Thursday, November 11, 2010

Recommendation: Proofiness by Charles Seife

I recently finished Charles Seife's book, Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception.  In it, he discusses how politicians, pundits, and pollsters use numbers and statistics to construct an alternate reality and convince us that they are right.  I had never read a math book before, but this kept me interested the entire time.  He describes the various methods of proofiness and provides ample examples of statistics gone wrong.  We automatically accept facts accompanied with a number.  We all know that math provides the basis for understanding nature, but blind acceptance of numbers lets us fall pray to those that would lie using statistics.

For example, Glenn Beck said that a million people came to his Rally to Restore Honor (just as Louis Farakaun said about his less-than-Million Man March).  Beck created the number out of thin air, but the power of the number leads some people to believe it.  A few decades ago, Senator McCarthy picked a random number of Communists in the government that he knew to be false, but the preciseness of his number made it more believable.  We find fake correlations all the time which can sometimes cause real problems- like the anti-vax campaign.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of his book comes from the impact on democracy.  We just had a mid-term election- but election results are deeply flawed.  The two most prominent examples are Bush and Gore in 2000 and Franken and Coleman in 2008.  Electoral blowouts are good.  When a candidate wins by a large margin, we can accept the results.  Unfortunately, like 11 races still this year, some elections are too close to call.  The final vote tabulation never truly depicts the will of the people.  Some votes get thrown out, some people fill out ballot wrong, and some write in weird names like Lizard People.  In all cases, elections are full of statistical errors.  Anything less that a 1 percent margin is suspect.  Yet we routinely let candidates and lawyers twist themselves into knots of paradoxes to eke out a 110-vote victory as flawed as it is.  

Similarly, we accept error-proned census data and poll numbers without thinking about them.  We are lazy.  We expect those doing the research to do the thinking for us and allow people to import their subconscious biases and even their hidden motives into their data.  All of these example affect American democracy.  We have a population attuned to accept numbers no matter how bad they are- on both sides of the aisle.  Just last week, Fox News reports that the President's trip to India cost $200 million a day which pundits and politicians accepted blindly and repeated to everyone who would listen.  Numbers have a hold on our brains and sometimes make us act silly. 

I strongly recommend Seife's book, Proofiness, to anyone and everyone.  Nine out of ten people rated the book with five stars.

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