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Math: Not Even Once

While enjoying Daring Don's video on statistics (watch it here) I was reminded how many people, myself included, feel deficient in their understanding of math or science. This week I wanted to share one of my favorite science-themed authors in what will be the first of many book reviews highlighting those science communicators who can break down the knowledge for those of us who are still striving to learn the nuts and bolts of the scientific endeavor. 

I am intimidated by mathematics. I regard those with a natural affinity for math as wizards. They manipulate arcane symbols and mutter strange incantations and at dinner they always have to help me calculate the tip. To me, a log is a piece of wood, a sin is a thing to be avoided (unless it's really fun), and I'm tired of being asked to solve for X. She needs to deal with her own issues.

As a wee lad I was quite enamored with mathematics and got along extremely well with numbers. Around the age of eleven I went through a series of negative experiences in school. I had a severe personality conflict with my teacher and, when the dust cleared, I entered seventh grade on the "slow-track" for mathematics and never recovered. The self-fulfilling prophecy of being told I was bad at math self-fulfilled.

Why is six afraid of seven? BECAUSE NUMBERS ARE TERRIFYING!

Why is six afraid of seven? BECAUSE NUMBERS ARE TERRIFYING!

Unfortunately this had repercussions well beyond my public school education. My first year of college I took entry-level Astronomy and Physics and was so engaged with the subject matter I seriously considered switching my major to the sciences. However, a near panic attack in the university testing center placed my math scores firmly in the mire of remedial math, if only because there wasn't anywhere lower to go. Of course it all worked out, I fully enjoyed my humanities degree, and my love of science continues unabated to this day.

My story is, depressingly, not unique and many times I've had similar sentiments expressed to me about math and science by people who appreciate their awesomeness but approach them with anxiety. School left them feeling like they missed out on important knowledge and now, as an adult, tackling these subjects is even more intimidating.

Enter Chales Seife, author of "Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception". This is a fast, engaging read about how numbers are manipulated to "prove something that you know in your heart is true - even when it's not." (p. 4)

Seife highlights many forms of mathematical deception such as cherry-picking data, manipulating poll information, and the startlingly effective method of adding validity to a statement by providing a meaningless, yet specific number.

Along the way he explains concepts like margin of error and false correlations arising from randomness. Each example is illustrated by how it works in the real world; from how statistics taken out of context helped acquit O.J. Simpson, to how fallibility in counting votes caused the 2000 election debacle, to how misunderstanding risk management helped hurry along the 2007 financial collapse.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the book is explaining all these ideas without resorting to columns of figures. Seife manages to convey the salient points behind the mathematics without drowning the reader in numbers.  As someone who breaks out in a cold sweat when confronted with mathematical formulas, I appreciated this approach and, emboldened by my new knowledge I even braved the appendices provided at the end of the book where the concepts are explored mathematically.

As a professional level wonderer I'm always looking for sources of information on the topics that I feel the least informed about and Charles Seife's "Proofiness" and indeed many of his books have been valuable in helping me grapple with topics that are beyond my area of expertise. Written for the curious non-expert, Seife's work is well worth the time and effort.

Copyright 2017 by Aaron Berenbach and Don Riefler

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