New York University Skip to Content Skip to Search Skip to Navigation Skip to Sub Navigation

“Proofiness,” by NYU’s Seife, Reveals the Untruths in Numbers and How They Threaten Democracy

July 26, 2010
460

In Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception (Viking, Sept.), New York University’s Charles Seife shows how numbers can be a powerful rhetorical weapon, but warns that “in skillful hands, phony data, bogus statistics, and bad mathematics can make the most fanciful idea, the most outrageous falsehood seem true.”

Seife, a professor in NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, defines “proofiness” as the art of using pure mathemat­ics for impure ends.

“Phony numbers have the appearance of absolute truth, of pure objective fact, so we can use them as a justification to cling to our prejudices,” he writes. “Proofiness is the raw material that arms partisans to fight off the assault of knowledge, to clothe irrationality in the garb of the rational and the scientific.”

From Senator Joseph McCarthy’s claims of exact numbers of communists who had infiltrated the State Department to the misuse of census data to skew the formation of congressional districts to the application of a mathematical formula to falsely accuse the Soviet Union of violating the Threshold Test Ban Treaty in the 1980s, proofiness continues to erode democracy, Seife posits.

“Proofiness is toxic to a democracy, because numbers have a hold on us,” Seife maintains. “They are powerful—almost mystical. Because we think that numbers represent truth, it’s hard for us to imagine that a number can be made to lie. But proofiness is not merely a tool for propaganda as it was for McCarthy—it is much more dangerous than that. Democracy is a system of government based upon numbers, and rotten numbers are eroding the entire edifice from within.”

Reporters interested in speaking with Seife should contact James Devitt, NYU’s Office of Public Affairs, at 212.998.6808 or james.devitt@nyu.edu. For review copies, contact Yen Cheong at 212.366.2275 or Yen.Cheong@us.penguingroup.com.

Seife is also the author of Sun in a Bottle and Zero, which won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for first nonfiction book, and was named a New York Times “Notable Book”. His journalism has appeared in Science Magazine, New Scientist, Scientific American, The Economist, and Wired.

This Press Release is in the following Topics:
Research, Arts and Science, Faculty

Type: Press Release

Press Contact: James Devitt | (212) 998-6808

Seife's “Proofiness" Reveals the Untruths in Numbers and How They Threaten Democracy

In Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception, NYU Journalism Professor Charles Seife shows how numbers can be a powerful rhetorical weapon, but warns that “in skillful hands, phony data, bogus statistics, and bad mathematics can make the most fanciful idea, the most outrageous falsehood seem true.”


Search News



NYU In the News

CUSP Unveils its “Urban Observatory”

Crain’s New York Business profiled CUSP’s “Urban Observatory” that is continuously photographing lower Manhattan to gather scientific data.

Post-Sandy Upgrades at the Langone Medical Center

NY1 reported on the major post-Sandy upgrades and renovations made at the Medical Center to protect the hospital from future catastrophic storms.

Steinhardt Research Helps Solve Tough Speech Problems.

The Wall Street Journal reported on research at Steinhardt’s Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders, including an interview with Assistant Professor Tara McAllister Byun, that uses ultrasound to help solve tough speech problems.

Times Column Lauds Professor Stevenson’s New Memoir

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a column about “Just Mercy,” a new memoir by Law Professor Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, whom he noted has been called America’s Nelson Mandela.

Entrepreneurship Lab Opens at NYU

Crain’s New York Business covered the opening of the Mark and Debra Leslie Entrepreneurial eLab, which will be the headquarters for NYU’s Entrepreneurial Institute and all of the University’s programs aimed at promoting innovation and startups.

NYU Footer