Charles Seife's new book, Proofiness, a look at the intersection of math and society, shows how mathematical misinformation pervades—and shapes—our daily lives. Below is my interview with Charles.
Jill Dearman: What first inspired you to write Proofiness?
Charles Seife: Part of what got me into journalism in the first place was that I saw how poorly journalists cover stories with numbers in them. For example, when I was finishing up college, I saw a big article in the New York Times—based upon research that was published in Nature—about how female marathoners were going to be running faster than male marathoners by the year 1998. To the mathematically inclined, even a quick look at the data would show that the study was nonsense; the equations predicted that within a few centuries, women would be running fast enough to break the sound barrier. (And then, a few years later, they'd outpace the speed of light and begin traveling backwards in time.) Even though it was ridiculous, the study got a lot of press attention; no journalist seemed willing—or able—to call BS on even the most absurd idea once it was expressed as an equation or a graph. So, for decades, I've spent a lot of time thinking about why—and how—people are snowed by numerical nonsense. Proofiness is the result.
JD: Between idea and publication do you think the culture has gotten even more over-saturated and brainwashed by sketchy statistics?
CS: Absolutely. The use of bogus statistics in the media is increasing by 23% each year. (And 8% of the readers of this blog entry will believe that last statistic!) Seriously, I think our culture puts a premium on information presented as numbers, yet we are increasingly incapable of understanding statistics—or noticing when numbers aren't truthful. As a result, proofiness is on the rise. Once you recognize the signs of proofiness, you'll see it everywhere. More importantly, you'll start seeing the manufacturers of proofiness maneuvering behind the scenes. For example, just in the few months since the book was finished, a polling firm got caught (allegedly) making up numbers, a researcher who (allegedly) falsified data published a high-profile research book, and the British and Canadian governments have altered their censuses in ways that will make them significantly less accurate. All of these events are symptoms of our difficulty telling truth from falsehood when it's presented in quantitative form.
JD: Your section on "Randumbness" in relation to gambling made me want to go to Vegas and bet it all! So sure am I, I can find the pattern :-) Could you expound upon "Randumbness" for our readers?
CS: Randumbness is a peculiar consequence of our brains misfiring. Part of what makes human beings so successful,what helps us survive in the wild, is our ability to spot patterns. The faster our brains recognized important patterns—that shellfish makes us sick, that a certain rustling of branches is caused by a big animal hiding in the bush, that a peculiar color to the sky heralds a dangerous storm on its way—the more likely we were to survive. Because of this, our minds are primed to find patterns, to find hidden causes behind seemingly-random events. The downside to our spectacular pattern-matching ability is that we go overboard, seeing patterns even when they're not there. We convince ourselves that plane crashes happen in threes, that hemlines can foretell whether it'll be a good year or a bad year on Wall Street, and that the winner of a football game determines who will win the next presidential election. This is randumbness: our predilection to see patterns when there are none there to be found, our inability to accept that some things are truly random.
The city of Las Vegas is founded on exploiting this weakness. If you go into a casino, you'll see randumbness in action. There's always a guy who's gambling because he thinks he's on a winning streak. His brain has found a false pattern that implies he's going to keep winning, so he plays on. On the other hand, there's always some poor sap who's had a turn of bad luck. His brain tells him he sees a different pattern: since he's been losing for a while, it must mean that his luck is about to turn around... so he plays on. In both cases, the player's brain thinks that there's a pattern to be exploited, a reason that it's wise to keep playing, but that pattern is nothing more than an illusion. The likelihood of winning has nothing to do with whether you're on a winning streak or a losing one—it's completely random. Indeed, when I teach probability to my students, this is the one that's hardest for them to grasp; even when they get it on an intellectual level, randumbness keeps pulling them back into seeing patterns where none exist.
JD: Your first book, "Zero" took us way back in time to the genesis of "Zero". When did YOU first develop your fascination with mathematics?
CS: It took hold late in high school. I had a really good physics teacher, and she showed us how you can use mathematics to begin to understand the inner workings of the universe. When I went to college, I started off in physics and then migrated to math. There was something about the beauty and the purity of the crystalline world of mathematics that drew me in. Of course, that purity is gone the moment numbers encounter the real world—and that's an important theme of Proofiness. Part of the reason that numerical nonsense is so powerful is that we're trained to think of numbers as pure and objective. That may be true in the abstract realm of mathematics, but the everyday numbers we encounter are anything but. They're created by humans, and they can acquire our flaws, our biases, and even our falsehoods.
JD: What are you working on next, and what are you reading these days?
CS: It's still in a very early phase, but right now I'm hoping to write a sequel of sorts to Proofiness—broadening the subject a bit to look at scientific falsehoods as well as mathematical ones. As a result, I'm reading a lot of nonfiction right now. (For example, I'm about to start David Michaels's Doubt is their Product about the tobacco industry—and, even more interesting, I've been poking through court records and archived documents that detail tobacco-industry science.) And, since I have a one-year-old daughter, I just finished my two-thousandth reading of Dr. Seuss' Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now!
For more on Charles check out his site: www.charlesseife.com.
For more on the craft of writing please check out my book Bang the Keys
Until next week, I leave you with this question: as a nonfiction writer or journalist have you ever been duped by shoddy stats?
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