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Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences (Penguin Press Science) [Paperback]

John Allen Paulos
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

2 Mar 2000 0140291202 978-0140291209 Re-issue

Why do even well-educated people often understand so little about maths - or take a perverse pride in not being a 'numbers person'?

In his now-classic book Innumeracy, John Allen Paulos answers questions such as: Why is following the stock market exactly like flipping a coin? How big is a trillion? How fast does human hair grow in mph? Can you calculate the chances that a party includes two people who have the same birthday? Paulos shows us that by arming yourself with some simple maths, you don't have to let numbers get the better of you.

Frequently Bought Together

Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences (Penguin Press Science) + A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper: Making Sense of the Numbers in the Headlines (Penguin science) + How to Lie with Statistics (Penguin Business)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin; Re-issue edition (2 Mar 2000)
  • Language: Unknown
  • ISBN-10: 0140291202
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140291209
  • Product Dimensions: 0.9 x 13.2 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 106,871 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Amazon Review

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) favoured 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


John Allen Paulos is the maths teacher I found twenty-five years too late (Sean French Independent)

Innumeracy would improve the quality of thinking of virtually anyone (Isaac Asimov)

Paulos provides much in this book that is thought-provoking and informative. Markets can sucker even a maths professor. At least he can explain why (Financial Times)

Paulos mixes high mathematics with the kind of stories that make you laugh (Daily Telegraph)

Taught me more about the handling of numbers in real life than a thousand hours of maths teaching (Simon Jenkins The Times)

This elegant little survival manual is brief, witty and full of practical applications (Stefan Kanfer Time)

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Customer Reviews

4.0 out of 5 stars
4.0 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
"A million dollars, a billion, a trillion, whatever. It doesn't matter as long as we do something about the problem." Does it matter, or does it not? Perhaps you can more easily visualize what jumping by six orders of magnitude means if you divide it by 10^6: "One dollar, a thousand dollars, a million..."

Or perhaps consider this: Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846 and was elected President in 1860. John F. Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946, and was elected President in 1960. Lincoln's secretary was named Kennedy. Kennedy's secretary was named Lincoln. Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln, was born in 1808. Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy, was born in 1908. John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Lincoln was born in 1839. Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated Kennedy was born in 1939. There is some mysterious harmony ruling the world, isn't it?

Most likely not. Politicians' careers do follow certain patterns - people are very rarely indeed elected presidents at 19, then elected to congress at 86. Furthermore, there are very few records of assassins in the age group over 65, for instance. You also have to take into account that, taking into account US constitution, there is nil probability that Kennedy would have been elected president in 1961, or 1958. And Lincoln isn't all that uncommon as the last name, is it? And finally, we have been rather selective which facts we have included: Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809 and died in 1965, while John F. Kennedy was born in 1917 and died in 1963, for instance, but along with all other facts this simply didn't fit the intended story, so it was omitted.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Doesn't live up to it's title 24 Aug 2011
By Mr I
It reads more like a rant than a coherent book, it's dominated by repetitive examples of usages of numbers and quotations which seem more chosen by the author to show off his knowledge than to provide enlightenment on the topic of innumeracy. The book spends several chapters claiming that innumeracy is responsible for pseudo-scientific beliefs but gives no evidence for this claim beyond a series of anecdotes, the irony of this seems to be lost on the author.

If feels much more like you're reading "The Bumper Book of Numbers" than a book on innumeracy, while it has some entertainment value, it doesn't live up to it's title.

I was hoping for a "popular non-fiction" book that talked about the causes and practical impact of innumeracy in daily life, but this isn't it.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Mandatory Reading 31 July 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)
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4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Imaginative Look at the World of Numeracy! 25 Jun 2004
To me, the most intriguing aspect of this book was Professor Paulos's ability to take simple math concepts that I learned way back when . . . and to show how they could enrich and expand my appreciation of the world around me. It was like Alice going through the looking glass in the sequel to Alice in Wonderland. There's a lot there that I never imagined. For example, the way disease rates are often described is for those who have survived to 85 years old. If you are younger, your current probability of incidence will be much lower (possibly more than 90 percent lower). Also, you can use the way you design your questions and sample to help eliminate bias. You can also find great humor in the errors of authority figures who misquote probabilities and risks. Plus, you can answer questions that I would never have thought of (such as the likelihood of breathing in an atom that Caesar did).
If you are feeling cowed about your math ability, take heart! Most of the concepts here you can handle. For example, can you multiply two numbers together? You can answer "yes" to my question if you can do so with a calculator. If so, you can appreciate almost all of the examples in the book.
Professor Paulos has a mind that works differently and more inquisitively from mine, but I enjoyed learning how his thoughts. He thinks about topics like how long it would take dump trucks to excavate Mount Fuji, how many times a deck of cards need to be shuffled to become random, and what the Earned Run Average is for a pitcher who lasts one-third inning and gives up 5 runs. I realized that if I thought about more things like this, I would develop new perspectives on the world.
He makes a helpful attempt to create solutions so that more people can appreciate the world in a quantitative sense.
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