Thursday, July 9, 2009

A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper

I came across “A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper” by John Allen Paulos in a bookstore the other day, and had to pick it up, partly because of the blurbs on the back, for instance: “A wise and thoughtful book, which skewers much of what everyone knows to be true.” (Los Angeles Times)

I do understand that I’m not in the target group for the book. For me, quite a lot of what the book says is things that I already knew (which may not be surprising, as I have worked in mathematics education for 12 years, following my mathematics studies). The book is still interesting to read, however, as there are many interesting examples included. A bit more worrisome is that Paulos obviously struggled to fill a whole book, and at times the link between the newspaper and the mathematics he wants to discuss is a bit strained (as in the incidence matrices on page 189-).

However, many of the topics he covers are important and well worth revisiting: voting, chaos, coincidences, Ponzi schemes, statistical tests and meaningless precision, to name just a few.

(To exemplify the two last ones from the list: He is wary of journalists writing about polls without mentioning the margin of errors and of recipes stating the number of calories as 761, for instance.)

To conclude: it was an interesting book, but also a bit disappointing, given the hype on the cover.

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