I learned about this because it was mentioned on the Unintended Consequences podcast.
This thing makes me feel duped, dirty, and angry. I used to recommend Darrell Huff’s How To Lie With Statistics. In fact, back when I used to teach my class on metrics, a copy of the book was a prize for best extra-credit example of how to make yourself look better than you were, with one simple metric. Ha, ha, ha. Funny, right?
Anyhow, I’ve now removed How To Lie With Statistics from my recommended reading list [stderr] and, now, we have to have a little chat about “cancel culture.” Some people might argue that we have to treat the product – the book – differently from the producer, because the product still might be good or useful regardless of its origin. That’s always seemed to me to be convenient reasoning; i.e: I can still listen to Eric Clapton’s music and ignore the slight flavor of vomit in my mouth, because damn he plays guitar nowhere near as well as Jimmy Page (also problematic) so let’s just say he’s not worthy to kiss Stevie Ray Vaughn’s or Jimi Hendrix’ asses. Since the reason I taste vomit in my mouth when I think of Clapton is because he’s a stupid racist (and now an anti-vaxxer) and I don’t like stupid racists. His music is unchanged but my opinion of him has. I think I’ll have to go with Jimi Hendrix. Hell, Mark Knopfler’s playing was clearer and often vastly superior. Clapton is not god.
Neither is Darrell Huff: [wik]
Stanford historian Robert N. Proctor wrote that Huff “was paid to testify before Congress in the 1950s and then again in the 1960s, with the assigned task of ridiculing any notion of a cigarette-disease link. On March 22, 1965, Huff testified at hearings on cigarette labeling and advertising, accusing the recent Surgeon General’s report of myriad failures and ‘fallacies’.
Huff is credited with introducing statistics to a generation of college and high-school students on a level that was meaningful, available, and practical, while still managing to teach complex mathematical concepts. His most famous text, How to Lie with Statistics, is still being translated into new languages. His books have been published in over 22 languages, and continue to be used in classrooms the world over.
Huff was later funded by the tobacco industry to publish a follow-up to his book on statistics: How to Lie with Smoking Statistics. This led to controversy and much criticism in the late 1960s. The book was intended to be published by Macmillan, but near the end of 1968, the plans for its publication came to an abrupt halt. It was not until the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement in 1998 that the existence of the book, letters between Huff and tobacco industry lawyers discussing it, and the entire unpublished manuscript itself became publicly available.
In other words, he was a loathsome PR flack, taking money from big tobacco and helping them deploy bullshit in defense of their business of selling poison. If he were alive today, he’d probably be trying to make statistical arguments for how global warming actually is a product of bad statistics, assuming Exxon paid him.
How do these people live with themselves?
I can no longer enjoy what I thought was a pretty good book. It hasn’t magically become a bad book – it’s still charming and informative (as John Cleese might say) and I’m just being “politically correct” by cancelling Huff. No, it’s not political correctness – it’s revulsion.