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A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper

A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper

4.0 3
by John Allen Paulos

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In this lively volume, mathematician John Allen Paulos employs his singular wit to guide us through an unlikely mathematical jungle—the pages of the daily newspaper. From the Senate and sex to celebrities and cults, Paulos takes stories that may not seem to involve math at all and demonstrates how mathematical naïveté can put readers at a distinct


In this lively volume, mathematician John Allen Paulos employs his singular wit to guide us through an unlikely mathematical jungle—the pages of the daily newspaper. From the Senate and sex to celebrities and cults, Paulos takes stories that may not seem to involve math at all and demonstrates how mathematical naïveté can put readers at a distinct disadvantage. Whether he's using chaos theory to puncture economic and environmental predictions, applying logic 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.

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)
Dennis Winters
In "Innumeracy" (1990), Paulos deplored the sad state of the general public's mathematical knowledge. Now he continues that disquisition by using newspaper features--headlined article, book review, sports story, etc.--as vehicles for explaining mathematical concepts and how they figure in the business of being a well-informed citizen. For instance, he uses stories on the economy to illustrate prediction, regression analysis, statistics, and game theory and how those tools are used to both illuminate and obfuscate underlying truth. Knowing such techniques and their uses better enables you to dispel the fears often caused by media stories that rely on audience ignorance and naivete to pump up attention-getting excitement. Paulos adopts the somewhat random nature of newspaper presentation to confer casual structure to the excursion through his mathematical world and to congenially give us opportunity to make some of his techniques and, more important, a mathematical worldview our own.
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

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Basic Books
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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 easyto 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.

Meet the Author

John Allen Paulos is a professor of mathematics at Temple University. His books include the bestseller Innumeracy, A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market, and Irreligion. He lives in Philadelphia.

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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.