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Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception Hardcover – September 23, 2010

3.8 out of 5 stars 65 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Following in the footsteps of John Allen Paulos (Innumeracy, 1989) and Michael Shermer (Why People Believe Weird Things, 1997), Seife conducts a thorough investigation into why so many of us find it so easy to believe things that are patently ridiculous. Why, for example, does anyone take seriously the idea that some vaccines can cause autism, or that athletes who wear red have a competitive advantage? It’s all comes down to numbers, the author argues, and the ways they can be used to make people believe things that are not true. He introduces us to the concepts of Potemkin numbers (deliberately deceptive statistics), “disestimation” (turning a number into a falsehood by taking it too literally), fruit-packing (a variety of deceptive techniques including cherry-picking data and comparing apples to oranges), and “randumbness” (finding causality in random events). He explores the many ways we misunderstand simple mathematical terms—confusing average, for example, with typical—and our natural tendency to treat numbers as truth and to see patterns where none exist. Despite its serious and frequently complex subject, the book is written in a light, often humorous tone (the title is a riff on Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness,” although proofiness has been in circulation for a while, with a variety of meanings). A delightful and remarkably revealing book that should be required reading for . . . well, for everyone. --David Pitt


"A delightful and remarkably revealing book that should be required reading for . . . well, for everyone."
-Booklist (Starred review)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; 1 edition (September 23, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670022160
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670022168
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.7 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (65 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #540,037 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By David M. Giltinan on October 24, 2010
Format: Hardcover
One of the benefits of retiring from my career as a statistician is that I no longer feel it's my personal responsibility to alert friends and colleagues to the myriad ways they are being misled or deceived by the kind of abominably poor summarization of data that's pretty much the norm these days. It's just as well - who wants to be *that guy*, the crank at the table who people start to inch away from surreptitiously, avoiding eye contact all the while?

Not that I endorse misleading or deceptive data presentation - far from it. Now more than ever, as we all struggle to make sense of the avalanche of information that constantly assails us, the capacity for critical, intelligent interpretation is vital. So it's important to be able to see through the most prevalent fallacies in data interpretation, not to mention data presentation strategies deliberately intended to mislead. This latest book by Charles Seife has the laudable goal of educating the reader about some of the most common types of statistical malpractice out there, continuing a tradition established by such authors as Darrell Huff ("How to Lie With Statistics"), John Paulos ("Innumeracy"), Edward Tufte, or the authors of last year's highly successful "The Numbers Game" (Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot).

Unfortunately, though "Proofiness" is a well-intentioned book, it suffers from a fundamental crisis of identity. There is a major gap between what "Proofiness" promises and what Seife actually delivers. The first hundred pages cover roughly what one might expect: graphical deception by use of misleading labels or scales, comparison of apples and oranges (e.g.
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Format: Hardcover
In Proofiness, science journalist and NYU journalism professor Charles Seife decries the tactic of using numbers to lie. Not just using numbers to bolster one's argument. But, in his words, to use fake numbers to prove falsehoods. To use bogus mathematical arguments to prove something that we know in our heart is true - even when it's not.

Seife does not just condemn proofiness as a mistake in logic. He thinks that numbers have a mystical power. That phony numbers have the appearance of absolute truth, of pure objective fact. So we can, and do, wrongly use them to prejudice people.

Proofiness, Seife believes, is the raw material that arms partisans to fight off the assault of knowledge. To clothe irrationality in the garb of the rational and the scientific. So, he says, proofiness is a dark art of deception.

That makes, Seife believes, proofiness one of the biggest problems we face. He says our society is awash in proofiness. Using a few powerful techniques, thousands of people are crafting mathematical falsehoods to get us to swallow untruths. In fact, proofiness is destroying our democracy by deception.

Seife makes some good arguments. And Proofiness is well-written and provokes thought. But does he show that proofiness is a danger to democracy? That proofiness is at the root of many of the problems we face today? In my opinion, not hardly. On this point, Proofiness needs a little more proof.

Take the example that Seife uses to lead off the book. In February 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy said in a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia that: "I have here in my hand a list of 205 . . .
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I think I was expecting something more in the spirit of "How to Lie with Statistics", the small 1954 book by Darrell Huff. In other words, I was hoping to find some techniques to improve critical thinking and show how mathematics can be used both to deceive or to uncover fraud. Generally the book focuses on the former. In the process, it glosses over the concept of margins of error in polls, without explaining standard deviations, confidence intervals, or how the margin of error might depend on the results of the poll.

The invention of cute new terms like Potemkin numbers, disestimation, and causuistry was rather awkward. The confusion of casuistry and causuistry was rather perplexing. It would have been more appropriate to discuss Granger Causality tests for example. Perhaps some discussion of techniques for improving polling results for sensitive questions like those presented in Daniel Corstange's article, "Sensitive Questions, Truthful Answers", which recently won the Warren Miller Prize awarded by one of the top Political Science journals, would have been useful.
I often felt as though I was being subjected to a passionate speech to the crowd, urging us to "nuke" all the numbers. Emotional appeals are at least as suspect as those adorned with numbers.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the author's book "Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea", "Proofiness" left much to be desired.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is just my 30,000ft view having completed the book last night and I don't want to get into a point-by-point review. Although the product description puts it in the same realm as Freakonomics and the Gladwell books, don't expect it to live up that comparison. I wouldn't say I'm any better prepared to recognize/counter deceptions of the mathematical variety having read the book. It seems like a handful of situations or anecdotes formed the idea for the book, but it just didn't seem to cover the topic enough (granted I bought the book wanting to learn more about the topic, but even not knowing what I don't know about the subject, there must be more to it). Additionally, if it were concisely written, it'd probably be about a 100 page book; I felt like every paragraph or topic was stretched to fill space. For example, nearly a third of the book covered the "election" topic including chapters regarding Bush's 2000 win and the recent Franken/Coleman battle. Lot's of space used, but little in the form of "mathematical deception"--more like a short history/commentary of the debacle(s). Got it, it was a farce, move on.
A couple good definitions in the front portion (Potemkin numbers, disestimation) were sprinkled into later sections to attempt to give common threads, but again, was expecting a few more deception tactics/techniques/examples to surface and be analyzed in later chapters.
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