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Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences [Paperback]

John Allen Paulos
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (55 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Aug. 18 2001
Why do even well-educated people understand so little about mathematics? And what are the costs of our innumeracy? John Allen Paulos, in his celebrated bestseller first published in 1988, argues that our inability to deal rationally with very large numbers and the probabilities associated with them results in misinformed governmental policies, confused personal decisions, and an increased susceptibility to pseudoscience of all kinds. Innumeracy lets us know what we're missing, and how we can do something about it.

Sprinkling his discussion of numbers and probabilities with quirky stories and anecdotes, Paulos ranges freely over many aspects of modern life, from contested elections to sports stats, from stock scams and newspaper psychics to diet and medical claims, sex discrimination, insurance, lotteries, and drug testing. Readers of Innumeracy will be rewarded with scores of astonishing facts, a fistful of powerful ideas, and, most important, a clearer, more quantitative way of looking at their world.

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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Our society would be unimaginably different if the average person truly understood the ideas in this marvelous and important book." - Douglas Hofstadter

"[An] elegant ... Survival Manual ... Brief, witty and full of practical applications." - Stefan Kanfer, Time

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
Two aristocrats are out horseback riding and one challenges the other to see which can come up with the larger number. Read the first page
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Most helpful customer reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars interesting book, but lacking focus March 8 2004
The problem that resulted in this book is far-reaching: the public simply doesn't understand mathematics. Statistics, ranging from a 10%-off sale to the sort found in opinion polls, are unfathomable to the general populace. Probability, especially in the context of gambling, is understood by only a scant handful of people. The list of misunderstood mathematics is nearly endless.
In the first few chapters of the book, Paulos describes various issues that the innumerate (that is, those who don't understand numbers and math) often have issues understanding. He describes the issue to a reasonable level of detail, then derives answers for them. Don't let the use of the word 'derive' scare you off: the answers are readable and readily understandable to a general audience. In some cases, if you're really rusty, you might need to read them a second time to grasp the solution.
Later chapters, however, are not written for the innumerate. They are attempts to convince the reader that mathematical education needs to be improved. I think that everyone agrees that education should be improved, but he offers suggestions that are impractical or nonsensical.
Ultimately, the problem of this book is a lack of focus. Paulos could have written either a book that tackles basic mathematical issues that the general public doesn't understand, or he could have written a book that describes the consequences of innumeracy. He tried to do both, and stuffed both topics into a single slim volume. In doing so, he shortchanges both audiences. The result is a book that is good, but does not fully address the needs of anyone.
If you find yourself uncomfortable with mathematics, pick up a copy of this book and read up to chapter five. If you are comfortable with mathematics and are looking for fodder to prove the point that improving mathematical knowledge at any level is productive, this book will not serve your purpose.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good probability of you like this book. May 6 2002
By flodnag
I always like it when I read something technical and don't have to have a PhD to understand what is being said. Paulos gets his point of 'innumeracy' across very well and by using some fairly easy math, shows that it isn't that bad. Well written and to the point, a good read for the average person to understand some basic probability. I did have some, I guess, issues with the book. I found that the actual consequences of an innumerate society were lacking. Yes people don't understand the stats thrown at them every day by media, gov't, even in their jobs, but what's the devastating effects of it. He does go into this somewhat but the emphasis of the book was on the math and not really the effects of lack of understanding. The other issue I had was that he keeps talking about stats. Yes this is a weak area in people today, but if people can't do the basics of adding and multipling, then they can't figure out the stats. Maybe his attack was too high? But all in all, a good book and recommended reading.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
In this short book, Paulos does an outstanding job of pointing out what lack of number intimacy can do to a person. The anecdotes are outstanding, especially the ones on large numbers and on probability. For example, he shows how one is fooled by probability: If we have 23 people in a room, what is the probability that two of them have the same birthday? 50%!! Very conterintuitive.
The author also tries to understand why it is almost considered acceptable for a person to admit that one is "bad with numbers", while it not being ok to be "bad with words". The realm of psychology is not his forte, but the ideas he points to are interesting.
Overall, this is an easy to read book, much easier even to one literate with numbers. I was done with it in 3 hours, and was left wanting more, so much so that I am now buying some more of his works. If they are half as good as Innumeracy, then they will be good enough.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Glaring error July 23 2003
Not so much a review as a comment on a glaring error. On p. 86 of my edition, Paulos asks us to envision Myrtle, a girl with one sibling (either a brother or sister). He asks �eWhat is the conditional probability that Myrtle�fs sibling is a brother?�f and concludes it must be 2/3, since there are four equally likely possibilities for the breakdown in siblings: BB, BG, GB and GG. (B= boy, G= girl). BB doesn�ft apply here, and in 2 of the 3 remaining cases there is a brother.
So in other words, whenever anyone tells you they have a sibling, in the absence of any other information, you can conclude that the sibling is twice as likely to be of the opposite sex to the speaker, than of the same sex. Huh?! Sure, math sometimes provides some interesting counterintuitive results, but I mean come on! Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees!
What Paulos apparently fails to realize is that the breakdown of possible siblings is actually BG, GB, G1G2 and G2G1. Or put into humanspeak, �gMyrtle can have an older brother, younger brother, older sister, or younger sister.�h So of course, the conditional probability that Myrtle�fs sibling is a brother is 1/2, just what you�fd expect.
Sort of flabbergasting that the author of Innumeracy could be so innumerate himself!
Addendum-- �g...The correct answer is, of course, 1/2.�h (John Allen Paulos)
After posting this comment, a subsequent reader comment averred that the Myrtle problem in _Innumeracy_ was given correctly, and that the problem is �esensitive to phrasing�f. This comment is incorrect. The problem as given in the book, is in fact, erroneous, as I stated. I think I can clear this issue up once and for all.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Must read
This book talks about numeracy and I think it is important.

Many problems in the world are caused by people not understand what number mean (and the book is packed with... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Stanley T Chow
4.0 out of 5 stars Good book about mathematics
It's a good book about mathematic and the importance of understanding numbers in everyday life. However, I'm afraid that after reading the book I find it difficult to remember a... Read more
Published 11 months ago by Dom
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting applications
Delighted by the latest Paulos' book (a mathematician plays the stock market) I was really interested in reading more of his books. Read more
Published on June 15 2004 by Amazon Customer
3.0 out of 5 stars Important message, but missing the audience?
Innumerates in the press and politics threaten reasonable trade-offs because of wrong perception about the real risks of different actions or inactions. Read more
Published on June 3 2004 by ěystein Sj°lie
4.0 out of 5 stars Convinced me to stop playing the lottery
OK.. I'm a theatre major so it doesn't take to much for me to be impressed by numeric intelligence. But this is a good starting point to thinking of the "facts" of... Read more
Published on April 15 2004 by William Schubert
1.0 out of 5 stars a review from an iliterateon innumeracy
paulos is full of himself. after a couple of pages, i got tired of reading his jibberish which amounted to nothing more than him showing off his vocabulary. Read more
Published on March 24 2004 by dakbrar
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book that re-ignite my interest in mathematics,
This is a great book, i bought it in Bali airport, and enjoy it very much. I even bought several other books by Paulo: BEYOND NUMERACY which deals with more "numbers n... Read more
Published on Dec 28 2003 by T SANTOSO
3.0 out of 5 stars Important book of diminishing appeal
The message of the book -- that mathematics (in particular what the author considers essential: a sense for "large" numbers, estimation, probability, and statistics) is too... Read more
Published on Dec 17 2003 by S. Park
3.0 out of 5 stars Innumeracy as irrationality
This book is an extended rant about instances involving numbers where people act irrationally. It begins with a long enumeration of examples such as the inability to comprehend... Read more
Published on Dec 3 2003 by Amazon Customer
3.0 out of 5 stars interesting, witty
As a shamed mamber of the "innumerate" (as Paulos refers to us), I read his book with interest. Read more
Published on Nov. 1 2003 by doc peterson
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