Tue October 26, 2010
Uncovering the Various and Widespread "Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception" (as Practiced throughout Contemporary Culture)
By Rich Fisher
Tulsa, Oklahoma – On today's edition of StudioTulsa, we're speaking with science journalist and NYU journalism professor Charles Seife, whose new book is "Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception." There's a famous quote --- attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, Mark Twain, and others --- about how there are really only three kinds of lies that one can tell: lies, damn lies, and statistics. "Proofiness" is both an exploration and expose of that third kind --- although Seife's book concerns not just false or misleading statistics but, in fact, all manner of number-manipulation and mathematical distortion. Here's more about this book, as culled from a starred review that ran in Booklist: "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."