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Playing With Numbers

Yesterday at the Building Learning Communities conference, one of the speakers offered up an interesting statistic.

75% of college graduates never read another book in their lifetime.



That’s an incredible statement, although it must be true since he put it on a slide projected on a big screen in front of nearly a thousand people.

Anyway, it’s also the kind of number that just didn’t sit well with my crap detector.

A little bit of Googling turned up similar statements (like the one in this collection of book stats) with different (smaller) numbers.

And the speaker did qualify his statement with something about that 75% including people who started reading books but never completed them.

Still, three quarters of the college educated population not reading even one book after graduation strikes me as awfully high.

Did the researchers include audio books? Books parents read to their kids? Graphic novels?*

As with the results of so many polls, surveys, and studies, you really can’t understand the results without knowing the source and the method used to assemble the numbers.

However, we have a large part of the population in the US (and possibly elsewhere in the world) who often accept the statistical numbers handed to them almost daily as fact.

Unless, of course, they come into major conflict with their own beliefs. And even then, they don’t question the numbers as much as they outright reject them.

Wherever the 75% number came from (and I have no doubt some pollster somewhere did get it), it’s just one more example of why we need to do a better job of teaching students to understand probability and statistics before they become adults.

After all, they need to know that 67% percent of all statistics are simply made up. Right? :-)

[The picture is of some books from my bookshelf. And yes I’ve read them all since college. Well… except for Harry Potter #7.]

*Don’t laugh, some of them have very complex stories!


  1. Clairvoy

    75% of all social survey statistics are 80% wrong, 4 out of 5 times.

  2. Louise Maine

    Nice post. We must be equally perturbed about things as I just blogged about adults needing more critical thinking than the students do. I am tired of the rejecting without thinking mentality as well as the accepting anything read as gospel mentality. A previous post landed me in a questioning of my blog. Can’t wait to see if they object to my last one. Forget all the other math, it is time to start looking at statistics. By the way, I thought it was only 49% of statistics were made up on the spot. In the words of Adam Savage, “I reject your hypothesis and substitute it with my own!” One question, when the statistic was put up on the powerpoint, did those at the conference nod their heads like bobblehead dolls?

  3. Jennifer Borgioli

    So glad you followed up on this. I’ve heard that they said the number of invented statistics is closer to 93% but you know how often “they” get it wrong!

    I was among a group of educators last week and someone shared the statement (it may have been @angelastockman) “imagine how different our world would be if, instead of working toward algebra as the highest level of mathematics in public schools, statistics were the final outcome.” It struck me as a fantastic idea for all of those reason you mentioned above. We (education, public, and media) get very sloppy with language when it comes to statistics and it would be fantastic to have a population that is more stats-savvy.

  4. Tim

    Louise: there was an audible gasp in the hall when the speaker presented that slide, followed by a few seconds of chatter. I got the idea that many people questioned the stat, but possibly not enough. :-)

    Thanks for reminding me of the Adam Savage quote. One of my favorites.

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