Proofiness is what Numbers Rule Your World isn't, and because of this, it serves as a perfect foil. Seife documents a lengthy list of examples in which numbers are manipulated, bent out of shape, invented, thrown by the wayside by journalists, politicians, Supreme Court justices, the Pentagon, scientists, non-scientists, consciously or not, maliciously or not.
Seife is a science journalist for the New York Times, and teaches journalism at NYU. Like similar books in this genre, Seife writes well and in an accessible manner; unlike those other books, there aren't glaring errors (I will put up a few more posts doing a close reading a la SuperFreakonomics later.)
There are really two books in one: the first three chapters are, in substance, comparable to Huff's How to Lie with Statistics, one of the truly invaluable pop-statistics books; in the remaining chapters, Seife aims his arrow at different groups of people who engage in what, in the subtitle of the book, he calls "the dark arts of mathematical deception", namely, pollsters, politicians, justices and lawyers, the military and other propagandists. Even those familiar with this subject will learn a few new examples.
Since I will be writing about some of the details in future posts, I'll restrict my comments here to some of Seife's big ideas.
He's very concerned about politicians and justices destroying our democracy through the rejection of proper statistical methodologies, such as the rejection of sampling in the Census. It is a valid point. I think he is too soft on his fellow journalists because they are the messengers and enablers. To Seife's credit, he does mention the problem of "balanced coverage" when one side is clearly 90% right; and he does stress the importance of fact-checking. He talks about how journalists laughed off the Pentagon's propanganda during the Vietnam War (Chapter 8) and looked for independent evidence in the war zone but dodges the obvious questions: why the journalists relayed all of the false stories that came out prior to the current Iraq War? and whether the practice of "embedded reporting" hampers the ability to find field evidence?
Seife does an admirable job telling us to expect uncertainty, particularly why it is always there. He makes an excellent point about polls being different from election counts: they both suffer from uncertainty but the source is different, the former from random sampling, the latter from measurement error. The very important message being: a count is a type of estimate. There is no such thing as a perfect count, especially when it comes to counting millions of votes. So, I am surprised that Seife goes off message in a section of Chapter 8 when he posits the availability of "truths". He says this (p.226):
Journalists are supposed to... admit nothing but the information that we get from our own senses and the verifiable truths that statistics seem to represent. This sort of information is the raw fuel of journalism...without hard facts to pin our words to, we are powerless to express ourselves.
Even if one ignores the nostalgic reverence of old journalism (for journalism in the Internet age is anything but objective and careful with facts), it is surprising to hear Seife talking about uncovering "truths" through diligence after reading so much about the impossibility of perfect measurement.
I'd like to see a sharper distinction made between malice and incompetence. Seife lumps the two together. People who are fooled by the data (say, NASA engineers) are criticized next to people who willfully deceive with numbers. (See my related post here.)
Personally, I like the second part of Proofiness better as it is more focused, and not much done before. The first part is very readable (verbose at times), and still interesting for those who haven't read similar works before. As I said, it's a good foil for my book: Seife warns you how numbers might deceive you while I tell you how numbers can benefit your lives.