by John Allen Paulos (1988)


Let’s say there was a <1% chance that I would buy an unknown book after stumbling randomly upon it on a bargain shelf (something I haven’t done in almost a decade after perusing dozens of such shelves in that time), and then a 30% chance that I would then like that book (giving myself some credit for taste while taking into account the vast quantities of extant crap). Those are two dependent scenarios, meaning I’d have to multiply them to get the likelihood that I ever might have liked this book, which comes out to .3%. As Mr. Paulos probably would have warned me (>95% chance), I should have trusted the percentage and skipped the book.

It’s a breezy enough introduction to the problem of innumeracy, but ultimately it has less to do with its subtitle — Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences — and more to do with Mr. Paulos flaunting his intellectual superiority via a litany of schizoid statistical and probabilistic scenarios. It feels like a precursor to Malcolm Gladwell, what with his “Did you know. . .” and “You may think X, but really Y. . .”

I can’t help but lament that Gladwell must have been just a tyke when this was written because he could have offered some much needed focus and social relevancy to the author. Even had Paulos focused more on the last word of that subtitle, the consequences and implications, this might have felt more worthwhile. As is it felt like little more than a talent show.

Paulos actually admits that mathematicians have a deserved reputation for arrogance, and also that he was attracted to math mainly because it gave him a way of feeling superior to others (p. 99). Both traits are obvious here, and in that sense I have to think that he is one of the least effective ambassadors that Math could have wound up with. His arrogance is particularly off-putting when casually insulting educators (a population to which I belong) and also when dismissing dreams; though I accept his point about their predictability, I respect the human mind enough to acknowledge we probably don’t understand exactly how they work yet.

He does offer some important reminders and warnings about the misuse of statistics, probability and averages — really interesting was one of the last points he makes, about the difference between statistical significance and practical significance. But each of these topics could have benefited from a much deeper treatment, with both more examples and a more structured argument of how the problem affects us and what we can do to prevent it. Similarly, the first two chapters could have been condensed into an introduction.

Basically, this book was not well organized at all, especially puzzling coming from a “coldly rational” mathematician. To put it in terms Paulos might appreciate, it was about 35% useful and 65% gloating crap.

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