The Biggest Bestseller of All Time (with This Title)
How Numbers Lead and Mislead Us
An investigation into the way numbers seduce, influence and mislead us
Numbers are everywhere – they might denote calories, work targets, statistics or the temperature outside – and while they are not as objective as they seem, figures still colour and shape our daily landscape. Econometrist and journalist Sanne Blauw penned this book for people who don’t know anything about numbers, yet face them every day in some form or other. Unfortunately, we are inclined to take all these figures presented to us as true, while all too often they are misleading or simply incorrect.
All kinds of things can go wrong with numbers. Prejudices may be hidden within measurement methods, samples might not be representative and connections can be made that are not actually there. And it is exactly these problems that come into play in times of big data and artificial intelligence. Now that the amount of data is so large and the algorithms so precise, we need to start becoming more aware of the finer details and more informed of the pitfalls.
Sometimes the figures are correct, but the context is missing. Threats can suddenly appear a lot more dramatic. For example, recent research has shown that if you eat processed meat, you have a twenty percent greater chance of developing bowel cancer. Western media sources immediately jumped on this. Newspaper headlines declared ‘bacon just as carcinogenic as smoking’. But anyone reading the actual research papers will discover that the chances of getting cancer if you don’t eat unprocessed meat are five percent. And if you do eat it, that probability goes up to six percent: a lot less shocking, but in the meantime panic has struck.
Sanne Blauw takes the reader on a journey through history from Florence Nightingale – who was not just a lifesaving nurse but a nineteenth-century queen of infographics – to one of the great revolutions of our time: the rise of algorithms, which, of course, are not as neutral as we would like to believe. With The Biggest Bestseller of All Time (with This Title) Sanne Blauw hopes to put numbers back in their place. Not on a pedestal, not in the trash, but where they belong: alongside words.