Thursday, March 31, 2011


Years ago I my dad had a book laying around the house called How to Lie with Statistics. The book took the form of a how-to book. The entire premise being that people don’t really understand statistics or even math very well so it presented some tongue in cheek suggestions on how to spin your numbers to say something that they don’t really. The book was intended to be used as a defensive tool to teach the readers how to notice when somebody else is lying to them with numbers.

If How to Lie with Statistics was the 101 course then Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception by Charles Seife is the masters level course. If you are uncomfortable with uncertainty you might want to avoid this book. Seife successfully shows that many of the numbers that control our lives are at best gross estimations and at worst deliberate fictions. Instead of saying "Hey there are a bunch of Communists in the Justice Department.” Joseph McCarthy knew that we would give more credence to a number so he made one up, 205. Where did he get that number? He just made it up. And people bought it. Seife shows that people tend to believe numbers even if there is no reasonable expectation that the number is even correct. This reminds me of the story of the surveyors who were measuring Mount Everest and found out that it was exactly 29,000’. The supervisors in charge altered the data because 29,000’ looked like and estimate so they added a few feet to the mountain and called it 29,029’.

Seife shows how pervasive our trust of numbers are in everyday life. Most people accept that 98.6F is the normal temperature for a human. Is this number really accurate to one decimal point? No it isn’t. The doctors who determined the average normal temperature for humans only claimed it was accurate to the decimal point in Celsius and even then it could vary by person. 37C is the normal temperature, but when you convert that to Fahrenheit you get a number that appears more accurate than the number you started with. The real average temperature for humans is somewhere between 36C and 38C or 97F to 100F but we really can’t be more accurate than that. Yet how many times have you assumed that you had a fever at 99.0F? Not to say you weren’t really sick, but you don’t need the artificially accurate number to tell you that. This is Proofiness.

Seife explains case by case how proofiness has been used to free the guilt; O.J. Simpson, execute the innocent, elect Presidents and Congressmen, justify military action, justify backing out of arms treaties, support just about every type of legislation on both sides of the aisle on issues ranging form abortion to gun control etc. etc. etc. The abuses of math in our society were very disheartening. Personally I think Seife had his own bias as to which side of the aisle was more guilty of proofiness than the other. That being said he was just as thorough in his rebuke of the right as he was the left.

Many parts of the book were quite depressing. The specific cases, especially those were lives were lost seriously caused me to question the motives of some of our elected official. However, overall I thought the book was an excellent primer on what to look for and what follow up questions to ask when you are given information, especially information that involves counting , math and statistics.

The whole time I was reading this book I keep thinking about this one joke. 5/4th of American’s have problems with fractions. Seife has convinced me that this number may even be higher.

1 comment:

  1. I wish we spent more time on stats and big numbers in schools. Then we might not have ever gone into Iraq or had the economic downturn we're in if people had realized what the numbers meant up front.