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on April 3, 2004
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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on 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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VINE VOICEon 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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on June 7, 2000
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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on September 28, 1999
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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on 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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on January 19, 2001
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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on February 15, 1999
This book was a dissapointment. I read the follow-up, Beyond Numeracy, first. That was a great book, but this one seemed very simplistic and had few mathematical insights for anyone who has enough mathematical knowledge to be interested in the book. There were some neat little facts like how long it would take to haul away Mt. Fuji with dump trucks, but it seemed like one long lecture about how no one understands probability. His other books are more interesting because they touch on so much more. He also whines too much, which is a shame because his sense of humor is his best weopon and he doesn't allow that to come out enough.
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on July 15, 2007
Numbers - hearing that word makes a lot of people feel a certain numbness in their brains. Well, at least that is true for a rather large portion of the Earth's population. The human populace seems to be divided between those who love numbers and those who love words. There are perhaps a mere handful that can lay claim to loving BOTH with equal passion.

And it is for simply this reason that whenever a Mathematician comes along with a certain passionate feel for language, his works seem to suddenly adorn the shelves of even the most innumerate literary reader. People from one camp, often wonder how the other lives, and thinks. John Allen Paulos happens to be one of those people who has ventured where others of his peerage dare not tread: the world of the Mathematically Illiterate.

In this book, he attempts to look at how numbers simply don't seem to register with some people. In particular, how statistical probability seems entirely unrelated to our associated fears about daily existence. Although this book was written around 1988, and most of the actual numbers may have altered somewhat since that time (the number of people dying annually from smoking, for instance) it is easy to see why a large portion of people simply switch their brains off when numbers are involved: the truth is simply too shocking. Would you ever get into a car, knowing that you had a one in 5,300 chance of dying in an accident? Or, would you ever light up your next cigarette knowing that you had a one in 800 chance of dying as a result of that activity?

J.A. Paulos not only shows you the numbers but also takes a mental microscope to certain misconceptions on what the numbers are telling you. Being blind to figures is one thing - but not seeing things correctly, can sometimes be even more dangerous.

One thing is for certain when you are done reading this book: you WILL look at the world you live in differently. That is, unless you are among those who already use numbers to make sense of the world around you. For me, the book was somewhat of a vindication of my point of view on Life itself. If you want to know anything at all about it and the world you live in - you simply HAVE to look at the NUMBERS!

(I would have given this book FIVE stars had I only read it sooner... say back in 1988 when I was in High School. It would have made my life A LOT easier, back then!)
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on February 3, 2001
Well, I am not a mathematician, nor even mathematically inclined, so mine won't be the review of a fanatic, nor even one based on comparison with other books that deal with the subject. Reading this book was a serious diversion for me, but perhaps the fact that I actually enjoyed it is tantamount to suggesting that the author's method will appeal to a large readership. He made the topic very interesting, and now I know what an algorithm is! I will also be able to think critically about the next statistic I am persuaded to swallow.
The book presents a very convincing case for the author's conclusion that "probability, like logic, is not just for mathematicians anymore. It permeates our lives." I found it fascinating how Paulos explained the complexities involved in the flipping of coins, or the rolling of dice... how that even asking the proverbial "Myrtle" out on a date is a foray into the world of probability. Even my rating of this book as being 4 out of a possible 5 stars is an example of how much we knowingly or unknowingly rely on numerical criteria in our daily lives. I guess I'm saying that, all things being EQUAL, and given a RANDOM sample, I'm ESTIMATING that CHANCES are that PROBABLY four out of five people will benefit greatly from this book. Give or take a star, 4/5ths of the time.....
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