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Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences [Paperback]

by John Allen Paulos
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (123 customer reviews)

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Book Description

August 18, 2001 0809058405 978-0809058402 1 09 - 12
Why do even well-educated people understand so little about mathematics? And what are the costs of our innumeracy? John Allen Paulos, in his celebrated bestseller first published in 1988, argues that our inability to deal rationally with very large numbers and the probabilities associated with them results in misinformed governmental policies, confused personal decisions, and an increased susceptibility to pseudoscience of all kinds. Innumeracy lets us know what we're missing, and how we can do something about it.

Sprinkling his discussion of numbers and probabilities with quirky stories and anecdotes, Paulos ranges freely over many aspects of modern life, from contested elections to sports stats, from stock scams and newspaper psychics to diet and medical claims, sex discrimination, insurance, lotteries, and drug testing. Readers of Innumeracy will be rewarded with scores of astonishing facts, a fistful of powerful ideas, and, most important, a clearer, more quantitative way of looking at their world.

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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Our society would be unimaginably different if the average person truly understood the ideas in this marvelous and important book." - Douglas Hofstadter

"[An] elegant ... Survival Manual ... Brief, witty and full of practical applications." - Stefan Kanfer, Time

Product Details

  • Grade Level: 09 - 12
  • Paperback: 180 pages
  • Publisher: HOLT MCDOUGAL; 1 edition (August 18, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809058405
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809058402
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.5 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (123 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #25,356 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
78 of 80 people found the following review helpful
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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47 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars lifting the shackles of cultural innumeracy February 15, 2001
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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97 of 107 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars interesting book, but lacking focus March 8, 2004
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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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a real classic, yet fun June 7, 2000
By A Customer
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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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars changed my way of thinking! September 28, 1999
By A Customer
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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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Engrossing, fascinating January 19, 2001
By A Customer
Innumeracy was assigned in a psych class and I groaned inwardly. I was wrong. It is fun, smart, and has an attitude. I've never read a book like it and have found its ideas rattling around my head in all kinds of different situations. The importance of thinking in terms of probability is clearer to me now, and many of Paulos' clever examples help me think about a lot of issues that don't seem at all mathematical. The writing is killer witty too.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An amusing book about numbers and people February 11, 2001
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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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Should be required reading
My first copy of this book came to me many years ago second hand, and fundamentally changed the way I view the world. Read more
Published 4 days ago by P. P. Wilson
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent writer and thinker
Loved his writing style. Breezy and entertaining, though all about a dreaded subject (for me)... math! Read more
Published 20 days ago by emrm
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent!
An important subject commonly overlooked. Society would be much improved with more numerary! I would strongly recommend this to dispel many myths.
Published 1 month ago by Arthur I Mears
3.0 out of 5 stars Some interesting facts, not great reading.
Interesting book of "little facts." It is not written as a narrative, however, more like a collection of paragraphs which does not make for very easy reading. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Silivina Stamati
4.0 out of 5 stars Some good nuggets, but not a polished piece
I bought this book after it was referenced in the very well-written The Panic Virus (Seth Mnookin), which I'd highly recommend. Read more
Published 4 months ago by gergelyk
3.0 out of 5 stars Some interesting insights but not the cure!
“Innumeracy” is a word presumably coined by author and mathematician John Allen Paulos to describe the mathematical equivalent of illiteracy, a condition he finds to be pervasive... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Samantha
4.0 out of 5 stars This can help!
Innumeracy runs rampant in this world and John Allen Paulos makes a dent in that problem with this excellent book.
Published 8 months ago by Reader
5.0 out of 5 stars great book on common sense and non-common sense for numbers
Anyone in business or marketing needs to read this book. It will help you understand how to be more persuasive using numbers.
Published 10 months ago by Ray Combs
5.0 out of 5 stars i recommend it for ALL americans
if everyone would read and digest this we might be less retarded as a nation. the examples are spot on.
Published 12 months ago by michael ford
5.0 out of 5 stars Must Read!
This book addresses a key issue in American society. It contains more math than most readers would enjoy, but that's the point.
Published 13 months ago by Pen Name
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