Comment »Posted on Wednesday 15 July 2009 at 8:45 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Just A Review, Mathematics

Those of you expecting The Tiger That Isn’t to be a book on the evolution of the big cat family, prepare to be disappointed. The book’s subtitle, “Seeing through a world of numbers”, gives the game away – it’s about maths. More specifically, The Tiger That Isn’t exposes the common misuse and abuse of numbers by politicians, government institutions and the media.

Don’t be too downhearted though, because Blastland and Dilnot, the creator and former presenter of Radio 4′s excellent More Or Less programme on statistics, have written a fantastically interesting book based on their knowledge from the show.

The unusual title refers to the human capacity for pattern recognition. We have evolved the powerful ability to identify patterns, and to notice deviations from those patterns. This important skill allowed our ancestors to see, for example, the distinctive stripes of a tiger in the jungle and run away to safety.

Pattern recognition comes at a cost however. Sometimes our over-active brains will see the tiger that isn’t – a chance occurrence of light shining through the long grass that gives the impression of a non-existence tiger.

This downside is reflected in modern life by our need to enforce order on a random world. We forget that correlation does not imply causation and find tigers where there are none.

The Tiger That Isn’t guides readers through common mistakes in the use of statistics with examples plucked from the headlines. An NHS deficit of £1bn sounds immense, but it works out as less than 1% of the total NHS budget, and just £16 per head. League tables are revealed as effectively useless, with schools shooting up and down based on little more than random chance. And as we already know, the media is notoriously bad at reporting health risks.

If you’ve ever enjoyed an episode of More or Less, read a newspaper and wondered where all the numbers come from, or even just uttered the phrase “lies, damned lies and statistics,” this is a book you will enjoy. In addition to being entertained, you’ll finish The Tiger That Isn’t with a much better understanding of what numbers can and can’t tell you. Read it.

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