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Proofiness – A quick review

January 18, 2014

One of the more interesting Christmas presents I received this year is the book Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception by Charles Seife my wife bought me. I must admit that I have not read the entire book but I am progressing slowly through it’s eight chapters.

In Chapter One ,Phony Facts, Phony Figures, Seife introduces an idea I had not thought much about, the idea that “there are numbers and there are numbers” (p. 9). Another words there are the “pure” numbers that are the domain of mathematicians and there are those that are meaningless without a unit attached. Indeed he notes that for most of us “A number without a unit is ethereal and abstract” (p.9). He expands this idea by noting that any number that is not pure has a degree of uncertainty attached to it. Following this argument he attests that many things we try to quantify has a large degree of uncertainty in the measurement. Some of the examples include intelligence scores, pain or happyness. I have found his arguments in this regard persuasive as I can relate from my personal experience. After all what I would consider a 9 out of 10 for pain may hardly register for someone else.

Have you ever noticed that there are somethings that sit outside of your awareness but when your attention is drawn to them you can not escape them any more. Proofiness introduced me to the concept of Potemkin Numbers. In short a Potemkin number is a “fabricated statistic.” Examples of Potemkin numbers highlighted in the book include intelligence scores (p. 12), the impact of eye lashes (p. 14), the impact of smoothness or coolness (p. 15) and the number of people at the “Million Man March” (p. 16). At one point he even notes the formula for happiness reported by the BBC in 2003 which seems to be

Happiness = P + (5 x E) + (3 x H) where
P = Personal Characteristics
E = Existence
H = Higher Order Needs (p.65)

I think most would agree the variable of happiness must all take on dubious measurements in themselves to be quantified.

I had never really thought about before but now when I see an advertisement which states “95% cleaner” or “52% clearer” I have to question where the numbers come from. Indeed now-a-days we seem to be bombarded by statistics many of which may or may not be measurable. Now that you have read this I expect that you will also notice these “made up numbers” more often as I have, at least 42% of the time.

In later chapters, Seife discusses the validity of polls and the history of polling which was also very interesting. If you are a math or social studies teacher and have not read about the 2008 election results in Minnesota chapter 5, Electile Dysfunction is for you. Who knew that counting could be so inaccurate.

These examples are just a few of the gems I have found in this book and overall I would consider the book worth the investment of time. After all it will make you 14% smarter.

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