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Mathematical Deceptions

Date: 10-21-10
Host: George Noory
Guests: Charles Seife, Jeff Nelken

Prof. Charles Seife discussed the art of using pure mathematics for impure ends. He used the term "proofiness," (an analogue of Stephen Colbert's term "truthiness") to describe how people use numbers to prove things that they believe in their hearts are true, even if they're not factually true. People often lie in polls to make themselves feel better, he reported. For instance, in surveys men will typically overestimate the number of sexual partners they have had, while women will underestimate the number.

Advertising often uses numbers fabricated out of whole cloth, like saying a moisturizer delivers 70% more moisture in every drop. Ads are just "larded with...completely meaningless numbers that are supposedly backed by some sort of research which is either dubious or non-existent," he declared. Politicians sometimes manipulate the scale of graphs to make it appear like a dramatic effect or change is occurring, such as with tax cuts or budgets. Al Gore, in his film An Inconvenient Truth, exaggerated climate projections, as a way to further his agenda, Seife added.

Numbers are often inflated to make a person or organization seem more important, such as the number of people in attendance at a rally, or the circulation of readers for newspapers and magazines, he noted. Seife also discussed various developments in science, such as the Large Hadron Collider experiments at CERN. If "a certain pattern of missing energy turns up, it could be a very good sign that we have found another dimension beyond our own," he reflected.

Food Contamination

First hour guest, food safety expert Jeff Nelken commented on contamination issues, such as in the recent case of 5 deaths associated with celery tainted with Listeria. This bacteria can be found in the soil, and can actually live inside a refrigerator, he detailed. Nelken advised people to keep a thermometer in the fridge, with an ideal temperature of 38-40 degrees, which would slow down the bacterial process.

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