SOAS University of London

Department of History

Using Numbers

Module Code:
Unit value:
Year of study:
Year 1
Taught in:
Term 2

The contemporary world is awash in numbers, but many of us remain cautious in using them, if not actively scared. What does it mean to be literate in such a world? How can we learn to think with and about numbers in making decisions? How can we marshal the power of numbers in argument? This course aims to help you do this, strengthening your ability to reason with numbers. It is not a mathematics course and we will not spend our time in mathematical calculation. We will encounter some very basic statistical concepts, but most of our discussion will focus on how numbers are used in everyday life. By the end, you will be able to think more clearly, reason more sharply, and argue more effectively about the numbers that surround us—and even to enjoy yourself as you do so.


  • This Module is capped at 15 places.
  • Students  enrol via the on-line Module Sign-Up system. Students are advised of the timing of this process via email by the Faculty Office

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

At the end of the course, students will:

  1. Demonstrate an appreciation of the potential and limits of quantitative analysis, namely: that many social regularities and patterns are only visible to quantitative analysis; but that data is constructed, and so subject to manipulation and error.
  2. Understand basic statistical concepts, including: sample and population; a variable and its distribution; proportions and percentages; central tendencies and variability; correlation and regression; probability and risk; statistical inference.
  3. Critique the use of quantitative data in public discourse.
  4. Use quantitative data in constructing their own arguments.

Scope and syllabus

1. Introduction: the power of numbers, the problem of innumeracy
2. Summarizing numbers with integrity
3. Using numbers in argument
4. Presenting numbers in graphics
5. Basic probability and statistics 1: samples and surveys
6. Basic probability and statistics 2: inference and intuition
7. Basic probability and statistics 3: correlation and regression
8. Presentations
9. The social nature of numbers
10. The responsible use of numbers in an innumerate society

Method of assessment

  • Essay - 500 words worth 10%
  • 2 x Peer Review - 2 x 250 Words worth 10%
  • Critical Analysis of Op-ed- 750 words worth 20%
  • Public Service Report - 1,000 words worth 40%
  • Public Service Seminar presentation - worth 10%
  • Presentation - worth 10%

Suggested reading

Students will be required / recommended to buy:

  • Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot. The Tiger that Isn't: Seeing Through a World of Numbers. 2008 (req)
  • Edward Tufte. Visual and Statistical Thinking: Displays of Evidence for Making Decisions. 1997 (req)
  • Jane Miller. The Chicago Guide to Writing About Numbers. 2nd ed., 2015 (rec)

 Many useful materials and tools for the course are freely available online, eg:


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules