Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Jodi Compton

Jodi Compton is the author of the acclaimed novels Hailey’s War, The 37th Hour, and Sympathy Between Humans.

Her new novel is Thieves Get Rich, Saints Get Shot.

A couple of weeks ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
This summer has seen me on a science-and-mathematics tangent, which is unusual, because I’m usually all about fiction. However, I was intrigued by the listings in the Scientific American Book Club catalog and gave a chance to several of their offerings. Most recently, this was Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception by Charles Seife.

More of the book was about politics, polls and elections than I’d expected -- I thought it would have more to do with advertising, propaganda, and the misuse of results of scientific and medical studies. So I admit I didn’t read it cover to cover. But Seife is a light, funny writer, which helps a great deal with potentially dense material. Meanwhile, the pictures of mis-marked ballots in the Norm Coleman - Al Franken race for Senate are, alone, worth the price of admission. (One ballot, in which the voter filled in the “o” in “Norm” rather than the bubble, made me laugh until my eyes watered).

Here’s an example of the kind of “proofiness” Seife calls out. Say there’s a syndrome called “head-exploding disease” or HES (this hypothetical situation is Seife’s own creation, not mine). There’s a test for it with a 999,999-in-a-million accuracy rate. So how could it not be horrifying news if you take the test and it comes up positive? Well, Seife says, put your test result in this context: HES only has a one-in-a-billion frequency in the population. Once you’ve taken that into account, you realize that by comparing one-in-a-billion to one-in-a-million, it’s a thousand times more likely that you got a false positive on the test than that you actually have HES.

The example clunks a little -- if only 7 people worldwide are going to get HES, there’d never be a blood test for it in the first place; it wouldn’t be financially viable. But the actual rhetorical technique Seife describes is called “prosecutor’s fallacy”, meaning using a statistic without providing other stats that give the first one its proper context. Seife also takes the media to task by repeating, unquestioned, numbers provided to them by “experts” of all stripes. For example, “Natural Blondes to Die Out by 2023”. Or the howler that more than half of all physical exercise in America is performed on television (how would that even be provable?)

In short, a very valuable book in a sadly math-phobic society.
Visit Jodi Compton's website.

The Page 69 Test: Thieves Get Rich, Saints Get Shot.

My Book, The Movie: Thieves Get Rich, Saints Get Shot.

--Marshal Zeringue