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Proofiness: Using Numbers to Fool People and Shape Political Debate

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Stephen Colbert coined the word "truthiness" for things we intuitively know are true, based on our gut, as opposed to facts. The term had its heyday during the Bush era when we fought a war "knowing" Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons. Now Charles Seife, who teaches journalism at New York University, is coming out with a book, "Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception." It demonstrates in compelling and often amusing detail how numbers, which are supposed to be the arbiters of truth, are routinely used to advance lies and undermine democracy.

Seife reminds us how a single senator with an agenda, Joseph McCarthy, set off alarm bells when he claimed to have in his hand a list of 205 communists who had infiltrated the State Department. The number moved around in subsequent days from a high of 207 to a low of 57, and in the end McCarthy, testifying in hearings on Capitol Hill in March 1950, couldn't name a single communist working for the State Department.

It didn't matter; the numbers gave the allegation credibility, making McCarthy's line about 205 communists one of the most effective political lies in American history. Seife uses the episode to introduce the reader to a variety of examples where numbers are used to confuse rather than enlighten, often with the goal of gaining political advantage. He looks at the ongoing battle over the census and conservatives' suspicion of sampling and databases, which he argues are more accurate but tend to increase minority representation, hence the Right's reluctance. He predicts lawsuits as soon as the 2010 results are tabulated.

Although Seife's political sympathies are on the left (as are mine), he zings Democrats, too, for their specious use of numbers. A favorite bit of ammo noted that for the first 224 years of our history (1776-2000), 42 U.S. presidents borrowed a combined $1.01 trillion from foreign governments and financial institutions, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. In just four years (2001-2005), the Bush administration borrowed a staggering $1.05 trillion. The figures are all true, and yes, Bush was quite the deficit spender. But Seife points out that the comparison is meaningless because the dollar values are so different. The Louisiana Purchase cost $15 million, and Alaska was a bargain at half that.

He notes that liberals get every bit as lathered up about guns as conservatives do about abortions, so they manufacture proofiness to try to get their way. He tells the story of a young historian who published a paper claiming that guns were rare in 18th- and 19th-century America, which if true had the potential to reframe the debate about gun ownership as a relatively modern invention. Anti-gun activists embraced the findings, only to discover they were based on dubious statistics gathered from archival documents.

Political junkies will find Seife's chapter on "Electile Dysfunction" a good nuts-and-bolts examination of the Florida recount in 2000, and the Minnesota Senate race in 2008.

He concludes that in the presidential race, the real result is one that neither side wanted to hear -- that it was a functional tie between George W. Bush and Al Gore, and who was ahead at any particular moment in the process depended on whatever imperfect measurement was being used.

In the lengthy standoff between Al Franken and Norm Coleman, Seife documents how the two sides chose their arguments depending on where they saw the numerical advantage. "There are different levels of attempting to divine voter intent," he explained to me in a phone conversation. "You can spend hours staring at a dimpled chad, or you can say this is not a valid vote. Both sides have validity, and where you come down on the spectrum is wherever you gain advantage."

There are plenty of fun examples and brain teasers in this highly readable book. A 2004 paper in the journal "Nature" analyzed athletes' Olympic performances in the 100-meter dash and found that male sprinters and female sprinters were getting faster. By charting each group's progress on a line, at some point the two lines would cross – with women matching and then surpassing men around the year 2156.

Women hadn't been racing competitively as long, and so their progress was greater. And if you kept stretching the lines, eventually women would be sprinting at about 60 miles per hour, and in roughly the year 2600, they would break the sound barrier. Absurd, yes, but a computer simulation done by the team of experts added heft to the paper, concluding the "momentous" day when women beat men in the 100-meter dash could come as early as 2064 or as late as 2788. Don't hold your breath.

Seife has been collecting proofiness examples for some time, and was on the track toward a doctorate in mathematics before getting sidetracked into journalism. He has fun debunking a mathematical equation professing to be serious research into the female derriere.

"Callipygianness" (which is Greek for having shapely buttocks) = (S+C) x (B+F) / (T-V) where S is shape, C is circularity, B is bounciness, F is firmness, T is texture, and V is waist-to-hip ratio. The formula was devised by a team of academic psychologists.

"It's just codifying nonsense in a way that makes people believe it," Seife said. "If someone came up to you and described the perfect derriere, you'd laugh him out of the bar, or wherever he is – it's obviously subjective. But put on a white lab coat and give it an equation, and people believe it."

For all you math buffs out there, in case you're wondering, Jennifer Lopez was the ideal.

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This is a "truthy" article. It is an article of faith on the Left that Joe McCarthy lied. McCarthy never claimed to have a list of 205 Communists. He claimed to have--and had--a list of 205 persons who were security risks in the State Department, people who should not have received the security clearances they received.

The 57 were people with ties to the Communist Party--not necessarily members. And McCarthy said as much, on both occasions. But it is almost a religious cause to discredit, and to continue to discredit, McCarthy. McCarthy's great error was to go public in such a sensational way with information that was accurate but which was based on sources that the FBI was not prepared to compromise.

In 1995, the Venona files were declassified and released. They showed the information on which McCarthy had relied. The FBI had been intercepting the communications of the KGB for several years, and McCarthy knew the names of a number of persons who were either wittingly or unwittingly serving the Soviet Union.

From Alger Hiss to Annie Lee Moss, the list of persons who were exposed as Communists or working for the Communists was stunningly accurate.

Ms. Clift has unwittingly proven the underlying thesis of the article in a manner not intended.

August 03 2010 at 3:46 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Eleanor Clift has long been leaning over the edge of the Radical Left. She lost me as soon as she wrote:

He looks at the ongoing battle over the census and conservatives' suspicion of sampling and databases, which he argues are more accurate but tend to increase minority representation, hence the Right's reluctance.

The Right has no problem with ethnic minorities. That is the lie of the Leftist Progressives who DO have a problem with them - and keep them on welfare, suffering through little or no real education, and do their best to break up their homes by paying mothers not to have husbands.

Eleanore, go to the theological place of eternal punishment. You will find Infanticide Obama and Baby Killer Hillary there too.

August 03 2010 at 3:25 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

You don't need a crystal ball to figure out which side of the aisle most of the commentors fall on. If you are arguing with someone and they start throwing stats at you, be immediately suspicious. It means they have no facts to hit you with. No one uses stats that undercut their position and 'numbers' can be pulled from almost anywhere to support or put down almost any position. Look at the illegal immigration issue. The public has been pumped so full of outdated and misleading info about the numbers of actual illegals here and the true impact of unchecked "immigration" that almost no one understands what is really happening. Choosing which stats to use and which ones to avoid is far more important than any factual information.

August 02 2010 at 9:38 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

back in the mid-1950s, a guy named darrell huff wrote a book called "how to lie with statistics." and everyone has been doing it ever since - of course they were doing it before as well, just that no one noticed.

August 02 2010 at 9:10 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply

I have a small paperback called "How To Lie With Statistics", which I bought back in the 70s while in a college probability & statistics class. Media treatment of presidential candidate John Anderson is a good example. A major "timely" news magazine used face-on images of horses in the Kentucky Derby to indicate the relative popularity of Carter, Reagan, & Anderson. The distortion came in using a 2-dimensional image for each, when the measure of popularity was in one dimension only - height of the racing horse. So, Carter & Reagan appeared to have massive leads over Anderson, which, when one looked at the plain percentages, was not so. I canceled my subscription to that mag the next week.

August 02 2010 at 8:55 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

This article is full of inaccuracies. We didn't invade Iraq on "truthiness;" all the internal reports Saddam was receiving were telling him he had a deadly WMD arsenal ready to go, because his subordinates feared punishment and lied about it. McCarthy did come up with names, although not always on demand, and persistent historical inquiry has revealed that many of them did in fact have links to Communism (although his misuse of this information for his own political gain is not forgivable).

August 02 2010 at 8:45 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
Hello Richard

This is in response to ettu comment :"However, if you divide the actual dollar amount by the number of government workers, you will find that the average pay and benefits per government worker far outpaces that of the private sector." This simply refects the fact that the private sector pay and benifits hasn't been keeping pace. Private sector pay and benifits has been flat and in some cases has declined when compaired to 30 years ago. government workers pay seems higher because it has kept pace with cost of living and inflation over that same time period.

August 02 2010 at 4:09 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

ettu...As a former Civil Servant (health care) some things you should be aware of...I worked in a field where 7 out of 10 people didn't stay for the probation period of 1 year. My salary was $2,700 under the Federal poverty limit for a family of 4, and as a result most civil servants are required to work a second job to reach the "Average" salary you speak off. The pension I "Earned" as part of a package was to offset the paltry wages paid for a job very few wanted. Now the economy is where the GOP wants it to be with all the good paying jobs and benefits shipped overseas. The people of America are being forced to work for minimum wages and no benefits. In a good economy no one cared to work as a Civil Servant. Ironic, don't you think. The bad guys are those who served??? Similarly our Military has always been used then abused by the system they too serve. Please do your homework before drinking the kool aid.

August 02 2010 at 10:18 AM Report abuse -17 rate up rate down Reply

Yes, numbers can decieve, especially when they are presented as a percentage. Take, for instance, the percentage always given for those living below the poverty level. The African American population always are shown as having the greatest "percentage" of poor, simply because their 9 million poor are a greater percentage of their total population. However, if you take a head count, you will find there are 23 million whites living below poverty level, compared to the 9 million of blacks. The same with the pay, pensions, and benefits of government workers. As a percentage of GDP, this number looks minimal. However, if you divide the actual dollar amount by the number of government workers, you will find that the average pay and benefits per government worker far outpaces that of the private sector. Does anyone feel like they are getting bang for their tax dollars? Not me.

August 02 2010 at 9:01 AM Report abuse +23 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ettu's comment

waste does not come from the lowly paid workers, it comes from the highly paid managers ( The Good Ole Boys). They are just like the entrenched politicians. Here in Fl, it's the old Republican faithful who hold most of the big paying gov. jobs. And when they feel threatened they lie to keep their jobs. Accountability is the only way we are going to change things. That way the cream rises to the top instead of the crud.

August 02 2010 at 2:58 PM Report abuse -7 rate up rate down Reply

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