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Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences (Vintage) English Language Edition

146 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0679726012
ISBN-10: 0679726012
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Editorial Reviews Review

This is the book that made "innumeracy" a household word, at least in some households. Paulos admits that "at least part of the motivation for any book is anger, and this book is no exception. I'm distressed by a society which depends so completely on mathematics and science and yet seems to indifferent to the innumeracy and scientific illiteracy of so many of its citizens."

But that is not all that drives him. The difference between our pretensions and reality is absurd and humorous, and the numerate can see this better than those who don't speak math. "I think there's something of the divine in these feelings of our absurdity, and they should be cherished, not avoided."

Paulos is not entirely successful at balancing anger and absurdity, but he tries. His diatribes against astrology, bad math education, Freud, and willful ignorance are leavened with jokes, mathematical or the sort (he claims) favored by the numerate.

It remains to be seen if Innumeracy will indeed be able, as Hofstadter hoped, to "help launch a revolution in math education that would do for innumeracy what Sabin and Salk did for polio"--but many of the improvements Paulos suggested have come to pass within 10 years. Only time will tell if the generation raised on these new principles is more resistant to innumeracy--and need only worry about being incomputable. --Mary Ellen Curtin


He takes us a couple of steps closer to numeracy, and it is all in all an enlightening place to be. -- Christopher Lehman-Haupt, New York Times, 1989

Paulos makes numbers, probability, and statistics perform like so many trained seals for the reader's entertainment and enlightenment. -- Jon Van, Chicago Tribune, 1989

The innumerate will surely profit from this entertaining book. -- Morris Kline, New York Times Book Review, 1989

The world, as seen by Paulos, is less mysterious, yet somehow more elegant, less magical, yet more wonderful. So many apparently strange events do, in fact, become all the more magnificent in their not-so-fearful symmetry. -- Arthur Salm, San Diego Tribune, 1989

This admirable little book is only 135 pages long. You can read it in 2 hours. Chances are that they could be among the most enlightening and even profitable 120 minutes you ever spent. -- Henry Kisor, Cicago Sun-Times, 1989

This elegant survival manual is brief, witty, and full of practical applications. (Stefan Kanfer, Time Magazine, 1989)

REVIEW: Like carrying on a conversation with an engaging, articulate math whiz who easily shifts from the profound to the funny. -- Christopher Farrell, Business Week, 1989


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 180 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; English Language edition (January 16, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679726012
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679726012
  • Product Dimensions: 0.5 x 5.2 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (146 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,346,586 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

(My web page is and my twitter feed is @johnallenpaulos.)

John Allen Paulos is an extensively kudized author, popular public speaker, and former monthly columnist for, the Scientific American, and the Guardian. Professor of math at Temple University in Philadelphia, he earned his Ph.D. in the subject from the University of Wisconsin.

His forthcoming book (November, 2015) is A Numerate Life - A Mathematician Explores the Vagaries of Life, His Own and Probably Yours. Other writings of his include Innumeracy (NY Times bestseller for 18 weeks), A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper (on the Random House Modern Library's compilation of the 100 best nonfiction books of the century), Once Upon a Number (chosen as one of the best books of 1998), and A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market (a brief tenant on the BusinessWeek bestsellers list). He's also written scholarly papers on probability, logic, and the philosophy of science as well as scores of OpEds, book reviews, and articles in publications such as the NY Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the Nation, Discover, the American Scholar, and the London Review of Books and has an extensive web and media presence.

In 2003 he received the American Association for the Advancement of Science award for promoting public understanding of science, and in 2013 the Mathematics Communication Award from the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

80 of 82 people found the following review helpful By Denis Benchimol Minev on April 3, 2004
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In this short book, Paulos does an outstanding job of pointing out what lack of number intimacy can do to a person. The anecdotes are outstanding, especially the ones on large numbers and on probability. For example, he shows how one is fooled by probability: If we have 23 people in a room, what is the probability that two of them have the same birthday? 50%!! Very conterintuitive.
The author also tries to understand why it is almost considered acceptable for a person to admit that one is "bad with numbers", while it not being ok to be "bad with words". The realm of psychology is not his forte, but the ideas he points to are interesting.
Overall, this is an easy to read book, much easier even to one literate with numbers. I was done with it in 3 hours, and was left wanting more, so much so that I am now buying some more of his works. If they are half as good as Innumeracy, then they will be good enough.
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48 of 50 people found the following review helpful By A. G. Plumb on February 15, 2001
Format: Paperback
I read this book several years ago and believe it to be a classic that would enhance any mathematics study course by making it topical and a part of the reader/student's everyday environment. What mathematics teaching needs is humanising - this book could go some way towards doing this.
This short review follows a review I have just written for 'I Think Therefore I Laugh' - another of Mr Paulos' books. Because I rate 'Innumeracy' so highly I decided to look at Customer Reviews for it, and found some clashed with my own assessment.
Some reviewrs are offended by Mr Paulos' perceived attitude towards the innumerate - believing that he is condescending in an off-putting way. I don't see it that way except inasmuch as we are all innumerate at some level and have to learn to become more numerate - just as a golfer has to learn to read the cut of the green if they want to be a good putter. And numeracy skills will certainly enhance the way we see the world and respond to its mysteries as Mr Paulos shows so cleary.
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104 of 115 people found the following review helpful By Nadyne Richmond VINE VOICE on March 8, 2004
Format: Paperback
The problem that resulted in this book is far-reaching: the public simply doesn't understand mathematics. Statistics, ranging from a 10%-off sale to the sort found in opinion polls, are unfathomable to the general populace. Probability, especially in the context of gambling, is understood by only a scant handful of people. The list of misunderstood mathematics is nearly endless.
In the first few chapters of the book, Paulos describes various issues that the innumerate (that is, those who don't understand numbers and math) often have issues understanding. He describes the issue to a reasonable level of detail, then derives answers for them. Don't let the use of the word 'derive' scare you off: the answers are readable and readily understandable to a general audience. In some cases, if you're really rusty, you might need to read them a second time to grasp the solution.
Later chapters, however, are not written for the innumerate. They are attempts to convince the reader that mathematical education needs to be improved. I think that everyone agrees that education should be improved, but he offers suggestions that are impractical or nonsensical.
Ultimately, the problem of this book is a lack of focus. Paulos could have written either a book that tackles basic mathematical issues that the general public doesn't understand, or he could have written a book that describes the consequences of innumeracy. He tried to do both, and stuffed both topics into a single slim volume. In doing so, he shortchanges both audiences. The result is a book that is good, but does not fully address the needs of anyone.
If you find yourself uncomfortable with mathematics, pick up a copy of this book and read up to chapter five. If you are comfortable with mathematics and are looking for fodder to prove the point that improving mathematical knowledge at any level is productive, this book will not serve your purpose.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 7, 2000
Format: Paperback
After four years of college, I'm packing up and heading into the real world. One of the few books I'm keeping is Innumeracy. It was required reading when I was a freshman and again when I was a senior and I loved it even more the second time around. Few books lead you to an entirely new way of looking at the world and I, for one, would never think a math book would do that. It provided me with a more healthy way to think about chance, science, and even politics. A real classic that is fun to read. Paulos' wit makes the ride enjoyable all the way through.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 28, 1999
Format: Paperback
I had to read this for a class and groaned. But it is the only math book I've ever loved. It has attitude, is well-written, and changed my way of thinking about probability and the world. The wonderful examples don't depend on equations or formulas. Great book.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Johnny Shapiro on February 11, 2001
Format: Paperback
I really enjoyed Innumeracy because of its content and because of the strange attitude the author exhibits to his target reader. While he gives the impression that he wrote this great little summary of basic maths for those with little grasp for numbers, one gets the impression that he has little concern for the feeble confidence of his would be disciples. Personally , I think it makes the book more entertaining as he casually tears pseudoscience apart , but not without pointing out grave concern for mankind given the amount of followers it has. The book itself is a livley course on practical mathematics and it is very interesting throughout. One particular anectode mentioned that i certainly wont forget is our inability to reject the hypothesis of immortality. A must read for both the numerate and inummerate although the latter will have to withstand a fair amount of not so sublte humiliation.
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