Reading Room

“Proofiness–the art of using bogus mathematical arguments to prove something that you know in your heart is true — even when it’s not.” Charles Seife

ProofinessProofiness
The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception
by Charles Seife

Charles Seife’s latest book Proofiness is a good and entertaining way to revisit important concepts about how to weigh supposed “proof” of complex issues. But I have to admit– I think the thing I may like the best about Seife’s new book is the title.

Although he never says so directly, the book’s title alludes to “truthiness” – the Word of the Year in 2005, according to the American Dialect Society, which defined it as “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.”

The term was popularized by Stephen Colbert in the first episode of “The Colbert Report.” The numerical cousin of truthiness is proofiness: “the art of using bogus mathematical arguments to prove something that you know in your heart is true — even when it’s not.”

Seife, a veteran science writer who teaches journalism at New York University, examines the many ways that people fudge with numbers, sometimes just to sell more moisturizer but also to ruin our economy, rig our elections, convict the innocent and undercount the needy. Many of his stories would be funny if they weren’t so infuriating.

But most important are the underlying mathematical issues that these stories educate the reader about including:

— Falsifying numbers

— Comparing apples with oranges

— Cherry-picking data

— Apple polishing (giving technically correct, but deliberately misleading, numbers.)

— Potemkin numbers (phony statistics based on wrong or nonexistent calculations.)

— Disestimation (giving too much meaning to a measurement, and not qualifying it enough.)

Although many of these concepts are familiar to me, the book was a terrific read and an even better civics lesson.

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