Instaread Summary of How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg
Four out of five stars
As a professional mathematician, I am generally in favor of books written for the more general public. The more the general population can intelligently interpret the statistical and numerical data that is used to explain the world, the more effectively public policy decisions can be made. Therefore, I am initially predisposed to be favorable to the book being described.
According to the summary, the content of the book is more within the realm of math literacy, it is the goal of the author to explain mathematical concepts to the general reader. However, a significant error is made in the summary.
The following sentence appears in the overview:
“In addition, mathematicians can use their understanding of probability to manipulate real-life mathematics problems, as in lotteries and other games of chance.”
There is also mention in takeaway six about mathematicians “. . . on the application of their theories to government lotteries.” If a government run lottery is properly run (no cheating), it is impossible to manipulate it, so any claim to do so is a scam. All proficient mathematicians understand this.
Other topics, such as the avoidance of false causality or linking two disparate events simply because their numeric descriptors are the same, are also covered. The examples given in the summary are absurd, yet they make a valid point.
The content and point of the book is summarized very well in the passage in the “Author’s Style” section.
“Nevertheless, there is little material to instruct readers how to make better decisions or apply mathematics to their individual lives. Most of the lessons appear tailored to making the reader a more educated consumer of statistics and data.”
While it is to some extent internally contradictory, a more educated consumer will make better decisions, this passage summarizes what the book is about.
There is a claim in the summary that Ellenberg makes frequent use of humor to make the points. It would have been valuable if an example of this humor would have been included in order to give the reader a taste of what is done. Math humor to many is a contradiction in terms.
This book was made available for free for review purposes.