What makes a good book? A sense of humor.

Steve Simon

2006-02-13

[StATS]: What makes a good book? A sense of humor. (February 13, 2006). Category: Good books

I was recently asked to evaluate a book proposal, and although I have not finished it, it made me think about what makes a book good. There are several things that I look for in a book about Statistics, and one of those things (not necessarily the most important) is a good sense of humor.

Statistics can be a rather dry and dull experience for many people, so a bit of humor can go a long way. An excellent example of the use of humor is

The two Canadian authors have a picture of themselves in a mock pose of the Vitruvian Man, with their privacy guarded by red maple leaf. In their first chapter, they point out that

Statistics wouldn't be needed if everybody in the world were exactly like everyone else.

but add the following footnote.

We also wouldn't need dating services because it would be futile to look for the perfect mate; he or she would be just like the person sitting next to you. By the same token, it would mean the end of extramarital affairs, because what's the use? But that's another story.

This sort of commentary continues throughout the entire book. At the end of most sections, the authors include C.R.A.P. Detectors (C.R.A.P. stands for Convoluted Reasoning and Anti-intellectual Pomposity), which is a humorous warning against various abuses of statistics.

Larry Gonick is perhaps the best known author to use humor to help teach technical topics. He has a book about Statistics

co-written by Woollcott Smith that is not his best effort, in my humble opinion, but which still works very well. In the first chapter, he has a statistician going out on a blind date. The text explanation is well written but fairly bland,

What makes Statistics unique is its ability to quantify uncertainty, to make it precise. This allows statisticians to make categorical statements, with complete assurance-about their level of uncertainty!

but the cartoon below has the statistician explaining to his date as they eat,

Good choice! I'm 95% confident that tonight's soup has probability between 73% and 77% of being really delicious.

This is cute, although it does reinforce a stereotype of statisticians as male nerds. There is a strong effort to recruit more women into Statistics, and when people pigeonhole statisticians like this, it makes our efforts more difficult.

Later in that chapter, the authors point out that

... in disucssing statistics, it's hard to avoid mentioning one other thing: the widespread mistrust of Statistics in the world today. Everyone knows about "lying with Statistics," while good Statistical analysis is nearly impossible to find in daily life.

Again this is well written but bland. The cartoon to the right, however, shows a man watching TV as the announcer says

3 out of 4 doctors recommend not believing any statement beginning with "3 out of 4 doctors..."

When done well, humor can make difficult concepts much more memorable. I'd like to think that my book (coming soon!) will have some good and memorable humor in it.

Further reading:

Glen McPherson had a nice list of recommended text books, but I cannot find the link to that list right now. Sorry! I had referenced the list at FAQ-14 Can someone provide me with references and/or books about [topic]? but the links on that page are broken. I did find a nice list produced by a software company, GraphPad, Software, Inc.

Creative CommonsLicense This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. It was written by Steve Simon and was last modified on 04/01/2010.

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This page was written by Steve Simon while working at Children's Mercy Hospital. Although I do not hold the copyright for this material, I am reproducing it here as a service, as it is no longer available on the Children's Mercy Hospital website. Need more information? I have a page with general help resources. You can also browse for pages similar to this one at

for pages similar to this one at with general help resources. You can also browse Children's Mercy Hospital website. Need more information? I have a page reproducing it here as a service, as it is no longer available on the Hospital. Although I do not hold the copyright for this material, I am This page was written by Steve Simon while working at Children's Mercy