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The Dark Arts of Fuzzy Math

Back in October of 2000, the (now infamous) presidential debate between then Vice President Al Gore and Governor George W. Bush took place.

Being so close to Election Day, the debate was considered pivotal. It also turned out to be a priceless repository of fodder for practically every comedian in the country in the days and weeks that followed.

Already somewhat notorious for his “Bush-isms,” George W. did not disappoint, and succeeded in introducing the nation to his quirky way of communicating. One particular phrase that was singled out and repeated ad nauseam was “fuzzy math.” He used this time and again when trying to debase the statistics and numbers that Al Gore kept using. It was nothing short of hilarious.

fuzzy_math_art

The reality is (and yes, I’m surprised to hear these words coming out of my mouth)… Bush was probably right.

Charles Seife is an American author and journalist specializing in physics and mathematics. He is also a professor at New York University. He has written extensively on scientific and mathematical topics, particularly mathematical deception (which I find fascinating and believe to be extremely relevant today).

Mathematical deception, fabrication, embellishment (whatever you choose to call it) is used everywhere, and a good majority of it is used indirectly… or as I like to refer to it, “passive deception.”

Whether it’s your local news quoting third-party sources with regards to a possible election outcome, or your financial adviser using pro forma models to entice you into investing in a particular fund or asset class, or your mother regurgitating “facts” that mainstream media has spoon-fed to her—it’s virtually inescapable. What’s more, it’s becoming increasingly harder to argue any of it… especially if “you’re not a PhD.”

In Professor Seife’s own words (4:54), “Just the fact that a formula exists, is enough (to make it believable)…”

This one simple phrase is a great introduction to his video presentation at Google. The video itself is a several years old, but the information within it has never been more relevant.

After watching this (and for those ambitious enough to read his book), I’m fairly certain that you won’t look at numbers in the same way again… or at very least you’ll be reminded to look at them more discerningly.