Book Review: The Joy of X and Naked Statistics

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Posted by Jenny Richardson April 11, 2017

I decided to apply to grad school a solid 20 years after most of my peer group did. That meant it had been about 25 years since I'd taken a formal math class, and if you know anything about me you know I'm a language person. Aside from my interactions at the bank, I hadn't spent the last quarter century using those arcane math skills I'd learned in high school, so I was a little anxious about how much I'd forgotten and how I was going to re-learn everything for the GRE.

Before cracking open a single remedial math book, I went looking for something that would help me figure out what I knew and what I'd forgotten. Lucky for me, I found a couple of books that described math concepts in words. I'd like to think if I had read these as a kid, I might not have been so wary of the whole enterprise.

The Joy of X, by Steven Strogatz, is the culmination of years of columns he wrote for the New York Times. It's broken into six sections, each section built on the foundation of the previous: numbers, relationships (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, powers), shapes (geometry), change (calculus), data (probability and statistics), and frontiers (weird stuff, like prime numbers, Mobius strips, and infinity).

Strogatz's writing is conversational and his examples grounded in everyday relevance. I never thought about Michael Jordan's dunks or how couples choose seats in movie theaters as being great illustrations of vertical velocity or the imaginary number e. If you've ever puzzled over how Google search results appear, check out the section 'Untangling the Web.' Strogatz guides the reader through page rank algorithm - what made Google Google in the first place - and in the end you'll wonder why what he describes so simply seemed so elusive at the beginning of the web. Strogatz bring both concepts to the page without giving it away that he's teaching math. By the time I got to the end, I was ready to go back to the Times' archives to read his 'Elements of Math' column from the beginning.

Likewise, Charles Wheelan's approach to Naked Statistics was very similar to Strogatz's, except that he takes on, well, statistics. Like Strogatz, Wheelan is an educator and a journalist, and he too knows how to use storytelling to unpack complicated statistical concepts. He engages the reader as a detective in a mystery to explain the central limit theorem and uses spam filters, cancer screening, and terrorist captures to illustrate inference.

I've returned to Naked Statistics a few times to read up on the mechanics of regression - even though Tableau does most of the analysis for me - because I'm a word person and I want to understand the relationships of the actors in a scene.

One of the pleasure of reaching the end of Naked Statistics is Wheelan's last chapter, 'Five Questions that statistics can help answer.' Once you better understand the complexities and mechanics of statistical analysis as he presents it, the five questions seem infinitely solvable:

  1. What is the future of football?
  2. What (if anything) is causing the dramatic rise in the incidence of autism?
  3. How can we identify and reward good teachers and schools?
  4. What are the best tools for fighting global poverty?
  5. Who get to know what about you?

Both books are easy and enjoyable, and make for valuable beach reading if you're so inclined. And even if you're not studying for the GRE, or have never seen yourself as a 'numbers' person, give these two books a second look. You may harbor an inner 'numbers' person after all.

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