In the meantime, I've just discovered another book that looks like a must read - and it has a great title!
Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception
From the press release:
In Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception (Viking, Sept.), New York University’s Charles Seife shows how numbers can be a powerful rhetorical weapon, but warns that “in skillful hands, phony data, bogus statistics, and bad mathematics can make the most fanciful idea, the most outrageous falsehood seem true.”
Seife, a professor in NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, defines “proofiness” as the art of using pure mathematics for impure ends.
“Phony numbers have the appearance of absolute truth, of pure objective fact, so we can use them as a justification to cling to our prejudices,” he writes. “Proofiness is the raw material that arms partisans to fight off the assault of knowledge, to clothe irrationality in the garb of the rational and the scientific.”
From Senator Joseph McCarthy’s claims of exact numbers of communists who had infiltrated the State Department to the misuse of census data to skew the formation of congressional districts to the application of a mathematical formula to falsely accuse the Soviet Union of violating the Threshold Test Ban Treaty in the 1980s, proofiness continues to erode democracy, Seife posits.
“Proofiness is toxic to a democracy, because numbers have a hold on us,” Seife maintains. “They are powerful—almost mystical. Because we think that numbers represent truth, it’s hard for us to imagine that a number can be made to lie. But proofiness is not merely a tool for propaganda as it was for McCarthy—it is much more dangerous than that. Democracy is a system of government based upon numbers, and rotten numbers are eroding the entire edifice from within.”