Book Review – “A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper” by John Allen Paulos

This is the book from which I had adopted two puzzles that I used in the last few posts.

 Title A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper: Making Sense of Numbers in the Headlines Author John Allen Paulos Publishing Date 1995 Publisher First by Basic Books, then by Penguin Formats Available Paperback, Kindle Available at Amazon.com, Amazon.in.

Here is an example of mistaken precision quoted in the book:

“…museum guard who claimed the dinosaur on exhibit was 65,000,038 years old. When pressed about the precision of the number, the guard says that a scientist told him the dinosaur was 65 million years old when he was hired 38 years before”

In this book, John Allen Paulos takes us through the various sections of the newspapers and explains how math and numbers are key elements behind every story that we read. The book is quirky, perceptive, and uses a ‘light’ approach. Each chapter is very short (about 2 to 3 pages) and covers one topic or one segment of the newspaper. He keeps using analytical thinking and logic together with numbers and simple formulae to keep us hooked. Surprisingly, I found that the longer chapters were more engrossing than the shorter ones.

There are sections on population, taxes, horoscopes, sports, literacy, SAT scores, gender issues, rodent population, rate of technological changes, health care plans, drug approvals, the super collider, and other such topics that we read in the newspapers every day.

Here is something I found interesting in his coverage on obituaries:

“I wonder about the relationships among the obituary’s length, L; the deceased’s achievements, A; his or her fame, F (which is largely independent of achievement); the interval between these and death, I; and the number of other “important” deaths that day, D. Maybe it’s something roughly like L = (A X FXF)/ Sqrt (I X D)….”

Another interesting concept was how minor differences between two populations can seem huge when we consider the behaviour at the extremes of the populations. For example, if we compare student admission percentages to top colleges across different communities, we may find that a minor difference in education levels in the two communities can result in huge differences in the number of admissions, because we are looking at the extremely talented population of both communities.

And through many examples, he illustrates that human beings do not have an intuitive grasp of probability. For example, we are likely to get many continuous sequences of heads (or tails) in real flips of a coin, than we expect (we expect the results to keep changing from head to tail more frequently).

Having read this delightful book, I think I will end up applying a bit more critical thinking to newspaper articles I read from now on…

John Allen Paulos is an American professor of mathematics at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Professor Paulos is famous for his work on mathematical literacy and illiteracy.

Other books by Paulos are Innumeracy, Mathematics and Humor, Irreligion, I Think, Therefore I Laugh, Beyond Numeracy, A Mathematician Plays The Stock Market, and Once Upon A Number.

You can also view this rather long video where the author talks about randomness and many mistakes we make while dealing with it (uploaded on youtube):