- Paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Books; 1 edition (September 27, 2011)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0143120077
- ISBN-13: 978-0143120070
- Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.7 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 72 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #269,392 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Proofiness: How You're Being Fooled by the Numbers 1st Edition
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"A delightful and remarkably revealing book that should be required reading for . . . well, for everyone."
-Booklist (Starred review)
About the Author
Charles Seife is the author of five previous books, including Proofiness and Zero, which won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for first nonfiction and was a New York Times notable book. He has written for a wide variety of publications, including The New York Times, Wired, New Scientist, Science, Scientific American, and The Economist. He is a professor of journalism at New York University and lives in New York City.
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Seife starts with a startling (but obvious) piece of psychology: when someone quotes an exact number - and Sen. Joe McCarthy's bogus "205 communists" comes to mind - they must have exact knowledge. That actually comes from a positive part of the human mind, the part that wants to trust in others and to have the most knowledgeable people making important decisions. It banishes all the uncertainty and subjectivity that make life so threatening, contentious, and combative. It gives the comfort and strength of knowing The Truth. But, of course, it doesn't. Instead, it gives "proofiness," the numerical species of "truthiness."
So, what does it mean when a mascara gives eyelashes "twelve times more impact"? Or when a "million man march" had 400K attendees, by best Park Service estimates? (BTW, Farrakhan demanded his million even if he'd get it in court, so he sued and stopped the Park Service from estimating crowd sizes for a decade.) If you've already read this far, you already know how some product can "cost 200% less than the competitor," even if they don't pay you to take it away from them. So, let's get to the most destructive kinds of cases.
The Bush/Gore fiasco figures heavily, as does the Franken/Coleman inanity of nearly a decade later. The basic problem in both cases was simple: when you count up a few million of anything, your answer has inherent uncertainty. You miss a few, you double-count a few, a few show up so mangled that you're not sure what you're looking at, and next time you count a few more have shown up or vanished. Even when you put all the best available resources into a good-faith effort, your numbers will jitter, and will jitter differently when you count again. When counting tens of millions of votes, a difference of few hundred either way is exactly a tie, to within the resolving power of flawed human mechanisms. Any interested reader can pursue the debacle that ensued, a veritable festival of political bullying, good-buddy and family favor-gathering, party politics, and base ignorance proclaimed from the highest levels.
Bad math has entered the courts, too. Take the OJ entertainment, for example. The defense lawyer said that although OJ was a convicted abuser, only 1 in 1000 abusers ever kill anyone. That makes him 99.9% innocent, right, or something like that? Dershowitz's proofiness skipped over the fact that only one in (I forget exact numbers) 50,000 are murderers, so abusers have a 50:1 higher chance than anyone else of being murderers. But, when an abused woman is murdered, it's about 1:1 odds that her abuser killed her. That's a 50% chance of guilt even before the forensic evidence shows up, not 0.1%.
Proofiness goes beyond celebrity trials where bags of money argue guilt and innocence against other bags of money. It infiltrates the Supreme Court of the U.S., the agency that daily defines what is legal or not under our Constitution. Seife recounts the number-based reasoning that underlies major precedents, and exposes the plain and simple defects of reason that justify them. He even starts in on the reasoning that condemns Americans to death within their own legal system, and finds the same defective reasoning not only entrenched, but defended against any potential challenge, a triumph of righteousness over rationality that I find terrifying.
Although this book involves arithmetic, most fifth-graders will understand the numerical principles involved. Seife's appeals to the reasoning adult, however, and leaves me wondering just how few those people might be. Argument by isolated example can only appeal to feelings, not to real understanding of the larger landscape, and Seife argues by dismal and gut-wrenching example. He does not argue against himself, however. Instead, he mobilizes the thinking reader to truly think, to understand our complex world in some valid way. He documents a bizarre and very public society in which numbers are enslaved to the most degrading and brutal of tasks. Then he calls on us all to make numbers our own again, to given them their rightful place among our honest and trusted advisors.
Things this book does well:
1) it takes the aphorism "lies, damn lies and statistics" and enriches it with contemporary examples.
2) it offers explanations of things like the mortgage crisis and census practices that are great launching pads for further discussion and more reading.
3) it presents a relevance angle on the study of mathematics that will be particularly appealing to students in non-math centered fields. Too often, students' math phobia is encouraged by teachers and professors in humanistic fields who seem to hold math-ignorance as a virtue. Seife's book brings home how such math-ignorance leaves people susceptible to manipulation and disenfranchisement in ways that might catch the attention of someone who thinks math is only for the finance and pre-med majors.
Things this book does less well but can still be used to prompt more inquiry:
1) demystify mathematics - while Seife's examples and arguments are easy enough to follow (he's a clear writer), I'm less sold that someone having read his book could work through the same logic when confronted with a number. The appendices help, but how many readers realistically will look at the appendices?
2) encourage more math study - I think Seife's emphasis on the deceptive possibilities of math might leave some readers throwing up their hands and deciding all math is evil. Even though Seife ends with the message that the solution to proofiness is more math education, I'm not sure every reader will get to that message.
One thing this book doesn't do nearly as well as I hoped is sort out which kinds of questions lend themselves to quantitative analysis and which ones can be approached with qualitative analysis. Seife discusses the problem of subjective questions (like rating pain on a scale of 1-10 or converting happiness to a number scale), but there's a hint of "if it can't be mathematically determined, we should give up researching it" that I take issue with.
The nice thing about using this as a teaching text is that I have a chance to supplement it. I can use the examples provided to introduce scholarly articles on the same topics, and since students will have a big picture idea of what they are looking at, they'll be more able to make sense of what they're reading, even with the issue of technical language and jargon. I can also reinforce the value and need for math education, and I can present them with qualitative methods and make it clear to them when a qualitative approach is preferable to a quantitative approach. Hence, I think that "Proofiness" will be a very useful book and I'm glad to have read it.
Seife defines proofiness as "the art of using bogus mathematical arguments to prove something that you know in your heart is true - even when it's not" (p. 4). He notes that proofiness is powerful because people are blind to the fact that every measurement is uncertain and impure in some respect.
Although the book contains many references to the use of proofiness in politics, he picks on both liberal and conservative groups to make his points. He uses examples from well-known scholarly journals as well as as advertising campaigns to show that proofiness is everywhere.
I'd recommend this book to anyone who wants to review the "dark art of mathematical deception" or enjoys a good book focusing on issues related to the application of mathematics in the "real world". If you like this book, there are many others that explore deception found in other content areas such as science and map making.
Most recent customer reviews
Must read for people interested in media communication through numbers.