Proofiness: A Companion To Yesterday's Blog

Proofiness - yes, Stephen Colbert suggested the word when he coined the term "truthiness" meaning the intuition we have when we "just know" something is true as opposed to an objectively proven fact. See my earlier blog on Legal Intuition for more on intuition and fact-finding. But it is Charles Seife, a mathematician and journalist, who invented it. Yesterday, I issued a caution on the use of statistics as a basis for legislation, specifically, the new Alberta and, not so new, British Columbia impaired driving laws. I even invoked Mark Twain to provide the lesson: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." But today, the term "proofiness" will do.

In Seife's book Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception, Seife makes a case for the "power in numbers" and the resultant misuse of such power by politicians, scientists, pollsters, advertisers, and the like. Numbers can be manipulated to support or dismiss claims. Numbers, themselves objective quantifiers, can be presented as "proof" to support subjective facts and transform the position into irrefutable truths. Anyone who works in an area where numbers matter must read this informative and disturbing book.

Another similar book is Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine On Trial by scientist Simon Singh and phyisician Dr. Edzard Ernst on the fallacy of many alternative remedies. The book resulted in a libel lawsuit against Simon Singh, who recently won on appeal. Singh is also an excellent science writer. I have read and highly recommend; The Big Bang,The Code Book, and Fermat's Last Theorem. But it is his Trick book which contributes to our statistical story. Singh discusses the "trickiness" of some alternative medical practitioners in their use of statistical evidence to show their treatments work. Like Seife, Singh cautions on the inferences to be drawn from statistics without full knowledge of the connections between the statistic and the inference. He gives a priceless example in his book on statistics of climate change and the number of pirates. Statistics can show that global warming diminishes with the number of pirates. Ergo, we need more pirates! Of course, the reasoning is wrong but yet the numbers don't lie. 

Finally, I leave you with a recent article I read from Scientific American on the population "clock" wherein the census takers warn the world of the next population milestone. Indeed, Kofi Annan in 1999 pinpointed the boy who was the "sixth billionth" person on Earth. This was proofiness at its best or should we say worst as there is no way to pinpoint with accuracy actual population. It is all estimate and guess. But it does provide a great marketing moment as the press and media disseminate the "truth." 

We have come, of course, full circle. Numbers don't lie but people do. So the next time you are faced with statistics and polls, just pull a Colbert and demand to see the proof.

As an aside, the Language Log has a great blog on a linguistic analysis of the word "proofiness" and the use of "iness" as a "Colbert suffix." Enjoy!