Posted by Sharon on 8/02/10
Proofiness: Using Numbers to Fool People and Shape
"It's just codifying nonsense in a way that makes people
THIS DESCRIBES THE ACOEM MOLD STATEMENT TOXICITY SECTION
THAT THE US CHAMBER USES "Proofiness"
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
For all you math buffs out there, in case you're wondering,
Jennifer Lopez was the ideal.
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