For such a great title, Proofiness gets off to a rough start.
Maybe I’ve been spoiled by nonfiction writers known for their pizazz as much as their knowledge—my most recent nonfiction read was by the utterly hilarious Mary Roach—but it’s worth noting that Charles Seife is a decidedly dull writer. I mean, he tries—on one page, he jokes that “Ramsey County’s voter turnout lists seemed to have been lovingly maintained by a pack of wild raccoons”—but it comes across sort of like a high school science teacher trying to pal around with a classroom of uninterested students (not entirely surprising, considering Seife is a professor). Assuming the people reading this book are doing so of their own free will, the jokey pandering is odd. Then again, maybe he’s just a big nerd with a dubious sense of humor.
Unfortunately, Proofiness kind of missed the mark for me, at least in the beginning, and a low-ish opinion of his audience’s intelligence was a general problem I had with Seife, and the book overall. The first few chapters are devoted almost entirely to an overview of what I would consider basic math. On one page, Seife suggests “Most people think that ‘average’ means typical—that if, say, the average salary at a company is $100,000, then each employee earns $100,000, more or less.”
…Really? I mean sure, if you polled the general population, that’s probably the case. Shit, a significant percentage of the general population doesn’t know who the vice president is. But we’re not talking about the general population—we’re talking about the decidedly smaller universe of people choosing to read a nonfiction book about statistics. Give us the benefit of the doubt.
Seife does touch on some hugely relevant topics: poll results, elections, the validity of the Census, faulty science, the court system. In fact, despite my bias after reading three chapters of Stats 101, I was still intrigued and even shocked by some of his better points—did y’all know that part of the reason OJ Simpson was acquitted was the use, in court no less, of a highly inaccurate statistic? (No really, am I the only one who didn’t know this?)Proofiness also has a healthy dose of pessimism, for which I have always had an affinity. In particular, I enjoyed reading about something known as “the tragedy of the commons,” which explains everything from global warming to that dickwad that orders lobster for dinner when you’ve all agreed to split the bill equally. Here, edify yourselves:
“The tragedy of the commons occurs when an individual can take an action that benefits him, yet the negative consequences of that action are diffused—such as when they’re divided among a large group of people or when they take a long time to materialize. In situations like these, people act selfishly, getting as much benefit as they can, but as a consequence, we’re all worse off. …Tragedy of the commons is an immutable fact about society. If the benefits of our actions are divorced, to some extent, from their negative consequences, we’re going to take those actions—even if they lead to a very unfortunate outcome for everybody. The tragedy of the commons is a result of human nature.”
Overall, Seife gets his point across: When people see numbers, they assume truth, and there are zillions of situations where that results in people believing, or being told to believe, things that are false. It’s a conclusion that has serious implications for the way we approach politics, the economy and human nature itself. I just wish he had said it with a bit more flare.
Long story short, this book ruined statistics for me. Which, even though it makes watching the news or reading magazines decidedly less fun, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But for such a (relatively) short read, Seife spent far too long explaining the basics and too little time going in-depth on the real-world implications of shoddy number-crunching. He could have used a read-through from someone more prone to sensation (even though part of his thesis is a condemnation of over-sensationalizing things). I think an edit from Michael Moore would have done him well. Personally, I’d prefer Seife in small doses—a weekly column debunking whatever statistic is currently being thrown around by pundits would probably be awesome—but the book is worth a full read only if you don’t feel up to snuff on your middle-school math (which, hey, many of us don’t). If you do, and still want the dirt, skip Chapters 1-3.
AUTHOR: Charles Seife
PAGES: 260 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE:Zero, Decoding the Universe
SORTA LIKE: Freakonomics meets A Short History of Nearly Everything
FIRST LINE: ” ‘In my opinion, the State Department, which is one of the most important government departments, is thoroughly infested with communists.’ “