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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.