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Kiplinger Bookshelf

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking

  • Author: Jordan Ellenberg
  • Publisher: Penguin, 480 pages

You had me at the title: How not to be wrong. Please, order a copy for everyone on the staff, I thought, but be sure to delete that scary “m” word in the subtitle. But Ellenberg, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (go Big Ten), proves that math doesn’t have to be scary or boring or mind-boggling. Instead, he makes a very strong (and, honest, relatively easy-to-understand) case that math is common sense. Or, as he puts it: “Math is like an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, vastly multiplying its reach and strength.” This book shows you how to be a better thinker and that, in turn, will offer valuable, lifetime protection against flim-flam artists of every kind, from financial scoundrels who spout numbers and statistics to separate you from your money to political fast-talkers who spin tale tales and, dare we say it, “fake news.” Ellenberg’s work will help you fine-tune your common sense weave it with logic to create a highly sensitive B.S. meter.

Ellenberg is an entertaining writer, but I won’t lie: There are a lot of numbers in this book, and even some formulas. And, ever the teacher, the author asks you to work along with him through some of the problems. You’ll be richly rewarded for doing so.

Among my other favorite books are two by another math professor, John Allen Paulos, who is a master at translating mathematical principles into valuable tools for better thinking. Author of Innumeracy, Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, here’s what Paulos says about Ellenberg’s book:

“Through a powerful mathematical lens Jordan Ellenberg engagingly examines real-world issues ranging from fetishizing of straight lines in the reporting of obesity to the game theory of missing flights, from the relevance to digestion of regression to the mean to the counterintuitive Berkson’s paradox, which may explain why handsome men don’t seem to be as nice as not so handsome ones. The coverage is broad, but not shallow and the exposition is nontechnical and sprightly.”

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