In Response to: Numbers can mislead

As a career scientist in sensory neuro­biology, I was delighted to read the article about Charles Seife ’93’s book, Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception (Alumni Scene, Oct. 13).

When I was a grad student in biology at Brown in the late ’60s, I was astounded to see the blind faith people in general — and scientists in particular — had in explanations based on numbers. The “technique of data enrichment” was nowhere more apparent than in many papers I saw given at the American Association of Cell Biology. Here, a presenter would show a slide of a graph with points scattered all over the place. These “data points” were neatly interconnected by a prominent straight line whose direction was coincident with the (foregone) conclusion the scientist was trying to make. I quickly learned there’s an unwritten rule operating here: “Any four points on a graph can be connected by a straight line.”

It seems that in most human activi ties — including science — the primary use of human reason is the substantiation of existing prejudices, not the ­generation of new conclusions. Consequently, in most conversations, the participants busily collect whatever facts and figures they can to support their position and “win” the conversation. Because of our blind faith in numbers, the figure-laden “facts” — be they credible or spurious — often carry the day.

The PAW writer’s summary provides a wise guide to decision-making: “Don’t believe every number, graph, study, and poll you come across, warns Seife, and become a bit more skeptical when reading information that doesn’t make sense.”

Kudos for Charles Seife. Let’s hear it for common sense!

David T. Moran ’62