Can statistics be interesting and intuitive? (I certainly suffered through some bad stats classes in college and graduate school.) The idea behind Naked Statistics was to update a W.W. Norton classic, How to Lie with Statistics, which has sold over a million copies.
We are surrounded by data; statistics is the tool for making sense of that data, in fields ranging from retailing to law enforcement. Naked Statistics is packed with loads of examples (some of them quite funny). In a first for me as a writer, the book hit the New York Times nonfiction hardback bestseller list just a few weeks after publication in January of 2013.
I recently spoke about the book with Phil Ponce, host of Chicago Tonight.
I pretty much wrote this book by accident, if that’s possible for a book. I was teaching a course on economics at the Medill School of Journalism and I was not able to find a book that would be appropriate for the course. I called a friend in the publishing industry and asked her for a recommendation. I explained that I wanted a book that would convey the big ideas in economics without getting bogged down in the math.
After a long pause, she said, “I don’t think there is one. But you’re going to write it. It’s going to be called Economics for Poets. And I’m going to read it.”
We changed the title, but the rest is now history.
In 2011, the Dartmouth class of 2011 invited me to be their faculty speaker for Class Day, which is a special Dartmouth ritual on the day before Commencement. (Conan O’Brien was the commencement speaker.) I’m a Dartmouth alum, so I had literally been sitting in the same place as those students, only 23 years earlier.
I could not give a conventional speech. Instead, I gave a talk called “Five Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said” (such as #1, Your Time in Fraternity Basements Was Not Wasted). There were actually six points in the speech; I had two number fours. The speech hit a nerve and began bouncing around the web. At that point, I worked with W.W. Norton to turn the speech into a book. I had the joy of working with the former New Yorker cartoonist Peter Steiner, whose great illustrations (including the cover at left) are a perfect complement to the text.
This project was a complete blast. Terry Evans, an award-winning photographer was commissioned to take aerial photos of the Chicago region for an outdoor exhibit in Millennium Park. Terry asked me to write the captions and essays to accompany the photos.
As Terry compiled photos, I went to work researching the shots and adding text. On one occasion, I had the chance to go up in a helicopter with her as she shot the Chicago skyline just after dawn. It was beautiful–but I will also admit that a tightly-circling helicopter giving off diesel exhaust can make one “helicopter sick”. (I just barely made it back to our base at Gary Airport.) Terry’s photos for the exhibit were compiled into this beautiful book.