Book review: The Lady Tasting Tea

The full title here is The Lady Tasting Tea: How Statistics Revolutionized Science in the Twentieth Century. This book by David Salsburg is pretty much what the title suggests: part history of the rise of statistical methods in scientific research and part biography about the people responsible for it. This probably isn’t a book for anyone not already versed in inferential statistics and related subjects. It won’t, for example, teach you much about statistics, so you’ll be pretty lost or at best unimpressed by most of the stories and adulations the book contains. I would have appreciated a bit more exposition and explanation, but for those of us with a background in stats, it keeps things at a sufficiently high level so that we’re not forced to pull out our old textbooks just to know what’s going on.

And it’s pretty interesting stuff. While Salsburg lacks (or at least holds in reserve) the panache and wit necessary to make this a really entertaining read, he does give glimpses into both the absurdity and mundanity of scientific process in this area. I was amused to learn, for example, that many august statistical techniques like analysis of variance were created so that someone could figure out how much artifical cow poop to spread over an acre of farm land. The book also tracks some of the more interesting personalities in the field, relating tales about how William Gossett created a now common and relatively simple procedure known as “Student’s t-test” while working for a beer brewery (Guiness, no less) whose strict policies about sharing research forced him to publish under the (perhaps unimaginative) psudonym “Student.” And then there were the cat fights and irrational, career-long grudges that these men and women slung around at each other. Though not quite on the level of say Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, this book does a decent job of layering those pedestrial and alltogether human eccentricities over the enormity of the scientific accomplishments they created.

So while not exactly light reading and not for the uninitiated, it’s a pretty interesting read.

Further reading: The Child Eating Cheese.

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2 thoughts on “Book review: The Lady Tasting Tea

  1. I loved this book. I particularly liked the names of some of the chapters, which represented the personalities of some of the greatest mathematical minds of the past 100 years. I also liked the practicality of the material. As you mentioned, most of the statistical techniques were created because people were just trying to figure shit out. Plus, how many times have you come across or used the KR-20 method but didn’t know anything about the Russian dude who created it. This book is actually on my to-be-read-again list this year. To end, I would have to say Pearson was a dick, and Fisher (although socially inept) was way ahead of his time. I have read some more about current statisticians talking how they are still trying to figure some of his work out.

  2. Yeah, wasn’t Pearson a complete jackass given what was in this book? Especially to Fisher. It’s not the first time I’ve read about that kind of thing, either. Some scientists just form grudges and rivalries and take them to almost pathological extremes.

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