How do you learn about what’s going on in the world? Did a news headline grab your attention? Did a news story report on recent research? What do you need to know to be a critical consumer of the news you read? If you are looking to start developing your data self-defense and critical news consumption skills, this book is for you! It reflects a long-term collaboration between a statistician and a journalist to shed light on the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics. The only prerequisite for enjoying this book is an interest in developing the skills and insights for better understanding news stories that incorporate quantitative information.
Chapters in Statistics Behind the Headlines kick off with a news story headline and a summary of the story itself. The meat of each chapter consists of an exploration of the statistical and journalism concepts needed to understand the data analyzed and reported in the story. The chapters are organized around these sections:
- What ideas will you encounter in this chapter?
- What is claimed? Is it appropriate?
- Who is claiming this?
- Why is it claimed? What makes this a story worth telling?
- Is this a good measure of impact?
- How is the claim supported?
- What evidence is reported?
- What is the quality/strength of the evidence?
- Does the claim seem reasonable?
- How does this claim fit with what is already known?
- How much does this matter?
- Considering the coverage
Chapters close with connections to the Stats + Stories podcast.
1. A Field Guide to Reading the Statistics behind the Headlines 2. Predicting Global Population Growth and Framing how you Report It 3. Social Media and Mental Health 4. Speedy Sneakers: Technological Boosterism or Sound Science? 5. Investigating Series Binge-watching 6. Tracking the Spread of "False News" 7. Modeling What It Means to "Flatten the Curve" 8. One Governor, Two Outcomes, and Three COVID Tests 9. Research Reproducibility and Reporting Results 10. Now, what?
"We live in a time when information channels have been de-centralized, and the usual gatekeepers —journalists, experts, public officials— have lost much of their power to control what information we receive. There are positive consequences to this cultural shift, but also negative ones: misinformation, disinformation, and simple misunderstandings due to ignorance run rampant. This book is an antidote to that. Using a friendly and occasionally humorous voice, John Bailer and Rosemary Pennington teach us, general readers, how to become more critical consumers of the statistics we see every day in the news and in social media. What a delight."
- Alberto Cairo, University of Miami
"With each chapter, the authors cover not only various aspects of real life but also offer various flavors of modern science, like the notion of data literacy, an overview of organizations responsible for data collection, reporting practices, and many more. They take readers on a path to investigate the background research and the forefront of storytelling. They motivate readers to hone their’ skills as data-savvy consumers of daily news. [...] Science searches for broad patterns that capture general truths about the world. Narratives search for connections through human experience that assign meaning and value to reality. The book by Bailer and Pennington masterfully stitched these two worlds together, helping to approach both research results and news coverage with a critical eye. [...] I am sure that this book is a great educational resource for those interested in many fields: statistics, journalism, ethics, education, and their interplay and practical applications."
- Elena N. Naumova in Journal of Public Health Policy, January 2024
"A beautifully accessible, thought-provoking book that should be an invaluable resource for journalists who use statistics - which, these days, is all journalists. Through clear, current examples, the authors rigorously interrogate the way data are interpreted and presented, and force us to question how to do this in a way that better serves the public without feeding misinformation, hype, or hysteria. I'm sure I will be using it as a reference guide regularly, and recommending it to other reporters."
- Angela Saini, Science Journalist, New York
"An excellent and really useful aspect of the book is that it’s jointly written by a statistician and a journalist. As the book itself makes clear, journalists and statisticians have different skills, different motivations, and different reasons for reporting their work. And there are others involved – usually the headline on a media story is not written by the journalist who wrote the study, for example. If you’re aiming to make sense of a media story about statistics, and the story behind the story, you need to understand how all that works. Not only can Bailer and Pennington cover both sides – they both already have long experience of working across that professional divide, and understanding of how and why statisticians and journalists do what they do. The book is primarily aimed at a general audience – but I think that it will also be helpful to statisticians and journalists who need to understand more about what the ‘other side’ does. They would be able to skip some of the detail about their own profession, but seeing how everything fits together is important to anyone who needs to communicate effectively about numbers. There are other strengths too. Each main chapter uses the same basic structure for making sense of a statistically-based story, and readers can use the same structure as a basis for picking apart stories for themselves. And there are links to the excellent Stats + Stories podcast series, developed by Bailer, Pennington and others, that take the ideas forward."
- Kevin McConway, The Open University
"Statistics Behind the Headlines makes statistics accessible for wide audiences. The book teaches foundational statistical concepts through engaging and timely stories. It would make an excellent textbook for any course that teaches statistical thinking, whether for undergraduates, journalists, or medical professionals. Each chapter allows readers to "peer under the hood" of data-based claims and equips them with the tools needed to critically evaluate these claims. The reader-friendly style provides a refreshing contrast to the stodgy and intimidating style of most statistics books. Readers will develop an appreciation for statistics; learn how to spot hype and misinformation; and become more savvy consumers of numbers-based news."
- Kristin Sainani, Stanford University