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.