cover image Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception

Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception

Charles Seife, Viking, $25.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-670-02216-8

Science journalist Seife (Zero) borrows the title of his book from comedian Stephen Colbert's well-known term "truthiness." Seife defines proofiness as "the art of using bogus mathematical arguments to prove something that you know in your heart is true—even when it's not." He presents a rogue's gallery of shady figures: Potemkin numbers, or fabricated statistics, such as that a million people attended a rally when the real number is much smaller; disestimation, which means taking estimated numbers too literally, such as census results; and fruit packing, and in particular cherry picking, in which people ignore data that doesn't support their point of view. A central chapter analyzes the 2008 Minnesota U.S. Senate race and how the candidates manipulated the vote recount in a complex game of one-upmanship. Seife skewers much of the polling that is conducted continuously nowadays as well as the media's use of the numbers polls spit out. In an important chapter he dissects the justice system's often cynical misuse of data to obtain convictions. Seife presents the material in his typically outspoken style, producing a quick and enjoyable text for his wide base of readers. (Sept.)