July Book Club – Mathematics Themed

On Friday, July 21,  the Skeptic book club met for a mathematics themed discussion. This month we read: (1) A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper by John Allen Paulos and (2) Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception by Charles Seife. Overall, the group enjoyed both books. We learned that because numbers are assumed to be factual and unambiguous, numbers can be used (and abused) to inappropriately make a particular point or fit a particular agenda. Numbers give people a sense of certainty and credibility that may not always be warranted. A few discussion pieces from the night:

  • “Potemkin Numbers” as introduced by Proofiness – these are phony, meaningless numbers based on erroneous or non-existent calculations. As per the author “creators of Potemkin numbers care little about whether their numbers are grounded in any sort of reality.” These numbers can be used to support weak arguments. Many people have heard the old adage “humans only use 10% of their brains.” Where did that number come from? It persists, but (fortunately) isn’t grounded in reality and is an example of a Potemkin number.
  • We had a lively debate on the measurement of ill-defined constructs inspired by both books. Can you accurately measure and study constructs such as happiness or intelligence? The group varied widely on their opinions.
  • The group also debated the made-up language Seife used to make his “Proofiness” points. Some of the readers enjoyed his play on actual vocabulary and others thought it added unnecessary confusion to an already confusing topic. For instance, we know humans often make the mistake of “causuistry”, Siefe’s shorthand for wrongly implying that one thing causes another.

By reading these books, the group walked away with a better understanding of how we can be deceived by numbers. Preliminary polling indicates an 86% satisfaction rating of the books, but be skeptical because as we learned from the books, this number may be bogus.*

Join us on August 24 to participate in a book club on the theme of Origins. Taking inspiration from a recent ASU Origins event, we are reading two of the greatest minds on this broad topic as they cover their respective areas of expertise: Lawrence Krauss on the origin of the Universe and Richard Dawkins on evolution. Both argue that there is no need for an intelligent creator, but from different sets of evidence and reasoning. We hope to see you in August! Check out Skeptics in the Pub on www.meetup.com for more information.

*In this case, polling took place in the imagination of the blogger.


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