Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception

Eleanor Clift in Politics Daily:

Proof 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.

More here.