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What the Numbers Say: A Field Guide to Mastering Our Numerical World Hardcover – June 10, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The bad news is that, in an age of science, complex financial planning, and competing deficit forecasts to support competing stimulus packages, the average citizen needs math more than ever. The good news, according to this delightful and eye-opening numeracy primer, is that it's all sixth-grade math. Niederman, a mathematics Ph.D, and author of The Inner Game of Investing, and Boyum, a public policy consultant, assert that quantitative competence is mostly a matter of simple habits of mind, including: trust numerical data over anecdotal observations, but always question what the data are really saying; think in terms of probabilities rather than certainties; and make rough-and-ready estimates so your calculations don't go off track. With such rules of thumb and a little arithmetic, the authors illuminate basic ideas about probability, statistics and measuring and comparing numbers. Their lucid, light-handed, equation-free style is based on a skeptical examination of the dogmas of our modern culture of quantity, in which they take a close look at such numerical sacred cows as the batting average, the body-mass index and the wind-chill factor; clarify the math behind public policy nostrums like Social Security privatization and the flat tax; and reveal what they see as the statistical distortions of The Bible Code and the reasons for taking Zagat scores with a few grains of salt. They conclude with some recommendations on instilling quantitative common sense in students (restricting calculators in the classroom is job one). This engaging book is a great challenge to fuzzy math of all stripes.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Heir to John Allen Paulos (A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, 1995), this duo continues the noble cause of dispelling math phobia, especially its application in the vital life-skills department. Quantitative information pervades daily affairs, lending an illusion of precision to personal decisions, especially financial ones, that is often just that, illusory. Is lower-priced car A in fact cheaper to own than higher-priced car B? Rather than regard a number as a totem of truth, Niederman and Boyum campaign to instill a healthy skepticism, born of asking, "To what question is this number supposed to be the answer?" Ladling out humor throughout, the authors point out pitfalls in accepting numbers at face value, illustrating how the entity advancing the number often chooses a measurement favorable to itself, a practice notorious in public policy debate. Deception is not inherently intentional, the authors say, and usually stems from lousy quantitative reasoning rather than from dishonesty. Tilting toward an entertaining rather than a didactic presentation, Niederman and Boyum's wry asides and sports examples enliven their message. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Crown Business; 1st edition (June 10, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0767909984
  • ISBN-13: 978-0767909983
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 0.9 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,139,606 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Arnold Kling on June 8, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This book offers examples of quantitative reasoning, including the topics of compound growth and statistics. Their perspective is that without the ability to work with numbers, people can easily be misled. One of the examples is a statistic used by defense attorney Alan Dershowitz to mislead the jurors in the infamous Simpson trial.
As I was reading the book, I wondered who the audience ought to be. Although the tone is breezy and the examples are presented without the use of algebra or higher mathematics, I am not sure how a math-phobic person would react. My experience with math phobes is that they would feel threatened by the book and be resistant to picking it up.
A better audience for the book might be math educators. As a teacher, I found numerous examples in the book that will be helpful. Moreover, the last chapter, in which they discuss ways to reform math education, is a gem.
What the authors are saying is that people need good basic intuition about numbers in order to understand a world that is increasingly dominated by numerical data. The traditional math curriculum tries to prepare a student to study Newtonian physics. Instead, I think that the authors would argue that the curriculum ought to be aimed at enabling a student to understand stock market ratios and statistical research.
One random note is that the authors attribute the phrase "independence from irrelevant alternatives" to John Nash. I may be wrong, but I believe that it was Kenneth Arrow who brought that concept to the fore.
By filling the book with interesting examples that illustrate the type of quantitative reasoning that they consider important, the authors make a compelling case for the math education reform that they advocate. However, if their primary audience is math educators, that fact is obscured on the book jacket, which makes the intended audience unclear.
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful By S. A. Cartwright on November 14, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Authors Niederman and Boyum articulate that we live today in a new Quantitative Information Age. Strange then, that they did not entitle their book, "Ten Habits of Highly Effective Quantitative Thinkers" (actually the title of Chapter Two) - this book would have sold twice as much.
Ahh! Twice as much as what? As Stephen Covey's books? As much as this book's actual sales? What's the base? Now that I've read this "Field Guide to Mastering Our Numerical World" (actually the subtitle,) I am trained to ask the pertinent questions about numerical comparisons. I have learned to simultaneously "only trust the numbers" and to "never trust the numbers" - habits #1 and #2.
In this entertaining tour of today's quantitative landscape, the authors expose our collective inability to cope with numerical reasoning. From humorous pot shots at "our favorite punching bag, the International Skating Union," whose farcical scoring systems are easily exposed, to a better method of comparing safety between small plane flying and automobile safety, to famous courtroom misuses of statistical data, Niederman and Boyum demonstrate a growing gap between our increasingly data dependent decisions and our nation's declining numerical literacy.
"What The Numbers Say" provides a layman's look at mathematical skills required by everyone. It is a book for non-mathematicians, liberal arts students, teachers of all subjects, political and educational leaders, and above all, parents. To anyone struggling with children struggling to master the multiplication table, and wondering what became of the rote memorization and textbooks from earlier days, the authors make sense of the new teaching techniques.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By mirasreviews HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 16, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Premised on the idea that we now live in a "quantitative information age", in which a person can hardly get through a day without reaching some conclusion based on numerical data, but that most people are poor quantitative thinkers who routinely make poor decisions because they are unskilled in analyzing numerical data, authors Derrick Niederman and David Boyum offer us "What the Numbers Say", a guide to spotting the most common kinds of data manipulation and determining what those numbers really mean. I should say that you do not need to know any mathematics beyond a 6th grade level to understand this book or to successfully decipher the numerical data that one encounters in everyday life. "What the Numbers Say" is engaging, clear, and easy to read. There are interesting examples taken from the stock market, business world, and current events for every subject that is discussed. And the examples don't have a pervasive political bias.

"What the Numbers Say" starts off by explaining "The Ten Habits of Highly Effective Quantitative Thinkers" and then dedicates each of six chapters to a different type or facet of quantitative data. "For Good Measure" explains the importance of understanding what unit your numbers are expressing, the problems inherent in distilling an assortment of data into a single number -such as an index, and troubles with rounding numbers. "Playing the Percentages" explores the traps of adding fractions, dealing with negative returns, percentages of percents, and ordinals, i.e. rankings. "Gaining Perspective" talks about very big numbers, very small numbers, and very sensitive numbers -especially denominators. "Throwing a Curve" is about non-linear relationships, including quadratic relationships and exponential relationships (growth and depreciation).
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