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    Post: Proofiness

    Posted by Sharon on 8/02/10

    Proofiness: Using Numbers to Fool People and Shape
    Political Debate

    "It's just codifying nonsense in a way that makes people
    believe it,"


    Stephen Colbert coined the word "truthiness" for things we
    intuitively know are true, based on our gut, as opposed to
    facts. The term had its heyday during the Bush era when we
    fought a war "knowing" Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons.
    Now Charles Seife, who teaches journalism at New York
    University, is coming out with a book, "Proofiness: The
    Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception." It demonstrates in
    compelling and often amusing detail how numbers, which are
    supposed to be the arbiters of truth, are routinely used to
    advance lies and undermine democracy.

    Seife reminds us how a single senator with an agenda,
    Joseph McCarthy, set off alarm bells when he claimed to
    have in his hand a list of 205 communists who had
    infiltrated the State Department. The number moved around
    in subsequent days from a high of 207 to a low of 57, and
    in the end McCarthy, testifying in hearings on Capitol Hill
    in March 1950, couldn't name a single communist working for
    the State Department.

    It didn't matter; the numbers gave the allegation
    credibility, making McCarthy's line about 205 communists
    one of the most effective political lies in American
    history. Seife uses the episode to introduce the reader to
    a variety of examples where numbers are used to confuse
    rather than enlighten, often with the goal of gaining
    political advantage. He looks at the ongoing battle over
    the census and conservatives' suspicion of sampling and
    databases, which he argues are more accurate but tend to
    increase minority representation, hence the Right's
    reluctance. He predicts lawsuits as soon as the 2010
    results are tabulated.

    Although Seife's political sympathies are on the left (as
    are mine), he zings Democrats, too, for their specious use
    of numbers. A favorite bit of ammo noted that for the first
    224 years of our history (1776-2000), 42 U.S. presidents
    borrowed a combined $1.01 trillion from foreign governments
    and financial institutions, according to the U.S. Treasury
    Department. In just four years (2001-2005), the Bush
    administration borrowed a staggering $1.05 trillion. The
    figures are all true, and yes, Bush was quite the deficit
    spender. But Seife points out that the comparison is
    meaningless because the dollar values are so different. The
    Louisiana Purchase cost $15 million, and Alaska was a
    bargain at half that.

    He notes that liberals get every bit as lathered up about
    guns as conservatives do about abortions, so they
    manufacture proofiness to try to get their way. He tells
    the story of a young historian who published a paper
    claiming that guns were rare in 18th- and 19th-century
    America, which if true had the potential to reframe the
    debate about gun ownership as a relatively modern
    invention. Anti-gun activists embraced the findings, only
    to discover they were based on dubious statistics gathered
    from archival documents.

    Political junkies will find Seife's chapter on "Electile
    Dysfunction" a good nuts-and-bolts examination of the
    Florida recount in 2000, and the Minnesota Senate race in

    He concludes that in the presidential race, the real result
    is one that neither side wanted to hear -- that it was a
    functional tie between George W. Bush and Al Gore, and who
    was ahead at any particular moment in the process depended
    on whatever imperfect measurement was being used.

    In the lengthy standoff between Al Franken and Norm
    Coleman, Seife documents how the two sides chose their
    arguments depending on where they saw the numerical
    advantage. "There are different levels of attempting to
    divine voter intent," he explained to me in a phone
    conversation. "You can spend hours staring at a dimpled
    chad, or you can say this is not a valid vote. Both sides
    have validity, and where you come down on the spectrum is
    wherever you gain advantage."

    There are plenty of fun examples and brain teasers in this
    highly readable book. A 2004 paper in the journal "Nature"
    analyzed athletes' Olympic performances in the 100-meter
    dash and found that male sprinters and female sprinters
    were getting faster. By charting each group's progress on a
    line, at some point the two lines would cross with women
    matching and then surpassing men around the year 2156.

    Women hadn't been racing competitively as long, and so
    their progress was greater. And if you kept stretching the
    lines, eventually women would be sprinting at about 60
    miles per hour, and in roughly the year 2600, they would
    break the sound barrier. Absurd, yes, but a computer
    simulation done by the team of experts added heft to the
    paper, concluding the "momentous" day when women beat men
    in the 100-meter dash could come as early as 2064 or as
    late as 2788. Don't hold your breath.

    Seife has been collecting proofiness examples for some
    time, and was on the track toward a doctorate in
    mathematics before getting sidetracked into journalism. He
    has fun debunking a mathematical equation professing to be
    serious research into the female derriere.

    "Callipygianness" (which is Greek for having shapely
    buttocks) = (S+C) x (B+F) / (T-V) where S is shape, C is
    circularity, B is bounciness, F is firmness, T is texture,
    and V is waist-to-hip ratio. The formula was devised by a
    team of academic psychologists.

    "It's just codifying nonsense in a way that makes people
    believe it," Seife said. "If someone came up to you and
    described the perfect derriere, you'd laugh him out of the
    bar, or wherever he is it's obviously subjective. But put
    on a white lab coat and give it an equation, and people
    believe it."

    For all you math buffs out there, in case you're wondering,
    Jennifer Lopez was the ideal.

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