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January 1, 2011

Facts and Truths

Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception
by Charles Seife, Penguin Group, 2010

We've all heard people take the same set of numbers and use them to tell different stories. Revenues are down (bad news) but we'll be more profitable (good news), for instance. Al Gore won the presidential election; no he didn't. The reason for that is that numbers are measurements—length, volume, time, amount—and measurements are cre­ated by human beings who are flawed. Therefore, measurements are flawed as well. Even two yardsticks might differ by a tiny bit, so how long is a yard?

But we trust numbers. If you read a headline that says 82% of first graders can't tie their own shoes, you tend to believe it without really thinking that it's probably not true. The mere pres­ence of a number, and not a round number, makes it sound irrefutable. Or, as Charles Seife writes in this fas­cinating book, “78% of all statistics are made up on the spot.” And then in the footnote, “and 36% of readers will actually believe that statistic.”

Seife, the author of four other books including the equally fascinating “Zero,” takes math and science and makes them more than interesting. He uncovers what's behind them to illuminate social phenomena in a unique way.

Proofiness is “the art of using bogus mathematical arguments to prove something that you know in your heart is true—even when it's not.” Seife goes through the Minnesota senatorial election in which the write-in candi­date “lizard people” almost stole votes from Al Franken, through the McCarthy years, toxic assets, hanging chads and myriad studies that prove absolutely nothing. His often hilarious book has an extremely serious message: “proofiness is toxic to democracy.” This rang very true as I listened to the litany of attack ads in the recent national election. The message there was, essentially, the other guy's a liar and I've got the numbers to prove it.

 

True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society
by Farhad Manjoo, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2008

Another book on the subject of what is real, Farhad Manjoo's “True Enough” is not as good as “Proofiness.” The author, a technology blogger on Salon.com, has one point to make—too thin to carry a whole book—and seems to have an ax to grind. He portrays people who massage the facts to create a desired reality as extremist nut jobs when we know that completely sane, respectable people do it too. He spends entirely too long (two full chapters) examining the Swift Boat Veterans' successful sinking of the John Kerry presidential campaign.

But he does make one good point. The atomization of media brought on by Web 2.0 and its ability to make us all publishers allows us to actually recre­ate the facts. We now live in a “trillion-channel universe,” he writes, a “Rashomon world, where the very idea of objective reality is under attack.”

 

The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention
by William Rosen, Random House, 2010

William Rosen, a former book editor and pub­lisher, would be an entertaining dinner companion: widely read, calmly erudite, articulate, accessible. You would go home having greatly enjoyed yourself and then wonder if there had been a point he had run out of time to make. Such is the case with his most recent book, which sets out to show how the inventiveness that went behind harnessing steam was the cause of the Industrial Revolution.

He wanders through English patent law under Queen Elizabeth (the first one), through the sixth century Rule of Saint Benedict, through the accounting practices of 19th century Cornish mines, through textile mills, Sir Isaac Newton and a lot else. Every now and then he claims that all these roads lead to Rocket, the steam locomotive built in 1829. A giant hulk of a thing now housed in London's Science Museum, Rocket exemplifies the power of steam and has clearly captured Rosen's imagination.

Along this discursive and never-­less­-than interesting way, he claims that he will also exam­ine what goes on in the mind of an inventor as he or she invents. Frankly, I never got that far.

On page 65 he admits that “the patient reader is now asking, 'what does this have to do with steam power?'” and that impa­tient readers asked that 20 pages earlier. My own patience ran out on page 217 when Rosen told me that “the seed fiber of plants belonging to the genus Gossypium is the world's most important nonfood agricultural product.” With 100 pages left, I couldn't wait any longer to get to the point.

If you're interested in iron and steel, start on page 158. Otherwise, pass the wine and eat dessert first.