This book is a survey of the many ways in which politicians, experts, and “shamans” deceive, mislead, distort, and in some cases lie to us. Since Stein is a mathematician, he pays close attention to the use of numbers in these practices. But it’s not just numbers that can be used/misused.
The intended audience for the book is the “outsiders”: we who are not privy to the inner workings of our government, but who vote for those who are. Stein does a great job of showing us the many ways that politicians use experts or statistics to convince us that they know what they’re doing. Knowing how this con game works is half the battle. Unfortunately, Stein doesn’t tell us the other half. That’s not due to any lapse on his part. It’s just that the other half involves raising questions — something that we as outsiders need to do. (And ideally, journalists should do as well, but too often don’t.) Alas, that’s not something Stein can do for us — it’s something we have to do ourselves.
Much of what is presented here is familiar; in particular, Stein discusses issues that have experts on both sides. (Experts who say the death penalty reduces crime vs. experts who say it increases crime; studies which say that lower class sizes improve education vs. studies that say class size is irrelevant.) How does a non-expert make an “informed” decision? Once again, no easy answers.
On the other hand, I did see some things I had not seen before. For example, the calculation of the Consumer Price Index, and (more interestingly) how susceptible it is to minor fluctuations which render its use somewhat questionable. (It reminded me of football officials bringing out the chains to measure for a first down — an image of scientific precision — despite the fact that the spotting of the ball is often just an approximation anyway.)
My suggestion for reading the book: Read the intro and the first chapter, then zoom to the end and read chapter 31 (so you know what’s to come), and then go back to chapter 2 and read through the book. And let loose your inner skeptic.
Donald L. Vestal is Associate Professor of Mathematics at South Dakota State University. His interests include number theory, combinatorics, spending time with his family, and working on his hot sauce collection. He can be reached at Donald.Vestal(AT)sdstate.edu