I just finished reading The Aesthetics of Junk Fiction, by Thomas Roberts; and it’s the most thought-provoking book I’ve encountered since Taleb. (By “thought provoking,” I mean just that: These books provoked more thoughts from me than any other books I’ve read recently.)
It’s a book all about literary genres, and what people get out of reading detective stories, romances, science fiction, and westerns.
With genres on my mind, my reaction to receiving Kaiser’s new book, Numbers Rule Your World, was that this is the latest in the increasingly popular genre of pop-statistics books.
And then this got me thinking about different sorts of genres. Roberts discusses how a reader will go through detective stories, say, like potato chips–actually, he criticizes the food analogy, but you get the picture, with some people reading book after book by the same author or even the same series, others reading more broadly within a genre, and others dipping into a genre from time to time.
Books are different from T.V., where it’s so easy to just flip the channels and encounter something new. With books, it’s easier to stay within your preferred genre or genres.
Anyway, here’s the thing. People who love mysteries will read one after another. People who love science-fiction will read libraries of the stuff. But, even if you looove pop-statistics books, you probably won’t read more than one or two. Unlike mysteries, romances, westerns, etc., pop-statistics books are designed not for addicts but for people who aren’t already familiar with the area.
Because of my familiarity with applied statistics, I’m in some ways the worst possible reviewer for Kaiser’s book. It’s hard for me to judge it, because these ideas are already familiar to me, and I don’t really know what would work to make the point to readers who are less statistically aware. (Christian Robert had a similar reaction.)
The book has a blurb on the back from someone from SAS Institute, but I looked at it anyway. And I’m glad I did.
My favorite part was the bit about “How steroid tests miss ten dopers for each one caught.” I liked how he showed it with integers rather than probabilities–and I think there’s some research that this sort of presentation is helpful. And, more than that, I liked that Kaiser is sending the message that this all makes sense: rather than trying to portray probability as counterintuitive and puzzle-like, he’s saying that if you think about things in the right way, they will become clear. The story of the college admissions test questions was interesting too, in the same way.
There is an inherent tension in all these pop-statistics books, which send two messages:
1. The statistician as hero, doing clever things, solving problems, and explaining mysteries.
2. The method as hero, allowing ordinary people (just plain statisticians) to do amazing things.
Superman or Iron Man, if you will.
As a statistician myself, I prefer the Iron Man story: I like the idea of developing methods that can help ordinary people solve real problems. My impression is that Kaiser, professional statistician that he is, also prefers the Iron Man frame, although it can be hard to convey this, because stories work better when the heroes are humans, not methods. The next book to write, I guess, should be called, not Amazing Numberrunchers or Fabulous Stat-economists, but rather something like Statistics as Your Very Own Iron Man Suit.
P.S. I didn’t understand Kaiser’s description of how they handle the waiting lines at Disneyland. When I went there, you’d buy a packet of tickets, ranging from A (lame rides like It’s a Small World that nobody ever wanted to go on), through intermediate rides like the teacups, up to the E tickets for the always-crowded rides like Space Mountain. Apparently they changed the system at some point and now have something called a Fast Pass, which sounds like a take-a-number sort of system with beeper that tells you when it’s your turn to go on to your ride. Kaiser describes this as a brilliant innovation, which I guess it is–it seems like an obvious idea, but they certainly don’t do it in most doctor’s waiting rooms!–but he also describes it as more of a psychological trick in crowd management than an efficiency gain. That’s where he loses me. Sure, I accept the point that the rides have a finite capacity, so in that sense you can’t really shorten waiting times very much, but if you can wander around while waiting for your ride instead of standing on line, that’s a positive gain, no? Standing on line is generally pretty unpleasant.
P.P.S. Do youall like this kind of rambling blog that goes through several ideas, or would it be better for me to split this sort of thing into multiple entries (for example, a review of Kaiser’s book, a question about Disneyland, the discussion of genres, and the Superman/Iron Man issue)? I kinda feel that multiple entries would work better on the blog; on the other hand, the sort of single wide-ranging discussion you see here is more interesting in a published review. Maybe I can send this to the American Statistician or some other such publication.