HOW NOT TO BE WRONG: THE POWER OF MATHEMATICAL THINKING by JORDAN ELLENBERG

*** (of 5)

The bottom line: How Not To Be Wrong has tons of jargon, math (obviously), and logic, with not much attractive revelation.

 

I fell for the marketing trick (there probably is a math lesson there somewhere) that said How Not To Be Wrong was the Freakonmics (a book I loved) of math, so my expectations were high. The book isn’t bad, it just fell short of its promises and the frequent “Aha!” moments I enjoyed while reading Dubner and Levitt’s book.

Jordan Ellenberg attempts (and succeeds) to reveal how math permeates every single facet of life, even the most arcane places that you would never think of, and illustrates math’s utility through frequent examples and historical accounts of how certain theories developed. The stated aim is to give the reader a new lens to view data (and the world) in order to better discern the hidden truths lurking in the background. Oftentimes, reality is actually a story different than what the layperson thinks the numbers tell.

Generally speaking, each chapter tends to highlight a classic mathematical concept, theorem, or idea, and a brief history of how said ideas were developed are given. Next, the concepts are applied to some contemporary issue both grand and small, ranging from an attempt to calculate the probability that God exists, the problems in statistical analysis and medical studies, or using Bayer’s theorem to calculate your biases about a coin toss. I found the chapter on public opinion (aggregate opinions are inconsistent) quite interesting and intriguing, and it will certainly make you think twice the next time you read an opinion poll.

To anybody who is not a math person, despite its claim that it doesn’t get too technical, the book does in fact get very technical, complete with frequent equations and diagrams in order to illustrate mathematical points. The author also frequently employs historical stories and anecdotes, but sometimes the stories can divert away from the main point he is trying to make. In my opinion, the frequent diversions can also be somewhat excessive and drag on. As Mr. Ellenberg intelligently describes, math is “an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, vastly multiplying its reach and strength.” The problem is that I felt so bogged down with mathematical gobbledygook, that I often lost track of how all these lessons can have value in real, everyday life for a non-mathematician.

 

 Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal

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