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Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception

3.64  ·  Rating Details ·  1,217 Ratings  ·  215 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 rall
Hardcover, 271 pages
Published September 23rd 2010 by Viking
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Oct 05, 2010 David rated it it was ok
Shelves: read-in-2010
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
Sep 19, 2010 Jim rated it really liked it
In which it is noted the statistic that the average male has slept with seven women in his lifetime and and the average women has slept with four men in her lifetime.
Andrew Skretvedt
Jan 19, 2011 Andrew Skretvedt rated it really liked it
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
Sep 13, 2013 Bill rated it it was ok
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.
Oct 06, 2011 Ann rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
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
Adrian Fridge
Jan 07, 2015 Adrian Fridge rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
Slightly outdated but still very, very enlightening.

If you want to learn about the ways people twist math and statistics to meet their agendas, then there's a whole lot of good stuff in here. Stuff like the 2000 American presidential election or several of the cases Supreme Justice Scalia (now deceased) was a part of.

I enjoyed the parts about statistical error versus systemic error, as in when the news media say their polls are within a 3% margin of error, they're talking about statistics. This
Jenny GB
Jan 03, 2015 Jenny GB rated it liked it
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
Pamela Huxtable
Jun 26, 2011 Pamela Huxtable rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This was an extraordinary exposé of the deceptive nature of the numbers that inform us. Polls, advertising, the census, the judicial system - no one is exempt from the problems inherent in proofiness.

Seife does an excellent job of keeping his terminology light and humorous. This is a welcome addition to a book that otherwise might be a depressing and overwhelming indictment of our political and juducial systems. The concepts are complicated, the stakes are high, and Seife communicates it all wit
B.J. Marshall
Apr 16, 2017 B.J. Marshall rated it did not like it
Terrible book. The author is biased and makes nonsensical value judgments about the same misrepresentation of math being worse when applied to one side versus the other. For instance, claims that any proof exonerating an accused person is "sacred." Howls about miscalculation that indicates felony convictions are only wrong 0.027% of the time when his estimate is 5% of the time. As if a 95% success rate isn't pretty good.

Moreover, on the technical side, he seems not to understand the difference b
Tonstant Weader
Nov 03, 2010 Tonstant Weader rated it it was amazing
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
Aug 12, 2015 Sarahj33 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science, math
There's a dangerous truth that every marketer and pundit instinctively knows, but that public often forgets - we will believe anything if there's a number attached to it. In Proofiness, Charles Seife is on a crusade to educate the world and stem the rising tide of mathematical malfeasance. With clarity, wit, and just the right amount of outrage, Proofiness is a fascinating and appalling look at how numbers are used and abused in our society.

I personally found this book engrossing, and I think i
Jul 02, 2014 Bob rated it really liked it
Shelves: math-engineering
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
May 21, 2014 Becca rated it it was ok
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
William Schram
Feb 11, 2015 William Schram rated it it was amazing
A marvelous account of how people use numbers to their advantage. With a bit of hand-waving and mumbo-jumbo, you can use numerical data to prove almost anything you want. Bend numbers to your will like Humpty Dumpty with words and you can do some sinister things. The author splits this book into eight chapters with each one explaining how 'Proofiness' is ruining that particular area of inquiry.

The main idea is that humans are bad with numbers. Rather than calculating risk and such things, we are
Sep 08, 2010 Aimee rated it really liked it
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
May 25, 2011 Anisound rated it liked it
Shelves: mathematics
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
Richard Sansing
Dec 12, 2013 Richard Sansing rated it liked it
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
Jan 16, 2012 Kira rated it it was ok
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
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
Oct 12, 2014 Tony rated it it was amazing
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
Mary Ronan Drew
Nov 24, 2010 Mary Ronan Drew rated it it was ok
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
Sep 26, 2010 Turi rated it really liked it
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
Mar 17, 2017 Liz rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2017
I knew studies could be funded to create "proof" of anything you like, but I never realized how often numbers are twisted, manipulated, cherry-picked, or pulled out of thin air in order to support propaganda. If I wasn't cynical before...this book destroyed any faith I had in the American political system and media. And it's not as if I had a whole lot of faith to start with in those things, but reading this was truly eye-opening. The author did a good job overall of being non-partisan so that r ...more
Ryan Miller
Mar 01, 2017 Ryan Miller rated it liked it
Entertaining look at how mathematics and statistics can, have and will be used to confuse, obfuscate and misrepresent for a variety of reasons.
Brett Thomasson
May 01, 2015 Brett Thomasson rated it it was ok
When his show premiered in 2005, comedian Stephen Colbert put the word "truthiness" into the English language as a description of something that sounds like it should be true but isn't. It's often used today when talking about how to state something so that it sounds like it is true, even if the speaker is uncertain or may even know it is likely false.

In 2010, mathematician and science writer Charles Seife used the same concept to title his book on misleading uses of math Proofiness, holding tha
Jan 09, 2012 Valerie rated it liked it
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
Sep 22, 2014 Jkhickel rated it really liked it
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
John Meo
May 02, 2015 John Meo rated it liked it
Even for one who isn't interested in mathematics, this book is perfectly understandable and probably should be read. After all, the problems that the book brings up are intertwined with everything we do. The math is not complex at all, and contains concepts that anyone can understand. However, the importance of the ideas make it a book everyone should read -- media and statistics are thrown at us on a daily basis and many are utterly bogus. We must have the capacity to distinguish between fact a ...more
Stephanie Fosnight regester
Jun 18, 2015 Stephanie Fosnight regester rated it it was amazing
Near the end of this meaty, thoughtful, provocative book, Seife writes, "The quest for knowledge is a quest for novelty, a search for a new set of data or a new idea that forces us to look at the world in a slightly different way than we did before. Knowledge-gathering is systematic demolition and reconstruction of our view of the world. It can be an unsettling and uncomfortable process."

Indeed. Reading Proofiness is an unsettling and uncomfortable process, as Seife gives compelling, mathematica
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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
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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” 2 likes
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