As our society becomes ever-more data-driven, I am increasingly interested in reading books such as Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception. I want to know how numbers, algorithms, data, and mathematics are being used (or abused) to make decisions, mount arguments, and influence the course of civilization. Sound lofty? Good. Charles Seife’s incisive and interesting writing brings this topic to life. With clear, topical examples, he shows us how misunderstanding or misplaced faith in numbers and measurements can lead to us making decisions on false pretenses.
Seife begins by examining what we mean when we throw around big numbers, such as “sixty-five million years” as the age of a dinosaur fossil. He defines disestimation, a fallacy whereby we assume something is more accurate if it is more precise. Seife wants to establish from the outset that there are limitations to our ability to measure the real world, and that not being aware of these limitations is where a lot of people go wrong, even if they have no intention of misleading or misrepresenting. From there, Proofiness veers more into political territory. With occasional glances at advertising copy, Seife smoothly discusses problems with polling, vote-counting, etc., with examples from such high-profile events as the disputed election of Al Franken in Minnesota or Bush v. Gore in Florida, 2000.
For a popular math book, there isn’t that much actual math in here (which I suspect most readers will consider a good thing). There’s some basic statistics and probability, nothing you haven’t seen before in high school, and then a little more intense discussion relegated to the appendices. Seife’s explanation how an “average” change in something like, say, salaries or taxes, can be very misleading is very appropriate for contemporary readers in an age where American politicians are trying to pass tax reform that only helps the wealthy.
Speaking of relevance, parts of Proofiness do feel a little aged seven years on. Seife pulls from such events as the Vietnam War and OJ Simpson’s murder trial. This is the double-edged sword of trying to teach these concepts with real-world examples. I’d love to see an update to this book where he talks about the more recent presidential elections, or the Brexit referendum, etc. The subject matter here is still so relevant!
As a mathematician, I can’t say I learned a lot from this book; it felt very familiar. But most of Seife’s explanations are lucid and lovely. I appreciate how he points out that both the left and right are guilty of proofiness—this is not a matter of political ideology but of desire for political power through any means necessary. For a lay reader, this book will probably be a welcome primer that doesn’t overstay its welcome but will leave you wanting to learn more.