Beware Truthiness and Proofiness

Truth in communications and marketing is like a treacle covered magnet. We are drawn to it and its very sticky. When we are introduced to truthful ideas we talk about them and spread them around.
Truthiness on the other hand (it is a real word by the way – it was Word of the Year according to the American Dialect Society in 2005) is something to beware of. Truthinesses are concepts or facts which we would prefer to be true but are in fact not. That is they are lies. Should I boast that I played netball for my school (but fail to mention that it was one game, once, in the b team) that is a truthiness.

The worst sort of rabble rousing journalism thrives on Truthiness, loving front page headlines and dark leader columns that manipulate reality to deliver emotional diatribes beloved by the masses. Xenophobia, racism and the idea that the country has gone to the dogs are all fed by Truthiness.

The numerical equivalent of Truthiness, which is very often used to back it up is Proofiness. This is the skill of using statistics to substantiate what we would like to be true but is actually not really. Charles Seife (an American writer and academic see www.charlesseife.com ) has just published a book that examines the many ways people fudge numbers to sell ideas.
He explains that numbers impress us, chuck the right meaningless statistic into a conversation and you can swing the argument in your favour. There are three main kinds of Proofiness : Potemkin numbers; Disestimation and Fruit Packing.

Potemkin numbers are phony statistics – for the historians amongst you the reference is about Russian minister Grigory Potemkin who erected fake villages with empty facades in Crimea in the eighteenth century to fool the Empress Catherine into a false idea of the prosperity of the region. Disestimation are numbers that don’t take account of statistical significance in their accuracy – too much meaning is placed on a measurement – for example the kind of presentation where a tv campaign is vilified for not meeting specific targets that would call for a level of accuracy that ignores the facts of life and the capabilities of BARB. And then Fruit Packing – where you highlight the statistics that win your argument by shining the surface and stacking them on top. Buyer beware as the bag of stuff you take home will have worms and rotten apples.

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