By Richard Webb AH YES, statistics. The temptation to start any discussion of this subject with the aphorism popularised by Mark Twain is almost overwhelming. “Lies, damned lies, and…” You know the rest. We can’t afford to be that dismissive. Statistics is the science of drawing informed conclusions from large amounts of data. In a sense, then, it is modern science. From trials of the latest wonder drug to the discovery of the Higgs boson, breakthroughs that advance human knowledge are these days seldom made without someone somewhere applying statistical reasoning. And as those bits of knowledge filter down to the rest of us, we are increasingly expected to make decisions – from the political to the medical – on the basis of numbers with that confidence-inspiring suffix “per cent”. Trouble is, few of us do that sure-footedly. Sample sizes, false positives and the difference between absolute versus relative numbers are among the factors that affect how we interpret statistics. Often, they are impossible to extract from a bare number. It’s a systemic problem. “There are large numbers of experts – not just laypeople – who have no training in statistical thinking,” says Gerd Gigerenzer of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany, and author of Risk Savvy: How to make good decisions. “Children are taught the mathematics of certainty: algebra, trigonometry, geometry and the like. That’s beautiful but often useless.” For a complex and risky world, he reckons we need a different type of preparation. “We should be taught uncertainty,” he says. And that needn’t be so difficult. For Gigerenzer,