I just started reading Statistics as Principled Argument and I could not resist to start writing something about it because, simply stated, it’s awesome.
The reason why I am so excited is because this is probably the first stats book I found that focusses exclusively on the narrative and rhetorical side of statistics.
Abelson makes explicit what most people don’t seem to see, or be willing to admit: it does not matter how rigorous your data collection and analysis is (and by the way it’s very hard to be rigorous in the first place), every conclusion you draw out of data is is full of rhetoric.
I think this is a super important message not only for those who produce stories or arguments based on data, from scientists to journalists, but also and above all for the population at large. I think too often people are impressed by this aura of scientific rigorousness and objectivity that numbers and technology provide. There’s no such thing as totally neutrality and objectivity. There are credible and not so credible arguments.
Here are a few sentences extracted from the book I’d like to share:
“… the presentation of the inferences drawn from statistical analysis importantly involves rhetoric” …
and then on the narrative role of stats:
“Beyond its rhetorical function statistics statistical analysis has a narrative role. Meaningful research tells a story with some point to it, and statistics can sharpen the story.”
and on interestingness:
“I have been led to consider hat kind of claims a statistical story can make, and what makes a claim interesting. Interestingness seems to have to do with changing the audience’s belief about important relationships, often by articulating circumstances in which obvious explanations of things break down”
and on the purpose of statistics:
“I have arrived at the theme that the purpose of statistics is to organize a useful argument from quantitative evidence, using a form of principled rhetoric.
and then he brilliantly warns us that we cannot just do without the rigorousness of numbers and stats:
“The word principled is crucial. Just because rhetoric is unavoidable, indeed acceptable, in statistical presentations it does not mean that you should say anything you please.”
It looks like a great book everyone should read. I am on chapter four.