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The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception

A-ProofinessCharles Seife is a science journalist and former mathematician who teaches at New York University. His previous books include Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea (2000).

The Topic: In our divided society, the certainty of mathematics would seem to provide some common ground. But as anyone paying attention to politics can attest, the use of numbers is not an objective science: they can be manipulated to bolster the case for a candidate before and after (and, in 2000, long after) Election Day. Charles Seife, who has had enough of this mathematical manipulation, defines "proofiness" as "the art of using bogus mathematical arguments to prove something you know in your heart is true--even when it's not.'' His book is a guide to the many ways numbers are distorted in American life, not just by politicians but by many others who seek to deceive us. In the end, he claims, "proofiness" is more than "mere rhetoric; our democracy may well rise or fall by the numbers."
Viking. 298 pages. $25.95 ISBN: 9780670022168

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"Proofiness will tell you why your body temperature isn't really 98.6 degrees, why you shouldn't gamble and why not to automatically believe a mayor with good news about educational-testing scores. More significantly, it will help you navigate the maze of deception that politicians, marketers and others carefully weave using numbers." Alexandra Witze

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Seife ... examines the many ways that people fudge with numbers, sometimes just to sell more moisturizer but also to ruin our economy, rig our elections, convict the innocent and undercount the needy. ... This is more than a math book; it's an eye-opening civics lesson." Steven Strogatz

Philadelphia Inquirer 4 of 5 Stars
"Seife's coinages, humor, and curious tidbits keep readers engaged as the book gradually moves from a description of techniques to their practical application. ... Although he does not hide his own left-leaning views (with a particular animus toward Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia), Seife details the use of proofiness across the political spectrum, including techniques such as preying on the public's [randomness], gerrymandering, deliberate distortion of facts, and delivering propaganda laced with [casuistry] and fruit packing." Fred Bortz

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Disposing of arithmetical mistakes, misjudgments and misunderstandings is, like trash removal, a never-ending job. Seife performs it cogently and entertainingly without resorting to arcane mathematics." John Allen Paulos

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"Seife makes a game effort to expose mathematical deceptions by liberals as well as conservatives, but you can tell his heart's not in it. He could easily have devoted more space to shady math popular on the left. ... Seife's book is an admirable salvo against quantitative bamboozlement by the media and the government." Jordan Ellenberg

Critical Summary

Critics were particularly impressed by the way Seife presented complex mathematical concepts without seeming condescending, overbearing, or dull. He accomplishes this through accessible examples and a humorous style. His examples of false "proofiness" are memorable because he ties them to clever coinages like "electile dysfunction." A few reviewers found Seife to be a little too clever for his own good and wished he would have included more mathematical content instead of humorous neologisms and anecdotes. Others accused him of visiting mathematical trickery more from the political right than the left. But on the whole, reviewers found Proofiness to be an accessible, enjoyable, and educational read.