Review of The Joy of Statistics: A Treasury of Elementary Statistical Tools and their Applications by Steve Selvin. New York. Oxford University Press. 2019.


From ACRoB Vol. 1 No. 1, pp 36-37.

The Joy of Statistics provides a short, accessible and, at times, light-hearted glimpse into the vast world of statistics. This book delivers the general background needed to begin understanding statistical methods and how to apply them alongside an assortment of anecdotes, jokes, and historical information. The author, Dr Steve Selvin, is an award-winning teacher with more than 40 years of statistics teaching experience at the University of California, Berkeley. He has received the Berkeley Citation, the most prestigious award for teaching excellence given by the University of California and has authored or co-authored more than 250 scientific papers in the applied statistics fields of epidemiology and health with a focus on birth defects and childhood cancer.

As an author of more than ten applied statistical methods books, Dr Selvin uses The Joy of Statistics to take a step back and explain the basics in an entertaining yet informative way. The book begins with an introduction to probabilities, summary statistics, and visualization before diving deeper into basic statistical methods. In each short chapter, Dr Selvin describes the topic in question thoroughly, often with a short example or two to further explain its exact workings. Every chapter provides enough material so that the reader has a chance to fully grasp the topic without feeling overwhelmed.

While the chapter topics cover a range of methods and visualization approaches, Dr Selvin focuses on highly important concepts that provide a foundational understanding of statistics and are applicable across disciplines. For example, he explains odds ratios and their relation to risk ratios in great depth. The two ratios are described in words, through equations, and in relation to published papers. He also walks carefully through different summary visualizations and methods to smooth data and remove the noise found in the plots. Dr Selvin writes, “Random variation or other sources of ‘noise’ potentially obscure relationships often revealed by a smoothing strategy” (156). Across multiple chapters, he explains the importance of summarizing data, both numerically and graphically, and describes methods through which to clean the data. Throughout this book, the reader is exposed to critical aspects of the field which will prepare them for the future study of statistics.

The Joy of Statistics weaves the history of the field into its discussions of the application of statistical methods. For many of the specific topics, Dr Selvin shares short biographies for the famous statisticians known for said topic. Biographies of R. A. Fisher and Karl Pearson are included for the founding of modern statistics and levels of significance (p-values). Dr Selvin describes their on again off again scientific relationship as, “colleagues but not friends” and their collective impact on the field of statistics. Other important statisticians are described by their accomplishments. John Tukey is described with quick tests, specifically the Tukey’s quick test, and Florence Nightingale is included for her important role in forming the field of nursing and as the first “biostatistician.”

Right when the amount of statistical methods described feels to be too much, Dr Selvin mixes in statistical jokes, quotes, puzzles, and riddles to provide some “joy” and a well-deserved break in the material. These chapters add a personal touch as they appear to share some of Dr Selvin’s favorite problems, fun facts, and poems. He includes amusing one-liners such as, “Three out of every four Americans make up 75% of the population” (130) and lengthier cringe-worthy, yet entertaining jokes including, “A statistician’s wife gave birth to twins. He was delighted. When his minister heard the good news, he said ‘bring them to church on Sunday to be baptized.’ ‘No’ replied the new father. ‘We will baptize one and keep the other as a control” (131).

The Joy of Statistics prepares the reader to dive into the statistical world. It packs a wide scope of statistical knowledge into a mere two hundred pages. Nonetheless, this book should not be used in the replacement of other statistical techniques or methods books. Instead, it serves as a general summary to get one’s feet wet before jumping into more advanced methods and the current literature.

I recommend The Joy of Statistics to those who want to begin studying statistics or who need a quick refresher book. Dr Selvin does an exemplary job of explaining basic concepts without overwhelming the reader with jargon or dense details. Each chapter stands alone, and the material described is easily digestible. This allows the reader to devour the entire book quickly or to flip through and focus on specific chapters. Thus, readers from a diverse set of statistical backgrounds can find assistance from this book. As The Joy of Statistics is so well crafted, I cannot wait to read Dr Selvin’s other work to see how he uses his simple yet exact way of explaining statistics in more advanced statistical techniques.

Anna Miller is a Ph.D. student studying Genetics and Genome Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. She studies genetic diseases using statistical and bioinformatics methods. Besides lab work, Anna is passionate about science communication and writes for the American Society of Human Genetics’ trainee newsletter, “The Nascent Transcript.” Anna holds a BA in Biology and Music from Albion College and you can find her on Twitter (@a_k_miller).

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