbers in my head for more than two seconds. I only know it’s not a problem I usually have with words.

That said, too many journalists can’t read numbers. And the rest of us aren’t much better at it. I have had my abilities vastly improved by reading a short and entertaining (I promise) book called The Tiger That Isn’t by Andrew Dilnott and Michael Blastland (the latter wrote the BBC story that started this post off, as it happens).

The Amazon blurb says this: This title offers a painless introduction to the maths of the real world by the team who created and present the hugely popular BBC Radio 4 series “More or Less”. Mathematics scares and depresses most of us, but politicians, journalists and everyone in power use numbers all the time to bamboozle us. Most maths is really simple – as easy as 2+2 in fact. Better still it can be understood without any jargon, any formulas – and in fact not even many numbers. Most of it is commonsense, and by using a few really simple principles one can quickly see when maths, statistics and numbers are being abused to play tricks – or create policies – which can waste millions of pounds. It is liberating to understand when numbers are telling the truth or being used to lie, whether it is health scares, the costs of government policies, the supposed risks of certain activities or the real burden of taxes.

Once you have read this book, you will find the world really is a different place. One where you don’t have to fear death if you drink an extra glass of wine, for example.  Buy this book for yourself and for others – perhaps it could be your Secret Santa gift this year?

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