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Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its…

Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences (1988)

by John Allen Paulos

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Showing 1-5 of 22 (next | show all)
My reactions to reading this book in 1993.

An entertaining, funny, and very informative book.

There were some things I did know like the difference between correlation and causality, the filtering effect of pseudosciences (only remembering your seemingly pre-cognitive feelings and dreams – not all the ones that didn’t come true), and a lot of things I didn’t know (mainly all sorts of mathematical paradoxes which are demonstrably true but go against common sense), and some things I always wondered about (like just how many “precognitive” dreams you’d get in the U.S. if only 1 dream in 10,000 came “true”?).

Paulos is straightforward and full of witty, relevant examples which show the relevance of law to politics (the non-transistive situations of voting such as A>B>C but C beats A in the election), the law (probability in polygraphs, drug tests, and trials), medicine, and psychology (for instance, should you get discouraged when the doctor says you test positive for a fatal disease). Paulos exposes innumeracy in a wide variety of areas, highlights misuse of statistics and shows how vital a seemingly dry subject can be. I also think he’s right on in denouncing the way math is taught (with elementary school teachers being particularly bad). I also think he’s right to scoff at people who want to be called educated but can’t reason even a little bit mathematically.

My only quibble with this book is oddly, even though I’m only seminummerate, I would have liked some equations formally showing a principle. I can understand, given his audience, why he didn’t put any in though. ( )
  RandyStafford | Feb 11, 2013 |
On one hand, everybody should be made to read this book. It gives nice examples about how statistics work and what numbers actually mean. This is especially important in this day and age where statistics are so misused as to mean something completely different than what is actually shown (Republican claims vs Democrats claims using the same statistics!) I have a good understanding of how numbers work, but there were a few eye-opening discussions here (See Effective Results of a Cancer drug or 50% off of 50% is not 100 %).

One thing, this book uses a lot of math to make the its case. While the math is very valid and essential in statistics, it can bog down the reading. Luckily, the author is able to sum up what the math means in word form.

This book is definitely dated. But all the points made are still valid today, maybe even more so where media sensationalized most stories, without very much content. ( )
  TheDivineOomba | Jul 2, 2012 |
ספרון חמוד ביותר ועשיר בדוגמאות המראות כיצד הפחד ש​ל אנשים ממספרים ומחשיבה מתמטית מוביל אותם לטעויות ​ולעיסוק בשטויות ובפסאודו מדע.​ ( )
1 vote amoskovacs | Oct 16, 2011 |
An incredibly fun read, especially considering the subject and my own mathematical deficiencies. This was on my "to read" list for far too long; many less deserving books made it to the top of the pile, probably because I was uncomfortable facing my own shortcomings. I really had only one problem with it, a nitpick, I suppose, but enough of one to rob it of a full fifth star. It was just one passage in the course of dismissing charlatanism of one sort or another where Paulos off-handedly dismisses "simpleminded atheism." He does so in the context of advocating agnosticism as the more reasonable position. It was the kind of dismissal made by the smug and self-righteous. Perhaps he meant something specific by "simpleminded atheism"? Since he doesn't distinguish it from perfectly reasonable simple atheism, it's hard to know. A predilection for agnosticism, insufficiently justified, indicates a kind of insidious, mush-brained tolerance for magical bullshit that is particularly out of place in this book.

That one passage aside, I was bucked up and more than a little inspired to hone those limited mathematical chops I do possess. ( )
  cdogzilla | Sep 3, 2011 |
A short but highly entertaining book on numeracy. However it is presented in such a way that you want to read more. I suggest it is mandatory reading for all as I am well aware that most people are hazy when statistics are quoted - and in an era where dubious figures are used to gain sales or electoral success it becomes a necessity to recognise statistical lies.

Whilst I am reasonably numerate it is easy to believe that people are generally very much the same and as numerate as I. This however is not the case. Being able to manage numbers used on a day to day basis is not much use when very large numbers are concerned. This is an eye-opening start to the book and provides a glimpse of how complex life is. As an example Paulos gives the example of a human squatting down is roughly a metre in diameter. A cell is the human body is as a human body to the State of Rhode Island*. A virus within a human is as a human is to the Earth!!.

I may not have understood all the fine detail however I was not trying to learn "maths" but to get an impression of what numbers can and cannot do and on that basis it is beautifully ptiched.

*And as a reviewer I looked it up - it is 1,214 sq miles (3,140 km2) ( )
1 vote dieseltaylor | Jul 31, 2011 |
Showing 1-5 of 22 (next | show all)
Mr. Paulos is the sort of person who, when he hears that something or other is selling at a fraction of its normal cost, is likely to remark ''that the fraction is probably 4/3.'' He writes that this is often greeted by ''a blank stare.'' He takes it to be one of incomprehension, but a reader of ''Innumeracy'' may suspect behind the look an impulse to throttle Mr. Paulos. Still, there is so much of value in his book that one can easily restrain such an urge. He takes us a couple of steps closer to numeracy, and it is all in all an enlightening place to be.

» Add other authors (8 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
John Allen Paulosprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kousbroek, RudyAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Los, BettelouTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Prinsen, ErikCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vala, KlausTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0809058405, Paperback)

This is the book that made "innumeracy" a household word, at least in some households. Paulos admits that "at least part of the motivation for any book is anger, and this book is no exception. I'm distressed by a society which depends so completely on mathematics and science and yet seems to indifferent to the innumeracy and scientific illiteracy of so many of its citizens."

But that is not all that drives him. The difference between our pretensions and reality is absurd and humorous, and the numerate can see this better than those who don't speak math. "I think there's something of the divine in these feelings of our absurdity, and they should be cherished, not avoided."

Paulos is not entirely successful at balancing anger and absurdity, but he tries. His diatribes against astrology, bad math education, Freud, and willful ignorance are leavened with jokes, mathematical or the sort (he claims) favored by the numerate.

It remains to be seen if Innumeracy will indeed be able, as Hofstadter hoped, to "help launch a revolution in math education that would do for innumeracy what Sabin and Salk did for polio"--but many of the improvements Paulos suggested have come to pass within 10 years. Only time will tell if the generation raised on these new principles is more resistant to innumeracy--and need only worry about being incomputable. --Mary Ellen Curtin

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:17:57 -0400)

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Examines the nation's burgeoning inability to deal rationally with very large numbers, assesses the impact on government policymaking and everyday life, and shows what can be done about this.

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An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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