That’s the title of a book I recently came across by the late Robert P. Abelson. The thesis of the book is that statistics is a tool for organizing an argument. Abelson’s focus is his own discipline of psychology but many of his points apply to social science more broadly.
Throughout the book Abelson accumulates a list of his “laws”:
- Chance is lumpy.
- Overconfidence abhors uncertainty.
- Never flout a convention just once.
- Don’t talk Greek if you don’t know the English translation.
- If you have nothing to say, don’t say anything.
- There is no free hunch.
- You can’t see the dust if you don’t move the couch.
- Criticism is the mother of methodology.
My main gripe with the book is how much of it hinders on frequentist hypothesis testing. For example, I don’t consider the difference between a p-value of .05 and one of .07 to be a “principled argument.” Abelson does give some attention to Bayesian methods, but a book developing the idea of statistics as rhetoric from a Bayesian point of view would be more coherent. Perhaps we will see something along these lines from Andrew Gelman’s work on ethical statistics.