Andy Field takes statistics adventure to a new level

Best-selling author explains how his love of sci-fi and romance stories have helped him craft his latest statistics odyssey

April 28, 2016
James Iles illustration, An Adventure in Statistics: The Reality Enigma
Source: James Iles

In the world of statistics textbooks, Andy Field is a true superstar.

This may sound like faint praise, but the unexcitingly titled Discovering Statistics Using SPSS – and variant versions using different software systems – have proved spectacular best-sellers, generating musical tributes on YouTube and lots of almost creepily enthusiastic online endorsements.

Now professor of child psychopathology at the University of Sussex, Field describes the first edition of the book, published in 2000, as “an 800-page brain fart of me doing what I thought would work” and, notably, trying to be “a bit more irreverent” and to “use more student-friendly examples than I had seen in other textbooks”. With each revision he was determined to “be more wacky and up the ante”. The third edition had a running thread about his life story (and his cat Fuzzy). It also included his ultimate “student-friendly example”.

“I saw something in a surgery journal about someone who turned up in A&E complaining about abdominal pains,” he recalls. “They did an X-ray and found an eel in his anus, which he claimed was a cure for constipation.” Although this was a pretty implausible theory, it was nonetheless “an empirical question”, so Field decided to explain logistic regression by inventing a medic who collected data comparing the insertion of eels with treatment-as-usual for constipation.

Discovering Statistics is designed to take students “in a vast number of disciplines where statistics is a core module but not the core subject” through all the material they require for a full three-year course. Yet it also left Field with “an itch to scratch”. When working on the third edition, he had “thought it would be cool to embed all the content in a story” but had eventually decided against it. But he has finally been able to achieve his dream with the publication of An Adventure in Statistics: The Reality Enigma.

On one level, this functions as a standard statistics textbook – at a rather more foundational level than the earlier text – and incorporates “check your brain” questions, revision summaries and tests. But it is also, explains Field, “a bit of a thriller about a guy whose girlfriend disappears and he’s trying to find her and find out what happened to her. Zach is a musician who doesn’t understand science and the world Alice inhabits…He has to have a very powerful reason to tolerate lots of people teaching him statistics. He’s invested in finding out what’s happened to the love of his life.”

There are strong sci-fi elements, since the events unfold in the future after the invention of something called a “reality prism – a transparent pyramid worn on the head – [which] splits reality into the part that is objectively true and the part that is subjective experience”. A final element in this utterly unique book is the inclusion of panels that could have come straight from a graphic novel.

A big sci-fi fan, Field admits that he is also “a sucker for a good bit of romance. If you give me a book like [Audrey Niffenegger’s] The Time Traveler’s Wife, an interesting story which happens to have love at the heart of it, I will sit crying on the train reading it”.

But although he has drawn on genres he likes, he has been endlessly ingenious in finding ways to bring statistical information into the core of his work. Zach desperately cross-examines Alice on the last evening they spend together, tries to find out what has happened to her from a counsellor she has been seeing, seeks advice from a cat called Milton (who may or may not have his interests at heart) and even acquires the maths he needs to overcome a number of deadly challenges.  

For the future, Field “would definitely like to write some fiction which doesn’t have stats popping up every five minutes”. Although he has “no evidence that teaching stats through a narrative is a useful thing to do”, he very much hopes that readers will “get hooked on the story” and so “slowly get sucked in".

"I have structured the book so there are intriguing things you want to know the answer to. By carrying on reading, you are shoehorned into learning more stats.”

Andy Field’s An Adventure in Statistics: The Reality Enigma is shortly to be released by Sage Publishing.


Print headline: A thriller that turns on vital statistics

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