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Book Review: Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception by Charles Seife

Review by Alexandra Witze

By
12:49pm, September 24, 2010
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The 2000 U.S. presidential election should have been decided by a coin flip.

Or so argues Seife, a mathematician-turned-journalist who tackles some of society’s biggest math problems in his new book. The race between George W. Bush and Al Gore was, mathematically speaking, too close to call. So, Seife suggests, instead of counting chads, the contested state of Florida should have relied on an age-old procedure for breaking a tie: drawing lots.

Seife is somewhat obsessed with the flaws in the country’s electoral system, but he makes an eloquent case that all citizens should be so concerned. What he dubs “proofiness” — the manipulation of mathematics for untrue ends — permeates modern culture.

He gives plenty of examples. One flawed study suggests that women who have had an abortion have a 30 percent increased risk of breast cancer. Another argues that tobacco is a gateway to harder drug use. Statisticians can spend all day eviscerating the math behind these studies, but proofiness nonetheless trickles deep into social policy.

Even mathphobes will appreciate Seife’s clear explanations of why polls are so flawed and how risks are routinely exaggerated to justify a particular decision. Seife is trying to do the admirable and the impossible — educate the public so people can understand when they are being manipulated by bogus numbers. If only those doing the manipulation would believe that the public is too smart to be duped.

Viking, 2010, 295 p., $25.95.

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