Reviews of “Proofiness,” by Charles Seife

I recently finished reading Proofiness, written by Charles Seife, science writer and journalism professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, and it’s excellent. There are a number of glowing reviews out there (see Stephen Strogatz in the New York Times, John Allen Paulos in the Washington Post, Alexandra Witze in Science News, Kaiser Fung, and at the NPR site), and a brief excerpt is here.

For me, one of the biggest “aha” moments was reading about the true winner in the Gore-Bush II presidential election of 2000 (the one with the very controversial and hotly disputed Florida vote), and the Franken-Coleman senate race in 2008. Seife does an excellent job of discussing the many issues surrounding the vote (the hanging chads, the disenfranchised African-American voters, the long and surreal legal battle in Franken-Coleman, and related crookedness), but the key mathematical one (which I had not seen discussed before) is to apply the concept of measurement accuracy and precision to elections. When counting a large number of ballots, it is inevitable that counting mistakes will be made, which makes the final results uncertain. When the difference between the number of votes for the two leading candidates is smaller than the uncertainty in the measured number of votes, then the election ought to be declared a draw, and tie-breaking rules should be in place to deal with such situations (coin toss, or some other method).

The highest praise for the book might be this phrase from Strogatz’s review:

But “Proofiness” reveals the truly corrosive effects on a society awash in numerical mendacity. This is more than a math book; it’s an eye-opening civics lesson.

Some reviewers have complained that too much of the book focusses on politics and polling, but that didn’t bother me because these are two fields particularly prone to mathematical misuse, and one ought to understand such misuses as part of civic duty.

It’s also worth pointing out that Seife misquotes Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and his use of Gore as an example of cherry-picking is invalid, as explained here. Nevertheless, Seife’s book is well worth reading, can be read successfully by someone without special mathematics knowledge, and would be valuable to anyone who wishes to increase their understanding of how mathematics is misused in public discourse.


About Santo D'Agostino

I have taught mathematics and physics since the mid 1980s. I have also been a textbook writer/editor since then. Currently I am working independently on a number of writing and education projects while teaching physics at my local university. I love math and physics, and love teaching and writing about them. My blog also discusses education, science, environment, etc. Further resources, and online tutoring, can be found at my other site
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