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Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception

3.61 of 5 stars 3.61  ·  rating details  ·  933 ratings  ·  190 reviews
The bestselling author of Zero shows how mathematical misinformation pervades-and shapes-our daily lives.

According to MSNBC, having a child makes you stupid. You actually lose IQ points. Good Morning America has announced that natural blondes will be extinct within two hundred years. Pundits estimated that there were more than a million demonstrators at a tea party rally
Hardcover, 271 pages
Published September 23rd 2010 by Viking Adult
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FINAL REVIEW: October 23, 2010

"Proofiness" by Charles Seife is a well-intentioned book that suffers a definite crisis of identity. The jacket blurb and author's introduction promise a guided tour of the seamy underworld of statistical malpractice, that is, an account of the most common ways data are misrepresented or misinterpreted in the media, either through carelessness or because of a deliberate effort to mislead. Seife is not the first author to consider the issue of misleading data analysi
PROOFINESS. (2010). Charles Seife. *****.
This is a fascinating exposition on how numbers and their treatment can – and are – used to influence us in the consideration of ideas or arguments. We are treated to a variety of clever ploys used in the presentation of data that are used to confuse us. These include Potemkin numbers, disestimation, fruit packing (including cherry-picking), and regression analysis. On the way towards learning these techniques, I picked up some interesting tid-bits:
A for
Everybody wants to understand the world they live in, and we all rely on facts to help us do this. Unfortunately, what we identify as "facts" are too often not very reliable.

Sometimes data is displayed in a graph with the axes chosen in such a way that the representation is effectively magnified; this was also described in How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff. I've seen this same thing many times in my field of engineering, often from people who were not really aware that they were distor
It was a decent treatment of an extremely important subject -- mathematical and statistical literacy -- with some very disheartening case studies. Enjoyable read, except...

I would have given it three stars if not for the author's annoying decision to invent a cutesy vocabulary around the topic. The title was just the tip of that iceberg. Very distracting.
Andrew Skretvedt
Fun, entertaining, wince-inducing, and informative.

Pros: Increased awareness of the dominant ways numbers and statistics can be exploited/manipulated/colored to support statements which those same data do not actually support, or represent something as more meaningful than it really is.

Cons: I kept getting visions of Stephen Colbert, because Seife has this thing for coining terms. It got me irritated quickly (please stop trying to be a hipster?!). Surely there are proper terms for these concepts
This book ruined statistics for me. Which, even though it makes watching the news or reading magazines decidedly less fun, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But for such a (relatively) short read, Seife spent far too long explaining the basics and too little time going in-depth on the real-world implications of shoddy number-crunching. He could have used a read-through from someone more prone to sensation (even though part of his thesis is a condemnation of over-sensationalizing things). I think an ...more
RuthAlice Anderson
I would say this is my MUST READ of the year. It's a witty exploration of the many ways numbers mislead us. We are programmed to believe numbers. If someone tells you that x is faster than y, well, that could be debatable. But if they tell you that x is 3 times faster than y, we accept it. We even accept people telling us that this group of people is 2 times happier than that group when happiness is something we don't even know how to measure. A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down, b ...more
Having taken physics courses in high school and as an undergrad, I realized that I've been taking one aspect of numbers lightly: how easy it is to misunderstand what they stand for. Proofiness reads like an introduction to a global issue, bringing in specific cases and introducing jargon to identify each issue. (As a tip to Barney Stinson, some of the terms demonstrated the author's visiativity.) Most of these issues with the so-called "dark arts" have been stressed out of me by my education, so ...more
Did you know that there is a statistical basis for an unequivocal legal decision of how the Gore/Bush presidential election should have been decided? Have you ever heard a drug company or a politician or pundit make a claim involving numbers and had a nagging feeling that something wasn't quite right? Have you ever heard one of those claims and not really questioned it? People who want to make a points or reach a certain outcome use - and abuse - numbers all the time. In this entertaining, acces ...more
Mary Ronan Drew
A bizarre book. The early chapters are full of amusing and enlightening info about numbers, especially statistics and probability. But around the middle of the book the author goes off on a liberal screed. In one section not more than two pages go by for an entire chapter where he doesn't call Justice Antonin Scalia every nasty name he can dredge up. Too bad. We all need to know more about numbers and the author has the knack of explaining things mathematical and arithmetical. A good book ruined ...more
Jan 16, 2015 Andrew rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Those who are cynical about the world
Shelves: 2015-goals, math-fun
I confess, I tend to be rather Pythagorean when I am describing the importance of mathematics. I admit, that this is not an entirely accurate description of the world. When we attempt to quantify philosophy and emotional states (or even what makes for the most perfect body type), we are abusing mathematics.
The irony is that, while many people are math-phobic, we still trust anything that has a number attached to it.

This book is horrifying in that points out the results of trusting numbers impl
Jenny GB
Well, now we're all depressed. This book details the ways that governments, businesses, and journalists manipulate numbers to make them do or say what they want. This controls our behavior, disenfranchises people, and creates injustice of many kinds. I already knew most of these ways numbers are manipulated, but it's a valuable book for those that have not heard it before. I think in particular this should be one we have high school students read before we send them out into the world to work or ...more
Charles Seife is on a mission to remove from us our bias toward the proofiness of numbers.

It's more insidious than just whacky advertising claims, when you get into things like beauty advice, natural health remedies or scientific claims. Consider also that quite a few journalists and pollsters can't tell you what a margin of error is, but that doesn't stop them from using it. Same with expert witnesses, lawyers and politicians.

I think the evils of proofiness are probably exaggerated in the socia
Engaging, fascinating examples of how polls and statistics can both mislead us and be made to confuse us.
Sep 19, 2010 Hazel marked it as worth-considering
Recommended to Hazel by: NYTimes
You know what Charles Seife suggests that we do when an election is very close, like the razor-thin and highly controversial Bush-Gore voting results in 2000?

Flip a coin.

Proofiness demonstrates that there often comes a time when numbers subtract from our overall knowledge of a subject, rather than add. And when you are trying to parse eight-digit election results down to the last three digits, you've probably reached that point.

This is particularly true for what Seife calls "Potemkin numbers," w
I'm not really sure for whom Seife wrote this book. The majority of people who like math and/or statistics will already be very aware of most of the statistical concepts that Seife introduces in his book: significant digits, the importance of looking closely at how axes are labelled, appropriate population sampling and correlation vs. causation. And the people who don't like math won't voluntarily read a book on math. So that leaves...I don't know: people who like math but are bad at it? Middle- ...more
Jan Morrison
Now I know how bad a book has to be before I'll give it a 1.

Chapter 1
It's witty and interesting: a good 'hook' you might say. I realized pretty quickly that both the math and the epistemology are more appropriate for a high school student than a university educated adult. Being a high school teacher, though, I thought I'd keep reading and look for ways to incorporate the ideas into my classes. My students have to read a lot of business media so I thought I'd have them look for examples of each t
I have to say that the title does not really match the content. On the other hand I did like this book a lot. This is one of the few books I have read, which does not contain any obvious factual errors. It is nicely written and with well formed arguments. It is also one of the few books from which I actually learned a lot. It contains very interesting analysis of polls, surveys, election voting etc. The best part is, that reading this books seems like reading a crime novel. Big plus for the auth ...more
Proofiness: The Dark Art of Mathematical Deception by Charles Seife examines the misuse of data and statistics in today's world. The book divides the concept of proofiness into a number of categories such as disestimation and fruit-packing. Although few of the examples will be surprising, the book does a nice job providing the "big picture" of this disturbing topic.[return][return]Seife defines proofiness as "the art of using bogus mathematical arguments to prove something that you know in your ...more
Scarlett Sims
The basic premise of this one is how numbers and statistics are manipulated by the political establishment for their own gain, and how the public is manipulated as a result of that. It was quite a compelling read. What I particularly liked was Seife's non-partisan view. He described examples of both the left and right using numbers to skew thing toward their side.

Seife details several ways in which numbers are used to deceive or warp the truth and gives some information of things to beware of.
Overall, I enoyed this book. It is a great look at how people and corporations lie (or conceal the whole truth) with numbers on a daily basis. Seife's book is written to be understandable by the reasonably intelligent lay person -- you don't need to be a total math geek to get what he's talking about. I particularly liked how Seife called pretty much the entire U.S. government onto the carpet for lying: Republicans, Democrats, even the Supreme Court (which was scary for me).

There were only two d
Tiffoknee the 3rd Conner
This was a fun book. Seriously, how many books do you know which contain a formula for the perfect butt? I am not kidding. It's in the book! This is not a book for serious mathematicians and scientists (though the author has a solid background in both), rather, it's a worthwhile examination of the many ways numbers are used to "prove" things in everyday life. Think of any of the recent "studies" you hear about on the news and then ask how much more likely are you to believe those stories if they ...more
Chris Aldrich
He doesn't prove that mathematics is essential for a democracy, but he certainly shows how the lack of proper use of mathematics can fray heavily at the edges!

This was a great book to have read over a long Fourth of July holiday. Though many people may realize some of the broad general concepts in the book it's great to have a better structure for talking about things like Potemkin numbers, disestimation, fruit packing, cherry picking, apple polishing, comparing apples to oranges, causuistry, ra
Richard Sansing
Decent summary of the usual topics: Part "how to lie with statistics", part a discussion of how to calculate and interpret poll results with a given "margin of error", part a discussion of systematic error (with a case study of Literary Gazette's projection of Landon over Roosevelt in 1936). Good discussion of measurement error in counting ballots, with a focus on the Florida recount in 2000 and the Minnesota Senate race in 2008. Makes a compelling case that the "true" difference in each race wa ...more
Jeff Kissel
A quick read that will lead you to doubt the truth of pretty much everything besides numbers themselves. An interesting book if you like social economics topics like Predictably Irrational et al, but coming from a different angle.

Seife discusses different ways that data and numbers are misused and misinterpreted, either intentionally or not, and the severity of their impacts. He seems particularly focused on the ills of the current American democracy (and probably with good reason), but it lead
Certainly an thought provoking subject. The author does write in an easy to read way and the explanations of the different types of "proofiness" are for the most part understandable and clear. The author's use of neologisms is at times amusing (randumbness) and at times cringe-worthy (causuistry). My objections are at the rather journalistic preference for witty one worded style over clarity of concept. This is particularly obvious when he defines causuistry as a subset of causistry which just m ...more
Chris Witt
Drags a little bit in the final chapter or two, but still an important (and entertaining) read. People hear statistics and take them as Gospel all the time without questioning them. Seife's book explains why most statistics and polls you hear are pretty much completely bogus.

In the end, the author posits that the only way to prevent people from being hoodwinked and manipulated by the statistics they here is through greater mathematical sophistication. Which is all well and good, but I guess I'm
This title of this book is a play on Stephen Colbert's concept of "truthiness." The author defines proofiness as manipulating numbers to prove something that you know in your gut to be true. Numbers are generally associated with factual information, so it is an easy way to promote an agenda. It was an interesting premise, but I was really disappointed in how it panned out.

The first half of the book was not very interesting or ground-breaking. The author gives real life examples of how numbers ha
***Dave Hill
A lighter-weight-than-it-should-be look at how the inappropriate (or downright deceitful) use of numbers and statistics (lies, damn lies, and ...) not only hurts us individually, but hurts our society. Pollsters, pundits, politicians, judges, and journalists all get raked over the coals for either inept use of math, numbers, and stats, or for using them selectively and dishonestly to attain their goals.

That's all good, and generally helpful, even if the end result is more popular than penetratin
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CHARLES SEIFE is a Professor of Journalism at New York University. Formerly a journalist with Science magazine, has also written for New Scientist, Scientific American, The Economist, Science, Wired UK, The Sciences, and numerous other publications. He is the author of Zero: The Biography Of A Dangerous Idea, which won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction. He holds an M.S. in mathemat ...more
More about Charles Seife...
Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea Decoding the Universe: How the New Science of Information Is Explaining Everything in the Cosmos, from Our Brains to Black Holes Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking Alpha and Omega: The Search for the Beginning and End of the Universe Virtual Unreality: Just Because the Internet Told You, How Do You Know It's True?

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“There are many ways to generate numerical falsehoods from data, many ways to create proofiness from even valid meaurements. Causuistry distorts the relationships between two sets of numbers. Randumbness creates patterns where none are to be found. Regression to the moon disguises nonsense in mathematical-looking lines or equations or formulae, making even the silliest ideas seem respectable. Such as the one described by this formula:
Where S is shape, C is circularity, B is bounciness, F ir firmness, T is texture, and V is waist-to-hip ratio. This formula was devised by a team of academic psychologists after many hours of serious research into the female derriere. Yes, indeed. This is supposed to be the formula for the perfect butt.

It fact, it's merely a formula for a perfect ass”
“Just as it's important to take the changing value of a dollar into account when comparing spending over time, it's important to take doctors' changing diagnoses into account when looking at disease trends” 1 likes
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