A new book explores the deceptive power of numbers
BY Steven Cherry // Wed, October 06, 2010
Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum's "This Week in Technology." Did you know that there's a formula to calculate happiness?
Happiness is P + 5E + 3H where P is personal characteristics, E is existence, meaning your health, and H is higher order needs. There's a way to attach a number to almost everything, it seems. Here's how to calculate the most miserable day of the year, which turns out to be January 24th, by the way:
1/8 W + 3/8 D - d x TQM x NA , where W is weather, D is debt, M is motivation, and NA is the Need to take Action.
As mathematics filters out from engineering and science to become more and more important to everyday life, unfortunately, all too often, it's merely the appearance of mathematical soundness that people covet. The result? Numbers without substance. And they're everywhere, and they've become the particular bugaboo of my guest today. Charles Seife is a professor of journalism at New York University and a rather prolific science writer of books and articles. His writings have appeared in The Economist, Science, New Scientist, and The New York Times, and as of September 23, he's now the author of five books on those subjects. His newest is called Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception.
Charles, welcome to the podcast.
Charles Seife: Thanks for having me.
Steven Cherry: Charles, by my own calculations, you cannot swing a dead cat without a 94.7 percent chance of hitting a meaningless number, and that's up 6.5 percent from 10 years ago. Tell us about "proofiness," and those ever darker arts of mathematical deception.
Charles Seife: And about 74 percent of people believe the statistics you just gave. The problem with numbers is that they seem to have a higher truth associated with them. In pure math, numbers are as close to absolute truth as we can get. A mathematical proof brooks no argument. It is true, given certain assumptions. Real world numbers don't have that purity. Whenever we humans generate a number, whenever we make a measurement, whenever we count, whenever we estimate something, we create a number that has flaws, because they reflect the flaws of our measurement. Even though people think of numbers as pure, flawed numbers don't have that absolute truth. So we tend to think of numbers as being better than they actually are.