A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper

A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper

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by John Allen Paulos

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John Allen Paulos is a master at shedding mathematical light on our everyday world: What exactly did Lani Guinier say about quotas? What is the probability of identifying a murderer through DNA testing? Which are the real risks to our health and which the phony ones?

Employing the same fun-filled, user-friendly, and quirkily insightful approach that put


John Allen Paulos is a master at shedding mathematical light on our everyday world: What exactly did Lani Guinier say about quotas? What is the probability of identifying a murderer through DNA testing? Which are the real risks to our health and which the phony ones?

Employing the same fun-filled, user-friendly, and quirkily insightful approach that put Innumeracy on best-seller lists, Paulos now leads us through the pages of the daily newspaper, revealing the hidden mathematical angles of countless articles. From the Senate, the SATs, and sex to crime, celebrities, and cults, Paulos takes stories that may not seem to involve mathematics at all and demonstrates how mathematical naiveté can put readers at a distinct disadvantage.

Whether he's using chaos theory to puncture economic and environmental predictions, applying logic and self-reference to clarify the hazards of spin doctoring and news compression, or employing arithmetic and common sense to give us a novel perspective on greed and relationships, Paulos never fails to entertain and enlighten.

Even if you hated math in school, you'll love the numerical vignettes in this book.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Paulos (Beyond Innumeracy) examines the often overlooked mathematical angle behind news stories in this informally written, enlightening survey. He uses simple arithmetic to expose consumer fallacies, electoral tricks and sports myths; applies the concept of self-reference to puncture inflated news reporting or celebrity coverage; and assesses health risks and accounts of racial or ethnic bias using probability and other tools. The Temple University math professor also investigates whether SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) scores are a predictor of success in college; the enormity of the cost of the savings-and-loan bailout; safety considerations in GM trucks. Loosely modeled on the format of a daily newspaper, his analysis ranges from politics to crime to lifestyles and obituaries, with discussions of futurists' attempts to spot global trends, ``man-on-the-street'' reaction stories, deceptive advertisements, meaningless precision. A timely antidote to mathematical naivete. QPB, Library of Science, Natural Science Book Club, Astronomy Book Club, Reader's Subscription and Newbridge Executive Program alternates. (Apr.)
Library Journal
Whenever mathematicians or scientists read a newspaper or magazine article, they have a tendency mentally to compose a letter to the editor taking issue with the conclusions or mode of presentation. Most are content to leave these letters unsent, but not Paulos (Beyond Numeracy, LJ 4/1/91). He writes not only letters but also op-ed articles in his continuing effort to combat the innumeracy of the general public. In this book, he presents a collection of these compositions, covering almost every type of feature that might appear in your daily paper, from the front page to the advertisements. Some of these pieces are new, and some have appeared elsewhere. They are mathematically undemanding, humorous, and instructive. Hopefully, the reader will learn from them to apply a dose of mathematical common sense when reading the papers rather than automatically accepting everything that appears. For popular math collections.-Harold D. Shane, Baruch Coll., CUNY
Paulos (Innumeracy) reminds us that editors and reporters lie with statistics; they dissemble, debase, and slant. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
From the Publisher

“A wise and thoughtful book, which skewers much of what everyone knows to be true.”Los Angeles Times

“A fun, spunky, wise little book that would be helpful to both the consumers of the news and its purveyors.”Washington Post

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.17(w) x 8.01(h) x 0.63(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Top 10 list has become a staple of newspapers, television, and magazines for a variety of reasons, the top ten being:

1.  Ten is a common and familiar number, the base of our number system. Numbers are rounded to 10 or to multiples of ten or tenths.  The resulting distortion, of course, need not have much to do with reality.  We're told, for example, that we use 10 percent of our brain power, that 10 percent of us consume 90 percent of the world's resources, and that decades define us.  (Is there anything more vapid than explanation by decade? In the free love, antiwar sixties, hippies felt so and so; the greed of the eighties led yuppies to do such and such; sullen and unread Generation Xers never do anything.)

2.  People like information to be encapsulated; they're impatient with long, discursive explanations.  They want the bare facts, and they want them now.

3.  The list is consistent with a linear approach to problems.  Nothing is complex or convoluted; every factor can be ranked.  If we do a, b, or c, then x, y, or z will happen.  Proportionality reigns.

4.  It's a kind of ritual.  Numbers are often associated with rites, and this is a perfect example.

5.  It has biblical resonance, the Ten Commandments being one of its first instances.  Others are the ten plagues on the Egyptians, the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the requirement that at least ten men be present for public prayer, and Joseph's ten brothers.

6.  The list can be a complete story.  It has a beginning: 1, 2, 3; a middle: 4, 5, 6, 7; and an end, 8, 9, 10.  Many stories in the news are disconnected; the list is unitary.

7.  It's easy to write; there is no need to come up with transitions.  Or even complete sentences.  The same holds for the 10, 50, and 100 years ago today fillers.

8.  It's flexible and capable of handling any subject.  Since there are never any clear criteria for what constitutes an entry on such a list, items on short lists can easily be split, and those on long lists can just as easily be combined.

9.  Lists are widely read (or heard) and talked about, but don't require much room in the paper or much airtime.

10.  People realize it's an artificial form and like to see if it's going to run out of good points before it gets to 10.

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A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
prolly one of the better things I read at my pinko, pillow-biting college. Yay PHIL 101.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Genius: A clear, simple, interesting and engaging approach to quantitative literacy. We would be a smarter nation if everyone read this enjoyable book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Yes, you read that correct. Entertaining. This book walks you through basic statistics and applies it to everyday situations. This book will make you chuckle and think at the same time.