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Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences Paperback – Aug 18 2001

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Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences + Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea + How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang; 1 edition (Aug. 18 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809058405
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809058402
  • Product Dimensions: 13.9 x 1.6 x 20.7 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 68 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (56 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #3,026 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

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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

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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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Customer Reviews

4.1 out of 5 stars

Most helpful customer reviews

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Nadyne Richmond on March 8 2004
Format: Paperback
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 By flodnag on May 6 2002
Format: Paperback
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 By Denis Benchimol Minev on April 3 2004
Format: Paperback
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 By Adrian Boyle on July 23 2003
Format: Paperback
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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